Michael Bergeron
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Austin Film Festival: Lear & Reiner

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The best comedians can make you laugh as well as they can make you cry. Often with one line. Sometimes with the same line.

The Austin Film Festival, which specializes in the scripted word, offered a couple of candid seminars with two of the greatest comedy writers ever to twist a metaphor: Carl Reiner and Norman Lear. Both have penned ground breaking television shows as well as movies. Reiner may be known to younger audiences as one of the old guys in the Ocean’s Eleven series of movies.Reiner, Carl

On Saturday, October 31, producer Barry Josephson via Skype interviewed Reiner. Josephson himself has appeared on many previous AFF panels and is one their board members. Reiner recalled his humble beginnings as an actor on Caesar’s Hour, but he had to fight for the right to actually write for Sid Ceasar’s show. Another writer on the show, Mel Brooks would go on to collaborate with Reiner on the 2000 Year Old Man. “We would do it at parties for years before we actually recorded it.”

Regarding some of his peers, Reiner considers Carol Burnett the best female comedian. Regarding The Dick Van Dyke Show Reiner fondly recalled two eps in particular. One was a Twilight Zone parody titled “It May Look Like a Walnut.” Reiner admits that executive producer Sheldon Leonard did not get the episode, at least until he saw the finished product. Another episode that held fond memories for Reiner was one where Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) gets her toe stuck in a bathtub faucet, “Never Bathe on Saturday.”

toe 7Reiner explained the success of The Dick Van Dyke Show: “I Love Lucy was two people against each other, The Dick Van Dyke Show was two people against the world.” Reiner has a new book coming out titled “Why & When the Dick Van Dyke Show Was Born.” On a sad note Reiner added that Moore had recently lost it and was a vegetable. “She will never know the great things I’ve written about her.”

The following day Norman Lear was interviewed live in Austin by Philip Rosenthal. Rosenthal himself is a well regarded show runner best known for Everybody Loves Raymond. Currently Rosenthal has a PBS show called “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having,” which involves Rosenthal traveling around the world sampling local cuisine. The previous night Rosenthal also hosted the post-screening Q&A of The Shining with Kubrick associate Leon Vitali.

Rosenthal and Lear had great chemistry throughout the 80-minute conversation. Lear recounted his WWII experience as a radio operator on B-17s. “I would sit next to the bombay door and report to the pilot when the last bomb was released.”

After the war Lear wrote gossip columns for people like Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen. The latter had him fired twice for items he wrote that were published under her name. The first time was something he wrote about Kitty Carlisle and Moss Hart, but his publisher just fined him and let him continue ghost writing publicity blurbs.

Norman Lear poses for photos in the author's signing tent Sunday afternoon with his new book "Even This I Get to Experience". The Texas Bookfest capped a Lone Star weekend filled with literary enthusiasts, book buys, kid activities, food and drink and lots of vendors spread out on the grounds of the state Capitol Sunday afternoon October 26, 2014. RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Shortly afterwards, Lear wrote a piece about Buster Shaver who ran a midget circus. Lear said that one of the midgets Olive Brasno was riding a St. Bernard. Kilgallen demanded whoever wrote that be canned.

Lear penned the Sinatra vehicle Come Blow Your Horn (1963), which was helmed by Bud Yorkin. Yorkin and Lear were the producers on All in the Family, the most controversial television series of its era.

Lear explained how he based All in the Family as well as Sanford and Son on British television series that were political comedies. Hard to believe but All in the Family contained the first toilet flush heard on network television. A spin off series Maude, with Bea Arthur, had the first mention of abortion. Times may have changed since the ‘70s but the laughter is still constant.

— Michael Bergeron