The Bucket Interview
How To Live Forever: Carl Reiner
Insights from the Legend of Comedy
By David Abend
1:52, 1:53, 1:54. The minutes tick off like seconds as I sit in my economy class rental car, which must look out of place along the ficus-lined curb of Rodeo Drive. I am a few minutes early for my 2 p.m. audience with Carl Reiner, one of the legends of comedy, and I am going through my questions one last time.
A week earlier, Carl had turned 97 and was showing no signs of slowing down. A quick Google search revealed at least a half dozen interviews that he had done just within the past month. That was in addition to his long list of projects, books and his highly acclaimed HBO special, “If you’re not in the obit, eat breakfast” which earned a 100% nod from Rotten Tomatoes. It says a lot about the man that the special, which premiered in 2017, is barely visible in his rearview mirror.
And, when you consider his very respectful following on Instagram and Twitter, it’s clear that my interview is not something he is doing to stay in the public eye. Rather, it is nothing more than a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend courtesy that will no doubt keep him from his daily hot list.
1:58, 1:59, 2:00. I knock on the door. No answer. Oh no, is this the right house? I try the doorbell. The door opens and I am quickly sequenced through a couple of greeters before being introduced to Lawrence O’Flahavan, Carl’s producer and right-hand man. While making arrangements for the interview, Lawrence had told me that he loved the idea of The Bucket. But I wasn’t sure whether Carl had the same opinion. I am about to find out. Larry takes me up to the second floor where Carl’s office is located and it is there I meet Alan Brady, Walt Whittacker, Field Marshal von Kluck, Saul Bloom and all the other characters he played or created.
When you wake in the morning, start a new project. Work on it. Improve it. When you approve of its improvements, start a new project. Work on it. Improve it.”
I know I don’t have a lot of time with Carl, so after wishing him a happy birthday and spelling my last name a few times, I am ready to pop the question. What does he think of The Bucket’s mission of helping people make the most of their time left on this planet? How does acknowledging your own mortality…“I can comment on that immediately” he says, cutting me off with unexpected enthusiasm.
“I wrote a book about two months ago called How to Live Forever. I co-wrote it with a Pakistani man. His first name is spelled S-U-M-W-O-N. His last name is spelled H-O-O-H-A-Z. Sumwon Hoohaz.” He delivers the punchline with a smile that shows me that he still loves to tell a joke. “The first line of the first chapter goes like this: When you wake in the morning, start a new project. Work on it. Improve it. When you approve of its improvements, start a new project. Work on it. Improve it. It’s 271 pages of that one line.” And, just to make sure I got it, he says, “It’s a joke.”
While he may have considered this little nugget a joke, I consider it gold. “It’s the truth,” he added. “If you wake up in the morning and you have something to do, something that’s on your mind that must be done, you’ll live. You’ll say, ‘I can’t go…I got this thing to do.’”
He then went on to tell me about some of the things he has to do when he gets up in the morning. Like the sequel to his coffee table book called Scrunched Photos of Celebrities: Hand Scrunched by Carl Reiner. As he explains, “On the right-hand side of the page is a scrunched photo. It becomes a game trying to figure out who this person is. And, when you turn the page to see who it is, usually you’re surprised.”
Whether it’s another book project, an event, or keeping up on his social media posts and tweets, it is clear that, like the title of another one of his books, Carl Reiner is “too busy to die”. After all, how can you miss the Broadway revival of your first novel, Enter Laughing, which will return to the stage this May as part of the York Theater Company’s 50th Anniversary season. For me, Enter Laughing has special relevancy to The Bucket. Reiner wrote the book in 1959. It was adapted for the stage by Joseph Stein in 1963. And in 1967, it was made into a film — which was also Reiner’s directorial debut.
The film was about a young man named David Kolowitz who lived in the Bronx and worked as a delivery boy in a machine shop. His boss wanted him to be a machinist. His parents desperately wanted him to be a pharmacist. But all he wanted to be was an actor. The story follows his struggle to overcome the expectations of others and pursue his dreams. I suggest to Reiner that while people in their 50s and 60s may be at a different stage of life than Kolowitz, they may be experiencing the same kind of struggles. Unsure of what to do next. Or feeling pressured to do what others expect of them. What advice would Kolowitz have for them?
Talking to Carl Reiner about living life to its fullest must be what it was to talk with Ted Williams about hitting.
“Well, David Kolowitz was not much of a philosopher, “ Carl began, “but he did the thing that most people should be doing. Follow your heart. Whatever you wake up thinking you would like to do, give it a shot before you decide, ‘I can’t do that.’ Give it the best shot you can.”
Giving things his best shot seems to have worked out well for Reiner. But I wonder if even he has regrets over something he did or didn’t do earlier on in life. But he puts that possibility quickly to rest. “Regrets? Oh, I have no regrets. I’ve done everything I wanted to do and then some.”
As my time with Reiner comes to a close, I am unsure if I have gotten what I came for. Selfishly, I had hoped for some kind of profundity about how he uses his mortality as a leverage point in his life. On the contrary, it seems to be the opposite — that mortality is the last thing he thinks about. And then I realize that talking to Carl Reiner about living life to its fullest must be what it was like to talk with Ted Williams about hitting. It’s such a natural part of him that he has a hard time imagining how other people can’t do it.
But surely, I thought out loud, “there must have been a time when you were in your 50’s or 60’s when you thought, ‘I’ve only got so many years left, how do I want to live them?”
“No,” he says confidently, “I never think of that. Day-by-day, day-by-day. I always have something to wake up for. Including today. I have an interview to do.”
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