Monday, August 12, 2013

"I Once Yelled At Rob Reiner"

Name Dropper!

Possibly true.  I once yelled at Gene Cunningham but I’m not writing about that.  (Who’s Gene Cunningham?  Exactly.)

Not that I yell at a lot of people.  I’ve yelled at maybe four people in my life.  And three of them aren’t famous.  Yeah, so all right – “Name Dropper.”  Guilty.  Although why would bother writing about…

We get it.   Just tell the story.


In 1978, after the end of All In The Family (in which Rob Reiner was one of the four stalwart regulars, playing arch-conservative Archie Bunker’s ultra-liberal, live-in  son-in-law Archie disparagingly called “Meathead”), Rob got the opportunity to create a show of his own.

The proposed series was called Free Country, and it ran for only five episodes.  In Free Country, Rob, his face encased Little Big Man­-style in “old” makeup, played an Eastern European immigrant living in the teaming tenements on the Lower East Side of early twentieth century Manhattan.  The “old” Rob character bookended the episodes, whose stories chronicled the fledgling immigrant’s troubles and travails making his way in his adopted country. 

I was brought in to write a script for the show. 

Free Country was a high-minded undertaking with zero chance of commercial success.  A series about 1909 “greenhorns” in Saturday Night Fever disco America?  I don’t think so. 

Still, I liked the idea, the originality of the arena, and a chance to do what I was certain, because Rob Reiner was involved, would be interesting work.  Besides, I was a freelance writer, and it was either Free Country or Three’s Company.

Okay now, how do I come at this?  I’m a little shaky here, but let’s see how this works.

You see, I was from the Mary Tyler Moore camp, and Rob hailed from the Norman Lear stable.  Two quality production houses – the two quality production houses in television comedy at the time.  Always competing for the awards. 

But totally different in their intentions.

All In The Family had an obvious agenda – to educate it viewers to the right way of thinking.  Though not without terrific joke writing.  The show was staffed by some of the funniest comedy writers in the business (Show of Shows’ head writer Mel Tolkin was a central participant.)  But at the heart of the enterprise, along with entertaining, was a commitment to raising the political consciousness of the American populace.

Mary, its spinoffs and its subsidiaries, told the best character-driven stories we could think of as humorously as possible.  Even though “Mary Richards” was a single women in the burgeoning feminist early 70’s, that element was more coincidence than the show creators making a statement.  (In the pilot episode, Mary Richards displayed no career-driving intensity whatsoever; she selected the job at WJM out of the “Help Wanteds” in the local newspaper.) 

We were just trying to be funny.

So there was a difference. 

And as a Mary partisan, I sensed a whiff of pretentiousness (and a soupcon of swagger) in the other company’s approach.

(Plus some possible misguidedness.  Bill Cosby believed that All In The Family glamorized bigotry by showcasing Archie’s wrongheaded opinions for national consumption.  No question, that was the opposite of its intention, but Dr. C may well have had his finger on where the show’s success-generating “heat” actually lay.  Displaying a transparent rooting interest, my grandfather always called All In The Family “Archie.”)     

So there we were, the sitcomical version of Yankees and the Red Sox.  Though the mutual respect was unquestionable, there lurked an undeniable adversarialism.

My outburst took place at Rob’s Columbia Studios’ offices after winding up a story meeting for a Free Country script.  The “story-breaking” process had gone smoothly.  I liked the idea I’d been given, and could not wait to get started.

Then, in passing, Rob happened to mention enjoying playing tennis in Monte Carlo.

It was like the “Niagara Falls” joke, where a person innocently mentions “Niagara Falls” and his person they’re talking suddenly goes nuts.  A guy mentions playing tennis in Monte Carlo, and I immediately, and shockingly, explode. 


Because I was jealous of Rob Reiner. 

Rob Reiner, the son of comedy icon Carl Reiner – writer-performer on Your Show of Shows, and creator of the revered Dick Van Dyke Show – with a consequent easier access to show biz opportunity than, I don’t know…me.  Rob Reiner, co-star of one of the most honored and successful situation comedies in the history of television.  Rob Reiner, who, as a conversational throwaway, mentions his enjoyment playing tennis in Monte Carlo.

There was a few minute time lapse, to cover the source of my complete meltdown, and then…

Slowly I turned…

I went off like a firecracker.  But of course, being not only envious but cowardly, I did not attack the man personally. 

I attacked All In The Family.

Aside from saying nothing, there was also the possibility of playfully skewering Rob’s casual show-offery – chiming in about my enjoyment playing badminton in Northern Ontario.  But being in total “Mount Etna” mode, the idea of a humorous rejoinder did not come to my mind.

Instead, I attacked his believing that All In The Family was enlightening a nation, rather than presenting one-sided arguments concerning issues “people who be better off learning about in a book.”

As usual, similar to all my inappropriate outbursts – of which there have been in my entire life, I would say, seven.  (Bookkeeping Note:  An “inappropriate outburst” does not always involve yelling.)  The room went eerily silent.  And then, a few moments later, things proceeded on as normal, as if I had never opened my big and unjustifiedly loud mouth.

How do I feel about what happened?

Not long ago, our family attended a Jerry Seinfeld concert, and when we were leaving my daughter Anna spotted Rob Reiner walking ahead of us.  She encouraged me to go talk to him.  I insistently demurred.  Anna informed me that, moments earlier, Rob had glanced in my direction, and appeared like he wanted to say hello.  To which I replied, “So why didn’t he?” 

Apparently, a part of me is still fuming.

It’s understandable. 

It’s thirty-five years later.

And I have still not played tennis in Monte Carlo.

(Biographical Note:  I don’t even play tennis.)


Canda said...

Your comments and Cosby's about "All In The Family" were correct.

Mary Tyler Moore did more for making women feel good about going into the work force than any of the "obvious" political education All In The Family thought they were giving the American Public.

The Cosby Show also did more to influence the good feeling of Whites toward Blacks than any episode of "Good Times" or "The Jeffersons" ever did. Obama in the White House is a direct link to The Cosby Show's success in changing American attitudes.

Frank said...

I'm sure Rob would have laughed hard if you had told him he was one of only four people who have been yelled at by you.

Mac said...

Well that's honest. You should have spoken to him at the Seinfeld gig, though. I'll bet he would have been very gracious. Or he might have been savagely attacked you, having waited 35 years for the chance. Who knows? Grudges are funny things.

Slim Albert said...

'Glamorizing bigotry' has to be one of most idiotic accusations Cosby has ever uttered. And he's never run short of utterances. That said, I've been a fan of BC since I was in junior high. His humor remains near the top of my all-time faves. But I don't agree w/every opinion he shares. And,, yes, by all means you should've accosted Meathead! Who knows, he may have offered you a job!