With the passing of comedy legend Carl Reiner, tributes have poured in from all over the world. “Modern Family” executive producer Steven Levitan shared with Variety his memories of the landmark television comedy that Reiner created.
Early in the run of Modern Family, I got a call from our show’s publicist asking if I’d be willing to do a Saturday photo shoot for one of the trades. “Saturday?,” I complained. “I try to spend Saturdays with my kids.” She continued, “It would be with Eric Stonestreet, Dick Van Dyke and Carl Reiner.” My eyes went wide. “F— the kids. I’m not even sure they’re mine.”
I grew up in suburban Chicago on a steady diet of Spaghetti-O’s, Grape Nehi and reruns of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (God bless WGN). Like countless comedy writers today, I do what I do in good part because Carl Reiner so gloriously did what he did.
From the first time Rob tripped over that ottoman, I wanted to be a comedy writer. Never mind that, living a world away from Hollywood, I might as well have said I wanted to be an astronaut (which, I admit, I did for a bit thanks to a crush on Barbara Eden in “I Dream Of Jeannie”). My dad’s office had an adding machine; I wanted to work in an office with a dartboard and a piano and people who’d make me laugh. I wanted to have dinner parties where everyone would get up and perform. At my parents’ dinner parties, at best, maybe someone would have too many martinis and fall down. Had it not been for Rob Petrie, Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell joking around in that office, insulting Mel Cooley every time he walked in that door, I’d still be in Chicago writing copy for the Pillsbury Doughboy.
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” was smart, adult and ground-breaking. It was a show about television before people did shows about television. Most importantly, it was hilarious. Laura Petrie accidentally telling the world that Alan Brady is bald, the self-inflating life raft, “Robby Baby” on that scooter, walnuts, Lake Sisimanunu, Laura’s toe stuck in the tub’s spigot, the passive-aggressive game of Charades after Rob and Laura overheard Jerry and Millie on the baby monitor… these are just some the moments I’ve tried to live up to over the last thirty years.
It was also daring. Rob accidentally dying his hands black right before he has to accept a racial sensitivity award must have raised quite a few eyebrows back in the early sixties. And, after Rob Petrie becomes convinced that his baby was accidentally switched at the hospital, I’ll never forget the moment that Mr. and Mrs. Peters walked in the door, resulting in one of the biggest, most authentic laughs I’d ever heard on television.
All this is even more impressive when you consider that Carl Reiner produced thirty-one episodes the first season and 32 episodes all four seasons after that. Most of the first two seasons he wrote himself! Modern Family did 24 episodes a season with a staff of twelve people and we were completely exhausted by episode 15.
The Saturday photo shoot took place at Mr. Reiner’s house in Beverly Hills. As I walked up the front lawn, I couldn’t have been more nervous. I thought of the night my wife went into labor with our first child and how I laid in bed practicing putting on my hat the way Rob Petrie did the night Laura gave birth to Richie. (Years later on Modern Family, when we needed Mitch and Cam to do a musical number at a family gathering, I chose “Carolina in the Morning,” because that’s what Rob and Laura sang. )
I rang the bell and Carl Reiner opened the door. Just like that. He was warm, gracious and still so funny. He casually introduced me to Dick Van Dyke. Just like that.
I’ve had some surreal moments in this business. Having a beer in a bar with Norm, Cliff and Woody after a filming of “Cheers,” befriending a then 89-year-old Norman Lear (another idol) in our daughters’ high school class, but hanging out in Carl Reiner’s house with Dick Van Dyke just about blew this Chicago kid’s mind. I knew Eric felt the same because we kept looking at each other like, “Can you believe this is happening?
After we took the photos, Eric asked for an autograph and Mr. Reiner wrote, “Eric – I should be asking YOU for Your autograph!” I went a step further and brought out a framed blueprint of Rob and Laura Petrie’s house at 148 Bonny Meadow Road in New Rochelle that I keep on my office wall. Mr. Van Dyke signed, “Home Sweet Home!,” which by all accounts it was. Mr. Reiner wrote, “Steve, Keep this house dusted and the lawn watered. Love, Alan Brady.”
Just like that.