Carl Reiner’s Life Should Remind Us: If You Like Laughing, Thank FDR And The New DealBreaking News
tags: New Deal, Comedy
But here’s something few comedy fans — including some comedians themselves — realize: An incredible amount of the development of American comedy, including the training and platforms that helped start the careers of every comedian above, can be traced directly back to the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal provided government support for the arts at a level never to be repeated.
This forgotten history surfaced briefly when Carl Reiner died Monday night at age 98. By this point, Reiner is probably best known to normal people as the father of film director Rob Reiner (“The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “This Is Spinal Tap”). But in the comedy world, Reiner is revered as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. He was a writer and performer on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” in the 1950s; he created “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in the 1960s; he recorded the “2000 Year Old Man” records with Mel Brooks; he directed four of Steve Martin’s early movies, starting with “The Jerk”; and much more.
In Reiner’s memoir “My Anecdotal Life,” he wrote that “I owe my show business career to two people: Charlie Reiner” — his brother — “and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
When Carl Reiner was 17 in 1939, he was working as a machinist’s helper, bringing sewing machines to hat factories. Then Reiner’s brother saw a small ad in the New York Daily News about free acting lessons being offered in lower Manhattan by the Works Progress Administration. Reiner had never contemplated acting before in his life, but his brother insisted, so he went.
The WPA had been established several years prior to carry out public works projects during the Great Depression, with workers put directly on the government payroll, keeping the struggling economy afloat while also expanding the infrastructure of the U.S. Its initial outlays were huge — the gross domestic product equivalent of about $1.3 trillion today. The WPA paved roads, built bridges, and constructed Camp David and the Tennessee Valley Authority. But it went beyond these physical public works to enhance America’s human infrastructure via Federal Project Number One, which employed writers, musicians, and actors. The Federal Theatre Project, part of Federal Project Number One, funded live performances and acting classes — including the ones Carl Reiner attended.
“All the good things that have happened to me in my life I can trace to that two-inch newspaper item my brother handed to me,” Reiner explained. “Had Charlie not brought it to my attention, I might very well be writing anecdotes about my life as a machinist or, more likely, not be writing anything about anything.”
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