Tonight, Part 2 of The Jewish Americans (check local listings for time, PBS) focuses on early 20th-century America, where artists like songwriter Irving Berlin and The Goldbergs' Gertrude Berg found mainstream acceptance despite growing anti-Semitism. Writer-director-actor Carl Reiner recalls America in the '40s and the Catskills resorts where many great comics — Reiner included — honed their craft. He spoke with us about the performers who inspired him.
TV Guide: How did growing up Jewish influence your work?
Carl Reiner: Radio had some of the funniest comedians. With the exception of Fred Allen, they were all Jewish — Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, George Burns. And somebody said, "You can do it if you're Jewish — look at these people."
TV Guide: Why do you think Jewish humor strikes such a chord?
Reiner: All humor is based on telling the absolute truth when it's apparent for everybody to see but they're either afraid to see it or don't say it. And that resonates with everyone. It's changed in the way society has changed. The walls got rubbery because of people like Richard Pryor, Mort Sahl, George Carlin, and now, Chris Rock. My theory is as long as it's funnier than it is dirty, it's acceptable.
TV Guide: Why could Jews thrive in entertainment during this anti-Semitic period?
Reiner: Once somebody is accepted as being talented, people will give them acceptance. It happened with blacks, too. If they had real talent, like Paul Robeson, [many] were rewarded.
TV Guide: What was it like for you and Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows?
Reiner: We knew we were doing something unusual. The satires, the pantomimes — everything that was in good theater was in Your Show of Shows. Sid was a flame every moth wanted to [hover] around.
TV Guide: Who's the funniest person you know?
Reiner: Mel Brooks. I have a very big urge to ask the 2,000-Year-Old Man questions about today. And second is Steve Martin. The films I made with him are my favorites. The Man with Two Brains is the silliest movie ever.
TV Guide: Dr. Hfuhruhurr!
Reiner: You just hit the essence of comedy! If we could get people to laugh at the guy's name — Dr. Hfuhruhurr! — we realized we had something funny. It didn't do very well, but it's still one of my favorites.
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