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?
Radio had someof the funniest comedians. Withthe exception of Fred Allen, they were all Jewish — Jack Benny,Eddie Cantor, George Burns. And somebody said, "You can do it ifyou're Jewish — look at these people."
TV Guide: Why do you think Jewish humor strikes such a chord?
All humor is based on telling the absolutetruth when it's apparent for everybody to seebut they're either afraid to see it or don't say it. And that resonates with everyone. It's changedin 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 isdirty, it's acceptable.
TV Guide: Why could Jews thrive in entertainment during this anti-Semitic period?
Once somebody isaccepted as being talented, people will givethem acceptance. It happened with blacks, too. If they had realtalent, like Paul Robeson, [many] were rewarded.
TV Guide: What was it like for you and Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows?
We knew we were doing somethingunusual. The satires, thepantomimes — everything that was in good theater was in Your Showof Shows. Sid was a flame every moth wanted to [hover] around.
TV Guide: Who's the funniest person you know?
Mel Brooks. I have a verybig urge to ask the 2,000-Year-Old Man questionsabout today. And second is Steve Martin.The films I made with him are my favorites. TheMan with Two Brains is the silliest movie ever.
TV Guide: Dr. Hfuhruhurr!
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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