Carl Reiner Knew TV Like the Back of His Head
It wasn’t only that — it was also a sophisticated suburban married-life comedy powered by the how-were-we-ever-so-lucky pairing of Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. But the workplace half of this hybrid, about Rob Petrie’s experiences in the pressure-cooker writers’ room of the fictional “Alan Brady Show,” set the template for behind-the-cameras comedies including “30 Rock” and Moore’s own self-titled show in the 1970s.
Carl Reiner was Rob Petrie; the workplace experience and situations drew on his experience as a TV actor and then writer in the 1950s. But he couldn’t be Rob Petrie. He tried, playing the lead in the failed 1960 pilot for “Head of the Family.” (Audiences, he later said frankly, were too used to seeing him as a “second banana.”) Van Dyke’s charisma and jack-in-the-box physical comedy as the recast lead gave Reiner a more telegenic avatar.
Instead, Reiner became the star-within-a-show, the shouty, egotistic boss who kept Rob dancing on eggshells. The role would not make Reiner a household face. Just the opposite. In the early seasons of the show, Brady held court and berated his writers as shot from behind (or heard from offscreen), so viewers knew him mostly from the back of his bald (or toupéed) head. (“Seinfeld” would echo the device decades later with its depiction of George Steinbrenner, voiced by Larry David and embodied by Lee Bear, his back to the camera.)
The device was a masterstroke. It made Reiner’s lack of distinction distinctive. He was no longer a second banana but an angry light bulb, radiating his peevish glare on all his underlings. Reiner — with a legendary cast at his disposal, including Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie as Rob’s writers’ room comrades — used himself sparingly. But when called on, that bald head shone.
Reiner, a performer before he was a writer-creator, was often known as a straight man, as when he teed up questions for his pal Brooks in their “2,000-Year-Old Man” routine. But as Alan Brady, an outsized tyrant (an ironic role for a man widely eulogized as a mensch), he was everyone’s worst boss, and the personification of the new, high-stakes medium and business.