Nate 'n Al's Delicatessen in Beverly Hills, which has served show-biz folk like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner for 75 years now, is closed this week. It's just few of blocks away from where Brooks hosts his weekly lunch; that is also suspended for now, as are millions of other meaningful social gatherings for millions of Americans.
It also means that if you want to talk to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, it's gonna be a cyber chat. That is where the two old friends got together to talk about World War II, the Depression, the notion of sacrifice, and of course to give each other the business.
Let the bickering begin!
"Carl, stop talking for one minute!" said Brooks.
"Okay," replied Reiner. And he did!
"Wow, I can't believe it!"
A real-life comedy routine from the best of friends.
Brooks said, "I think the only way to get through this crisis is to sing a World War II song. And that song is, 'We did it before, and we can do it again.'"
Reiner started to join in, but then he segued into an Italian aria, loudly.
"That was not a World War II song!" Brooks exclaimed. "You can't, you can't close him. You open Carl up, there's no closing."
Truth is, the Mel and Carl show hasn't closed since they met as TV joke writers in the 1950s. Call it laugh at first sight.
Reiner recalled, "I came to work for the 'Show of Shows," as Sid Caesar's straight man. And there's this little guy in a room, I didn't know who he was, and he's impersonating a Jewish pirate. And I'll never forget those first words. He says, 'You know how hard it is to set sail these days? You know what they're charging for sail cloth? $1.37 a yard!"
Now 98, Reiner is still Brooks' straight man. And Mel, only 93, continues to be Mel.
When asked by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, "Mel, how are you coping?" Brooks replied, "I am not watching the news, I am telling everybody, 'Watch old black-and-white movies.'
"By the way, I have a great suggestion: it's called 'Young Frankenstein.' It'll do you a little good, and it'll do me a lotta good!"
Show business has been good to both of them. Their resumes are Hollywood comedy history, including "The Dick Van Dyke Show" for Reiner, and "Blazing Saddles" for Brooks.
It's true Brooks craves a captive audience, but this is different …
Max Brooks is Mel's son; he's also a historian and author. Mankiewicz asked, "Is it difficult for him not to see his friends? If anybody needs to see friends I think it's Mel Brooks."
"I think there's probably no one in America right now that is finding it more difficult to socially distance than my dad," Max replied. "He thrives on crowds. He thrives on friends, and for him to have to sit home behind glass is brutally hard on him right now. But he is doing what he has to do because he understands that."
Americans of Brooks and Reiner's generation understand struggle and sacrifice. They both grew up during the Depression, and served their country in World War II.
Mankiewicz asked, "Is there a message to give to other generations from you guys about this sense that we can get through this, we have done this before?"
"Well, we won it before," said Reiner. "There was a guy named Hitler. And we're still around, and he's not!"
"We can get through this stuff; this is a breeze," said Brooks. "We just have to grin and bear it."
Max Brooks said, "I think what the Greatest Generation's message to all of us is that in times of crisis, everyone has a part to play. You cannot just live your life for you. You are part of a whole. You are part of a community. And you must do your part."
Of course, doing your part during a crisis is all relative – easier for some than for others.
Mankiewicz visited with "Star Trek" actor George Takei, who spoke through a glass door at his home.
A Japanese American born in Los Angeles, his life changed months after Pearl Harbor, when armed American soldiers came to the Takei home and took the family away.
"I was five years old at the time," Takei said. "We were seen as the enemy. We were put on a crowded train and transported two-thirds of the way across the country to the swamps of Arkansas, [with] soldiers with machine guns pointed at us."
Mankiewicz asked, "When you hear the 'Chinese virus,' the 'Wuhan virus' …"
"Oh, it gets my blood boiling!" Takei responded. "It is a threat to us. A Chinese American woman in a New York subway was yelled at and chased and assaulted. And in San Francisco a woman was yelled at and spat at. It is so important to have wise leadership that knows history."
Sharing a Vulcan greeting through the glass door, Takei said, "I'm keeping my social distance, but sending you all the good wishes of 'Star Trek,' longevity and prosperity."
Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner aren't watching "Star Trek" (no offense, George). They're sticking to classic movies and game shows. "We watch 'Jeopardy' together," Reiner said.
But not exactly together. "Yeah, we turn on 'Jeopardy' at the same time, and we turn on 'Wheel of Fortune' at the same time, and we try to guess the answers and, you know, we have fun on the phone."
Being apart, and staying together … with a little advice to the country's leaders.
"Don't scare us!" said Brooks. "I don't mean to soft-pedal anything, but try to persuade us with your reason, with your logic. Tell us how to get through it, and show us by example how much you care about this country, and how much you care about who's in it."
To close out, Mankiewicz asked Brooks and Reiner for a reprise, and got it:
"We did it before and we can do it again. Yes, we can do it again..."
- ("Sunday Morning," 12/8/19)
- ("Sunday Morning," 8/2/15)
- ("Sunday Morning," 8/4/13)
For more info:
- Follow @MelBrooks on Twitter and YouTube
- randomcontent.com (Carl Reiner's official site)
- Follow @CarlReiner on Twitter
- George Takei on Facebook and Twitter
"Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre" by Max Brooks (Del Rey), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available June 16 via Amazon
Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Steven Tyler.