At 26, after taking dictation and guff from assorted people in show business with egos ranging from inflated to absurdly inflated, I met Carl Reiner. On talk shows he’d seemed like an incredible mensch, so when I heard from a friend that his secretary was leaving, I desperately wanted her job. Reiner would be respectful and nurturing, I imagined, exactly what I needed to gain confidence and make the transition into adulthood.
The interview began with him telling me: “I don’t know what to ask you. My secretaries stay a long time, so this isn’t something I’ve done a lot.” We bantered easily, but he hired me only after I assured him I was opposed to the war in Vietnam.
On my first day he came in late because he was taping “The Carol Burnett Show.” When he saw what I’d placed on his desk, he called out, “Don’t you think typing up my phone messages is a waste of time?”
Rushing in, I explained I’d done it out of habit because my last boss demanded it: “That’s what Jerry Lewis wanted.” Carl was peeling off his toupee. I wondered if I should be watching, not yet aware that he treated it like an accessory and didn’t pretend it was his hair. I told him that people hearing I was going to work for him all called him a genius.
“That’s only because I’ve been associated with some great shows,” he said. Among the many things he was known for at the time were, “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The 2000 Year Old Man” album with Mel Brooks and his work as Sid Caesar’s sidekick. I pointed out that other men of his status at the studio all had two secretaries. “One is for typing, the other is for shtupping,” he joked. “When you decide which you want to be, we’ll hire the other.”
Not long after I started, I told him, “I have a dentist appointment on Thursday, so I’ll be leaving early.”
“May I leave early?” he said. It was the only time he pulled rank.
“You can do whatever you want,” I shot back. We both laughed.
Carl was even more delightful than I’d expected — irreverent, curious, generous. Unlike too many people I’d worked for, he didn’t create work, and he asked little of me. There was no need for me to appear busy. If he could do something for himself, he did. If he was able to help me, he did. Not only was he fun, the people working with him were, too.
Visitors to Los Angeles were plotzing to see a show being shot. There I was, getting paid to hang out on the set of Carl’s film, “The Comic.” Schmoozing with Dick Van Dyke between takes, he noticed the time and said: “It’s after 5. Aren’t you going home?”
“No, I do nothing until 6,” I joked.
With fans, Carl was congenial and pleasant, but sometimes he found it embarrassing to be recognized. “I went out to get the paper in my robe this morning,” I remember him telling me, “and I saw everyone on the celebrity tour bus staring at me.” Another time, finding himself near L.A.’s Central Market, he decided to say hello to my father, who’d owned supermarkets but at that time had a day-old bread stand. “You have no idea what a reaction I got from people when I asked how to find the day-old bread,” he said.
Carl created a relaxed environment, both on the set and in the office. He rarely dictated letters. When he started by saying, “I’m enclosing a copy of what I wrote to Groucho Marx,” I stopped him: “I don’t think you want to say that.” He waited for me to explain. “There is no copy,” I admitted. He looked puzzled. “In three years you never asked to see one, so I stopped making them.” He could have blown up, but instead he simply asked that I resume doing it.
The closest he came to getting testy was the day he returned to the office from an appointment and I told him, “Some TV show called wanting you to appear.”
“Which show?” he asked.
“You can’t do it,” I said. “I checked your calendar.”
“You’re turning down work for me?” he exclaimed. “Which show?”
“I don’t remember,” I said, feeling sheepish. “I think it began with a vowel. Maybe ‘Ironside,’ I’m not sure.”
Nothing I did seemed to rattle him, which may be why I had no hesitation using the comb he’d left in the bathroom of our office suite. One day, the balding Carl showed me it was filled with hair. Mine. “If Queen Elizabeth comes here and wants to comb her hair, what will she think?” he said.
This was his gentle way of saying if I was using the comb, I could, at least clean out the schmutz. “I’m sure Queen Elizabeth has her own comb,” I teased back.
Over the years of working for Carl, I became friendly with his son, Rob Reiner, and very close to his daughter, Annie. Eventually I felt more like a family member than I did an employee. When Carl had an out-of-town project, he often took me along. During rehearsals of “Tough To Get Help,” a Broadway play he was directing, he asked me to accompany him to Barneys as he needed a sports jacket for an event that night. He was hurriedly paying when Barney, the owner, appeared and said: “I heard you were here. I’d love to show you my office.”
“I wish I had time,” Carl told him.
Barney pleaded: “I really want you to see it. I had the American dream happen to me.”
“So did I,” Carl quipped. “And I have to get back to work.”
We stopped to pick up pastrami sandwiches. The deli owner came over and said, “This is on me.”
“Where were you when I couldn’t afford a sandwich?” Carl said.
In New York, there were places he made sure to visit. Zabar’s was a favorite. He grabbed a ticket from the machine and was eyeing the smoked fish the way I’d seen other Hollywood men lust after starlets. The playwright of “Tough To Get Help,” Steve Gordon, and I were incredulous as we watched him buy enough Nova to host a bris. Steve, one of many hilarious people he worked with, kidded, “After this, they’re going to retire your number.”
During previews of the play, Carl, Jack Cassidy (who was starring in it) and I were going to a movie. “Call the manager of the theater,” Cassidy instructed me, “and arrange for someone to let us in a side door. That way, we won’t get bothered by anyone.” Carl never requested VIP treatment, so I hesitated. Cassidy added: “Say you’re my secretary. I’m better known in New York.”
I did. But when we walked out with the rest of the audience, there was a commotion. People were pointing and telling one another, “Look, it’s Carl Reiner…. Carl Reiner is over there.”
On opening night, Carl, visibly nervous, asked me to wait for a phone call with the all-important New York Times Review. It would determine if the show had a future. “I’d like you to take it down, then bring it to the party and read it to me,” he instructed.
My shorthand had atrophied due to disuse. I got as far as “‘Tough To Get Help’ opened tonight at the Royale Theater” before discovering I couldn’t decipher the squiggles. Carl waited patiently as I struggled to make out what I’d written. Finally, I gave up and said, “It’s not a good review.” It would have been understandable if he’d gotten mad, but he didn’t.
I assumed I would stay in this job forever. But when I heard a man refer to the producer Sheldon Leonard’s secretary as “Sheldon’s old biddy,” I felt compelled to think about my future. It was the early ’70s; feminism had made an impact on me, and I couldn’t ignore the reality that I was on a path to being “Carl’s old biddy.” I had to make a drastic change. But what could I do? An undergraduate degree in psychology qualified me for nothing.
On a dateless Saturday night I was, watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” with a girlfriend, when I suddenly blurted out, “Why don’t we write one of these?” It was a preposterous idea. There were almost no women doing it. For years I’d been typing scripts, but only once did an idea come to me. Carl and the writer were trying to figure out a scene in “Where’s Poppa?” a black comedy he was directing. They wanted to show George Segal’s desperation to hire a live-in attendant for the daffy mother ruining his love life, played by Ruth Gordon. It was getting late and I was hungry. “What about this?” I proposed. “People often worry about people in their house being dishonest. George is interviewing a woman who’s swiping things off his desk and shoving them into her shopping bag. He sees what she’s doing, but begs, ‘When can you start?’”
I was thrilled that they used it, but that didn’t mean I could write a script. Still, because there were no other options, I pushed my girlfriend, “Let’s try it.” To convince her, I spit out a story that seemed right for “Mary Tyler Moore,” telling her, “We have nothing to lose.”
When the script was finished, my boss agreed to read it. I was at my desk, shaking with nervousness, fearing that we were humiliating ourselves. I could see his relief, and he probably saw mine, when he came out of his office and said: “It’s very good. If I were doing Mary’s show, I would buy it.” He then asked us to do an episode of “The New Dick Van Dyke Show,” which he was producing.
The network censor made notes on each script, generally listing words considered objectionable. The memo Carl received about our script read, “Per our conversation, this is entirely unacceptable.” CBS refused to shoot it, maintaining it was too racy to have an 11-year-old open the door to her parents’ bedroom while they were making love. Carl and Van Dyke shot it at their own expense, with Carl announcing that if it didn’t air, he would walk off the series.
The episode, “Lieutenant Preston of the 4th Cavalry,” was shown only in Canada, and Carl quit. This generated publicity, which worked to our advantage. Though we were getting more assignments than we could handle, I wasn’t ready to leave my job. I adored Carl, and he made me feel safe. When my writing partner and I were hired to do a pilot and flying to New York to see an actress in a play, I had no choice. The time had come. I bought a typewriter and, tearfully, left the nest.
To have a career in the arts, “someone besides your parents has to believe in you,” John Waters, known for his transgressive cult films, once said. For me, that someone was Carl Reiner. Without his validation, I would not have had the courage to take the risk. He wasn’t looking to mentor me, but I knew he found me funny, often repeating things I’d said to others. Being recognized by a comedy legend showed me that humor was a gift, not simply a way of compensating for my insecurities. As grateful as I am for the experiences and excitement I’ve had as a writer, my favorite recurring dream is the one where I’m picking up the phone and saying, “Carl Reiner’s office.”
Sybil Adelman Sage has worked as a writer for “The New Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Northern Exposure,” among other television shows.