When the straight man dies, the act dies with him. And so this week we lost both Carl Reiner at the ripe old age of 98 and The 2,000-Year-Old Man at the riper, older age of 2,070.
It was in 1950 that Reiner and Mel Brooks came up with the schtick in the writers’ room of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. As Reiner told the Los Angeles Times in 1997:
Mel would entertain us by getting up and doing things that made us laugh. I came in upset about something I’d heard on television—talking about an eyewitness that couldn’t have been there. I said, “Here’s a man who was actually at the scene of the crucifixion 2,000 years ago.” And he went, “Ahh, boy. . . .”
From that moment on, I kept asking him questions. “Did you know Jesus?” He said, “A thin lad. He always came into the store. He never bought anything.” The less he had time to think, the more amazing his brain would react. For 10 years, we did it at parties.
They finally cut an album in 1960 and it made Brooks a star. “This set could launch a new disk career for Mel Brooks, scripter for Sid Caesar and Jerry Lewis, among others,” Variety exclaimed. “Brooks, with a strong assist from straight man Carl Reiner, plays a 2,000-year-old man, an ex-Nazi turned Peruvian Indian, a psychiatrist, beatnik, etc., each done with a needle-sharp point.”
The 2,000-Year-Old Man, in popular memory, is Mel Brooks. Reiner gets credit for a “strong assist,” but none of the laughs. That, as both of them repeatedly pointed out, is incorrect.
“I think the real engine behind it is Carl, not me,” Brooks told the AV Club in 2009. “I’m just collecting the fares. But he’s the guy that creates the subjects, the questions, and creates a kind of buoyant, effervescent, terribly naïve character.”
Carl Reiner made setting the stage for others his life’s work. It’s a strategy that works as well in a casual conversation as it does on national television. And the formula is simple: Verbal generosity is just asking perceptive questions of the person in front of you.
Sometimes that’s as simple as:
“Sir, what has kept you alive for 2,000 years?”
And sometimes it’s more like:
“Sir, I’ve always been interested in the origin of words. For instance, a simple word like ‘cheese.’ Where did that come from?”
Playing it straight doesn’t mean you can’t throw curveballs. “The fun was trying to trick him and try to get him into a corner where he couldn't get out,” Reiner recalled in 1995. “And he always got out funny.”
Make sure the other guy gets out funny and chances are you will, too.
Quick quips; lightning
“No man thinks there is much ado about nothing when the ado is about himself.”
— Anthony Trollope
“Conversation has a kind of charm about it, an insinuating and insidious something that elicits secrets from us just like love or liquor.”
“Egotism — usually just a case of mistaken nonentity.”
— Barbara Stanwyck
That’s GWQ No. 53. You know who loved The 2,000-Year-Old Man? Brendan Behan, the Irish playwright and subject of GWQ No. 37. Behan attended a recording of the bit in which Reiner asked Brooks if he had a national anthem in the old, old, old days. “Yeah, every cave had a national anthem,” Brooks responded, and then sang “Let them all go to hell, except Cave 17.” After the recording, Behan translated that line into Gaelic and declared it his new motto. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting can be read in caves of all numbers. Tapping the ♥️ below is a strong assist.