Carl Reiner is on a roll.
Well, actually, it's his lunch - smoked turkey - that's on a roll. He is scarfing down the last few bites as this phone interview begins."Lemme run upstairs to a more comfortable chair," he said, pressing the hold button. Seconds later, he was back on the line. "Hope you don't mind smacking noises," he said. "I'm almost finished here."
Finished with dining, maybe - but on all other fronts a living, breathing work-in-progress. Carl Reiner, at 74, may be the busiest American humorist of any generation extant. In a society whose ablest comics become forgotten with alarming routineness, he is among those least likely to confront obscurity.
"People remember the stuff," Reiner said. "Somebody's always coming up to me, seems like, and reminding me of something the Old Man and I did. Which I find pretty surprising, 'cause we were just making stuff up as we went along."
The "Old Man" is Mel Brooks - or more to the point, a Brooks character who figures in a lengthy series of comedy routines that have aged as gracefully as any of the artists' more prominent works.
Reiner's proudest creation for television, "The Dick Van Dyke Show," is probably as well known today as when it was new over a generation ago. It's a mainstay on cable's Nick at Nite, and was the subject of a TV tribute earlier this month. "Fatal Instinct," Reiner's 1993 film noir spoof, is doing well in the video rental market. And Reiner's career as an occasional novelist is back on track, with a follow-through to his 1958 book "Enter Laughing" in preparation.
But the essential Reiner project, a series of ad-lib routines with Brooks dating from 1950, remains crucial to both artists' careers. A stereophonic epic spanning four record albums released from 1960 to 1973, the work commonly known as "The 2,000-Year-Old Man" has just been re-released as a four-CD boxed set from Rhino Records.
"The Complete 2,000 Year Old Man" is the title of the new collection. Digital remastering renders the sound sharper, and the two friends' brash humor seems to have gained in satiric and prophetic relevance with the passage of time.
The 1950s and '60s was a time of worthy monologue comedy from Shelly Berman, Bob Newhart, Don Knotts, Pat Harrington Jr., Bill Dana and Louis Nye. But the Brooks-Reiner stuff stands apart: It is team comedy, harking to the lovably regimented hokum of vaudeville, while incorporating the looser, stream-of-consciousness riskiness that radiated from the beat movement in jazz and poetry.
These cornball hipsters - Reiner the patient straight man, Brooks the wise-mouthing, indignant Yiddish Methuselah - have proved as crucial to the evolution of American wit as have the works of Mark Twain, MAD magazine, Garrison Keillor and "Saturday Night Live."
" `The 2,000-Year-Old Man' has always stuck with people," Reiner said, "but it's been available only on an off-again/on-again basis. I've made the mistake of giving away all my own copies to people I've thought would appreciate it. This comprehensive reissue is one of the best things that's happened to us."
The routine has Reiner, affecting the tone of a somewhat credulous news reporter, interviewing Brooks, who poses variously as the 2,000-Year-Old Man, a flaky recording star, a quack psychiatrist and so forth. Neither seems to know what will be said next, and the comic impact is multiplied when the performers seem as surprised as their audience.
Reiner called the performances "jazz, after a fashion," and the routines do have much in common with the pioneering 1920s duets between cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer - who didn't play together so much as they chased one another all across the surface of the phonograph record.
Reiner and Brooks continue apace with separate projects: a yet-uncommitted new film for director Reiner, the day-to-day running of his own Hollywood production company for Brooks. But Reiner still entertains the prospect of bringing the 2,000-Year-Old Man back for new interviews.
"I keep asking the Old Man about it," Reiner said. "Mel's always nervous about going back to bat again. But he's still got what it takes - and myself, I'm dying to learn what the Old Man might think about the political scene today."