The coronavirus is no laughing matter. Since March, it’s been difficult to even chuckle. The back-to-back deaths of comedians Jerry Stiller and Carl Reiner in May and June seemed to underline that fact even more. We lost both comedians at a time when the country was reeling, not only from the virus, but from our disunity – pitted against one another because of politics, race, sex, religion, citizenship, education, regional differences and anything else that could divide us.
During their careers, Stiller and Reiner united us in laughter. Jerry Stiller became well known in the 1960s when he partnered with his wife, Anne Meara. She was a statuesque, red-haired Roman Catholic Irish-American. He was a short, stocky Jew from Eastern European stock. Their comic routines, a favorite on the Ed Sullivan show, depicted the almost insurmountable barriers to love between two people from different religions. At the time, their work was groundbreaking. Stiller went on to other ventures; probably his most famous was as Frank Costanza on Seinfeld. But he was most proud of his work with his wife.
Carl Reiner started his comedic career because of a free drama workshop sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), instituted during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. In its eight years, the WPA put 8.5 million Americans to work. Best known for building bridges and other structures, the WPA sponsored projects in the arts, employing tens of thousands of actors, musicians, writers and other artists. We can thank the WPA for giving Carl Reiner the impetus to switch careers. At the time, he was working as a machinist, repairing sewing machines.
Reiner’s comedic genius was his connection to the ordinary man: his joys, sorrows and ridiculousness. His humor spanned decades from the 1950s onward, including Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows, The Dick Van Dyke show which mimicked his own life, his “2,000 year-old man” routine with Mel Brooks, the Steve Martin movies, books and productions.
These funny men had something to say on serious matters. Stiller was an advocate for the freedom to marry whomever you wanted. He was a lifelong believer in progressive politics and was an early advocate of a single-payer health system. Reiner daily expressed his political views to his 300,000 followers on his Twitter account. He exhorted people to vote in the upcoming November elections. Shortly before his death, Carl Reiner posed with his daughter and Mel Brooks wearing Black Lives Matter tee shirts. Both comedians were fully engaged in life, aware of the issues our nation is facing and willing to have something to say about it.
A lot of things are needed to unite our country. A program like the WPA would be a great start along with a raft of other programs and ideas, plus empathy, understanding and morality. But let’s not forget the comedy. When people laugh together, they share a common bond, a connection.
By Jackie Hemond