“It’s now 1:00 a.m., and I am going upstairs to my computer to tweet out my thought of the day, because I can. I have the freedom to do that because of people like you who are committed to protecting our liberties and our Constitution.”—Carl Reiner to Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, July 9, 2017.
Ninety-five-year-old Carl Reiner wrote those words to Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in a letter published in The New York Times encouraging Kennedy to delay his retirement. I turned 70 just two days before that, but the promise held by my own retirement was soon upended by a series of unexpected, spirit-breaking challenges. And now this… Record numbers of Americans have fallen victim to COVID-19, as asymptomatic carriers or seriously ill patients. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s brutal murder-by-cop, mass protests have filled the streets in support of Black Lives Matter, while others have rallied to save Confederate statues and flags and against life-saving COVID-19 restrictions. Teachers and school administrators fear returning to COVID-compromised classrooms in the Fall. And skunks of various stripes have morally bankrupt the White House and G.O.P. and rendered my only refuge (my backyard garden) off-limits.
Let’s face it, news of the day is unrelentingly grim, and life as we used to know and love it is indefinitely on pause. When Carl Reiner passed away on June 29, 2020, at the age of 98, I thought the gig was up. Would I ever laugh again?
But then I remembered that comedy legend Carl Reiner had a lot more shtick to share before he called it quits. “Every morning before having breakfast,” he’d say, “I pick up my newspaper, get the obituary section and see if I’m listed. If not, I have my breakfast.” Never one to let a good idea go south, Reiner parlayed that humorous A.M. confession into an engaging film project. He was 95 at the time.
If you only see (or revisit!) one film this week… or next week… or the week after that, do yourself a favor and make sure it’s If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll thank Carl Reiner for good timing and me for pointing you in the right direction. I reviewed the documentary here in FrontRowCenter when it debuted on HBO exactly three years ago in 2017. The film can still be accessed via HBO On Demand and streamed via HBO Max and affiliate portals. Or buy the DVD!
Directed by Danny Gold and produced by Carl Reiner’s nephew and agent, George Shapiro, who also appears in the film, If You’re Not in the Obit proves what fellow humorist Mark Twain asserted more than 100 years ago, that “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
At the time of this film’s original release, Carl Reiner was a youthful 95 and still actively engaged as a comedy writer, director, actor, author, raconteur and cohort of his son, film director Rob “Meathead” Reiner. An unstoppable force of nature, Carl was especially keen on meeting and profiling a thriving bunch of nonagenarians and a few centenarians who defied negative American ageist stereotypes and encouraged the rest of us by their example.
Reiner didn’t have to venture too far afield for his subjects. Some of his closest pals and colleagues–Mel Brooks (90), Norman Lear (94), Dick Van Dyke (91) and Betty White (95)–were more than willing and able to participate. Mel Brooks’ repartee with Reiner on-camera and in vintage animated “2000 Year Old Man” clips is priceless. But even more important was Brooks’ role as Reiner’s nearest and dearest best friend. Lifelong friendships are key to healthy longevity. My first concern upon hearing of Reiner’s passing was how is Mel? He must be devastated.
Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke’s lives initially intersected on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-66). If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast includes vintage clips from that sitcom. Shared memories recall highlights from their early comedy careers and showcase Van Dyke’s ongoing effervescence and agility and the touching rationale behind his late-in-life marriage to a much younger woman.
In contrast to bubbly Dick Van Dyke, Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee was all business at 94 as he recounted unapologetically the trajectory of his transition to comic book writer, publisher, media mogul, actor and nonretirement. Stan Lee passed away in November 2018, six weeks before his 96th birthday.
Since my early twenties and throughout my career, I’ve been drawn to and have written extensively about individuals and films about individuals who in advanced age continue to engage, excel and inspire. If You’re Not in the Obit is by far one of the best and most refreshing examples of that genre. It doesn’t hurt that my favorite singer, Tony Bennett, at 90, opens the film with a wonderful performance of “The Best Is Yet to Come.”
The film blends no-nonsense life lessons from a fascinating mix of nonagenarians and centenarians who’ve surmounted family losses, debilitating illnesses and depression and continue to dance; practice and teach yoga; sky dive; sing; perform as classical pianists and instrumentalists; act; run marathons; author books; paint; and serve as fashion icons.
Aside from the inspiration and insights garnered from Carl Reiner and his remarkable peer group, there are some younger voices here as well. Longevity expert Dan Buettner sheds light on why some people flourish in advanced age and how the rest of us can do the same. And comedian Jerry Seinfeld caught me, a fellow Baby Boomer, by surprise with his sensitive take on the subject and some serious personal revelations.
“You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you’re down there.”–George Burns
I laughed out loud when I read that quote from one of Seinfeld’s role models, George Burns. I also winced a little… because I can relate to it. Burns was in his nineties and sharp as a tack when I was lucky to catch his stand-up routine at the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey. He had long ago booked, but eventually was unable to perform, a gig at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on his 100th birthday. He died a month after turning 100 on March 9, 1996.
If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast debuted on HBO in 2017, exactly three years ago, and can still be accessed via HBO On Demand and streamed via HBO Max and affiliate portals.
No access to HBO? Then you owe it to yourself to find another way to watch and even own a copy of this entertaining, inspiring and timely film. It’s an evergreen reminder, as per feature film director Luis Buñuel, that “Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you’re a cheese.” –Judith Trojan