In a 2017 HBO documentary appropriately titled “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” Reiner (who died Monday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., at 98) sat with Brooks and Lear and reminisced about the long weekend retreats they used to take together, with their spouses, a tradition they fondly called “Yenemvelt” (a variation on the Yiddish yenevelt), a word that refers to a kind of hereafter, a world yet to come — a far-off place where, as Reiner’s mother taught him, all the good things would happen to you that weren’t happening to you here and now.
The three friends believed they had never laughed harder, and felt closer, than during those days in their own Yenemvelt. (Lear even brought up Yenemvelt when I interviewed him a few years ago; framed photos from those weekends were in easy reach on the desk in his home office.)
In the documentary, Brooks wonders: Is laughter what’s keeping us alive?
“While you’re alive, you can laugh,” Reiner replies. “When you’re dead, the laughter is so difficult. So difficult.”
Reiner never stopped coming up with a good line, something to say — funny or melancholy or trenchant. His last musings on his personal Twitter account appear to have been written just hours before he died. There is a final act of resistance — “As I arose at 7:30 this morning, I was saddened to relive the day that led up to the election of a bankrupted and corrupt businessman who had no qualifications to be the leader of any country in the civilized world . . .”
“. . . At the same time,” he continued, “Hillary Clinton, who had all the needed qualifications to lead our beloved nation, had received 3 million more popular votes than our Russian-installed puppet president.”
Three tweets followed in which Reiner expressed his regard for Noel Coward. A couple of tweets over the weekend reflected Reiner’s continued love for his late wife, Estelle, to whom he was married for 64 years. A tweet on June 18 captured a certain aspect about living nearly a century and also, perhaps, something about the existential sequestration of life during the covid-19 pandemic: “Too tired to tweet, too hungry to make phone calls, too old to start a new hobby but, but not too anything not to watch ‘Jeopardy,’ ‘Wheel Of Fortune,’ Rachel Maddow . . .” he wrote, commencing his dinner “by sipping pureed Lima Bean soup from a thin-rimmed cup.”
On June 20, he tweeted: “For me, a tweetless night, like tonight, is an empty, ill-spent, fruitless night, not worthy of owning a computer or its keyboard.”
What you have here is a comedian eager to work with whatever life still brings, to remain fully engaged, using whatever format or platform will reach his audience (which included his 300,000-plus Twitter followers). It’s a hunger we should all treasure in ourselves, to be included in the zip and zing of the funny life, to partake in its good news as well as its tragic twists and turns. In his later years, Reiner was always writing at least one book, participating in podcasts, granting a webcam interview for a series called “Dispatches From Quarantine.”
It does seem odd here, to dwell for a moment on what he was up to in his final days, rather than recite the legendary scope of his career, from “Your Show of Shows” to his “2,000 Year Old Man” routine with Brooks, to the toupee jokes on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and all the acting, producing, directing, writing and comedy appearances that came for decades on end. The stamina can be startling.
The stamina is the story, along with the laughter. What a gift to laugh as much as he did, and make everyone else laugh too. For the last decade or more, we’ve regarded Reiner and his old friends — these people who directly helped television become its classic best — with a combination of adoration and the awareness that they won’t always be with us. If one of their names starts trending online, for any reason, we all take sharp breath.
But here, too, Reiner found joy. If you’re not in the obituaries, then, yes, have breakfast. And if you are in the obits, then perhaps we’ll laugh again, someday, in Yenemvelt.