Beef Stroganoff

Carl Reiner, a sketch from the 1950s, and a quest that lasted the better part of a century. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Carl Reiner, the comedian, actor, writer and director, who might have been best known for creating The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s but had about a zillion other credits to his name including the Mark Twain Award in 2000, died Monday night at age 98.

I was probably going to mention his passing in the “7 other things” section, but then I came across a story that’s so charming and humanizing—and that shows how the littlest things that we do can have such an enormouos effect on other people—that I wanted to share it here instead.

It comes from Matthew Rosenberg, a comic book writer whose dad had an identical twin. (I’ll call them “Dad” and “Twin.”)

For his entire life, Dad ate the same meal on his birthday. Beef Stroganoff.

Why? Because during the early 1950s, Dad and Twin had been big fans of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca’s Your Show of Shows, on which Carl Reiner was a cast member. And Dad remembered Beef Stroganoff as the punchline in a sketch on one episode.

Here’s the scene: Reiner plays a Cold War spy, and he’s told to go into a restaurant and ask for Beef Stroganoff—which he does. Rather than brining a meal, the server summons Charlton Heston, who “in his deep voice, deadpans, ‘I am Beef Stroganoff.’”

“The joke made my dad laugh his whole life,” Rosenberg wrote.

Only, 20 years ago, Twin asked Dad why he always ate Beef Stroganoff, and when Dad explained, Twin told him he had the sketch wrong. It wasn’t “Beef Stroganoff” after all. The punchline was “Sauerbraten.”

If this were true, it meant Dad had been asking for the wrong meal every birthday. He was on a mission to find out, so he bought every DVD and VHS of Your Show of Shows that he could find.

But the Charlton Heston sketch didn’t appear to have survived.

The search went on for years — until Reiner wrote a new book, and he was coming to New York for a book signing. This was Dad’s chance.

So, he bought a ticket, and even wrote a letter to give to Reiner just in case. He waited in line, got the chance to talk, and explained the whole thing, how much he loved the show.

Then, he finally asked: So which was it in that episode? Beef Stroganoff or Saurbraten?

Reiner laughed and stared at Dad. Then he said simply, “That was a long time ago!”

Dad thanked Reiner anyway, got a book signed. But he left behind the letter. And two months later, there was a phone call. Rosenberg’s mom answered. It was Carl Reiner, wanting to talk to Dad.

But Dad wasn’t not home, so Reiner said, “I’ll call another time,” and hung up. No callback number—nothing.

Well you can imagine what happened every time the phone rang from then on. Dad was eager to answer. And then, a week later: Carl called back. Dad was thrilled.

I’ll let Rosenberg take over the story for a minute here:

He says he read the letter my dad gave him at the signing and he found it so touching that he wanted to share it “with the others.” Then he puts the phone on speaker and Carl Reiner is having dinner with Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar.

They are calling my dad to answer his question about a sketch from 50 years ago. They all make some jokes and then admit they have no idea whether Charlton Heston was named Beef Stroganoff or Sauerbraten in the sketch.

But they all agree Beef Stroganoff is funnier, so they give the victory to my dad over my uncle.

This was literally one of the best days of my father's entire life. His heroes called him up to chat and make jokes and thank him for caring. It meant the world to him then, and it means as much to me now that they would do that.

Good story. You’d think it’s over, right? Actually there’s one more twist.

It’s that a few years later, the Museum of Television in New York had some episodes of Your Show of Shows that weren’t available anywhere else. So Dad went in, sat down and watched every single one.

The very last in the series was the one he’d been looking for. And it had a special guest: Charlton Heston.

My dad held his breath. The sketch begins just as my dad remembers it.

And then Sid Caeser tells Carl Reiner “Go to this restaurant and ask for Saurbrauten.”

Thanks to Matthew Rosenberg for letting me share this story. You can find the original version, which he shared on Twitter, here.


Quick note: I’ll be taking some time off — tomorrow, Friday, and maybe into next week. One of the nicest things about writing Understandably is that when it’s occasionally delayed a bit for technical reasons in the morning, I hear quickly from readers checking in to see if I’m OK. So, I don’t want you to worry. I’ll be back soon.

7 other things worth your time

  • Happy Canada Day! On Sunday, I wrote for Inc. about how some Canadian tech companies are over the moon that the U.S. is suspending H-1B visas for the rest of 2020, as they hope they can attract some of those skilled workers to Canada, instead. (Inc.com)

  • Add Puerto Rico to the places you can’t go to unless you can show a negative Covid-19 test upon entry, or else quarantine for two weeks. (Associated Press)

  • In an amazingly positive development for Understandably.com, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that companies can trademark otherwise generic words when they’re used as part of a web address. Case in point: Booking.com, which fought a years-long battle to trademark its name. (Fast Company)

  • A judge temporarily blocked President Trump’s niece from publishing a tell-all book about the Trump family. (Daily Beast)

  • A study says one-quarter of people who used to go to gyms before Covid-19 now say they won’t go back. (Study Finds)

  • Los Angeles took the first step in a plan to replace some police with “non emergency” first responders for nonviolent calls. (Fox LA)

  • Miami is about to endure its hottest week on record, according to a forecast. Meanwhile, there’s now a $50 fine for anyone caught on South Beach not wearing a mask. (Accuweather, The Miami Herald)

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