I’ll never forget the time I got to hang out with Stiller & Meara.
It was in January of 2004 at a CBS press tour party in Los Angeles. I’m guessing Jerry Stiller was there promoting The King of Queens. His wife Anne Meara–who died Saturday in Manhattan–was sneaking onto the Kevin James sitcom around then too.
That wasn’t why I was glad to run into them at the event. Stiller & Meara were one of the comedy teams I saw every few months way back in the day on The Ed Sullivan Show. Married in real life, Second City Chicago pioneers, they took their Jewish-Catholic love story and milked it for laughs like nobody since Burns & Allen.
Stiller & Meara took it beyond Burns & Allen in that religious differences were part of their comedy mix. Their act was always very real; you felt these two had lived most of their material.
That’s not what I remember either. I just remember that they were even more fun in real life than on TV. We laughed and laughed and laughed.
I’m not sure what else CBS had to promote that night–Tom Selleck was in the room and Angela Lansbury, as I recall–all I remember is Stiller & Meara. They were so animated, charming and interesting. Me and colleague and comedy buff Brad Oswald had a great time asking about Sullivan, their son Ben Stiller, Seinfeld, the old Second City days.
They spoke quite frankly, especially Anne, about how up and down and challenging the marriage had been. Who knew Frank Costanza could be such a pain in the ass?
They were both proud of their individual careers–well, most of what they did, anyway. Meara had once headlined a CBS law drama in the mid-’70s–Kate McShane–that miscast her as a non-nonsense, crusading defendant. I have a clip from it on an old CBS Fall Preview reel and Meara quietly asked me to burn it. She could play anything, comedy or drama, but also seemed oddly cast on Rhoda as that series did back flips trying to find its feet. A small, defiant role on “Fame” seemed a better fit.
We talked a lot about comedy in general. Both were big SCTV fans and they made sure young Ben went to school on that series.
When I got back home after that press tour there was a package in the mail. It was Jerry’s book, “Married to Laughter: A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara.” It was signed by both of them, and tucked inside were also two signed notes on their personal stationary addressed to me at The Toronto Sun. The short messages were typed, probably on an IBM Selectra.
“Dear Bill,” wrote Jerry, “A copy of my book. Read at your leisure. Eighteen years of just putting down what I remembered. No ghostwriter involved.” Anne sent “Regards to Sarah Waxman,” wife of the late great Canadian actor Al Waxman. Sarah wrote food stories while I was at TV Guide, that was probably the connection.
“It was good talking to you at the CBS affair last week,” she continued. “All good thoughts.”
All good thoughts now to them both, and condolences to Jerry, Ben, daughter Amy Stiller and their families.