Culture  /  Origin Story

Carl Reiner’s Life Should Remind Us: If You Like Laughing, Thank FDR and the New Deal

Reiner, Stephen Colbert, Jordan Peele, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Their comedy descends directly from the Works Progress Administration.

When Carl Reiner was 17 in 1939, he was working as a machinist’s helper, bringing sewing machines to hat factories. Then Reiner’s brother saw a small ad in the New York Daily News about free acting lessons being offered in lower Manhattan by the Works Progress Administration. Reiner had never contemplated acting before in his life, but his brother insisted, so he went.

The WPA had been established several years prior to carry out public works projects during the Great Depression, with workers put directly on the government payroll, keeping the struggling economy afloat while also expanding the infrastructure of the U.S. Its initial outlays were huge — the gross domestic product equivalent of about $1.3 trillion today. The WPA paved roads, built bridges, and constructed Camp David and the Tennessee Valley Authority. But it went beyond these physical public works to enhance America’s human infrastructure via Federal Project Number One, which employed writers, musicians, and actors. The Federal Theatre Project, part of Federal Project Number One, funded live performances and acting classes — including the ones Carl Reiner attended.

“All the good things that have happened to me in my life I can trace to that two-inch newspaper item my brother handed to me,” Reiner explained. “Had Charlie not brought it to my attention, I might very well be writing anecdotes about my life as a machinist or, more likely, not be writing anything about anything.”

But Reiner’s life was just one small aspect of the WPA’s impact. A few years earlier in Chicago, a sociologist named Neva Boyd had begun working with immigrant children by teaching them dance, movement, and improvisational games. She soon brought this work to Hull House, a progressive “settlement house” — a central place where anyone regardless of age, class, or culture could go to learn, share, engage with art, express themselves, and grow.

Boyd viewed creativity and playfulness as essential for a democratic society. “Social living cannot be maintained on the basis of destructive ideologies — domination, hate, prejudice, greed and dishonesty,” she wrote in a famous essay. “Play involves social values, as does no other behavior. The spirit of play develops social adaptability, ethics, mental and emotional control, and imagination.”