There’s a long, ever-rolling list of things we could discuss with respect to the recently late, eternally great Nora Ephron. Her wit, her gift for the craft, her ability to transcend generations and demographics, how she documented what it means to come into your own as a woman, i.e. Meg Ryan and Karen Silkwood and Sleepless In Seattle. We could talk about her flair for dialogue and capturing the little moments. We could talk about the movies she wrote, the columns for Esquire and pieces for Salon, the way in 1996 at a commencement address she told graduates of her alma mater, Wellesley, that they could indeed have it all, damn it, but it would be messy and complicated. But this is, after all, a column about sandwiches, so really, there’s one thing in particular we have to talk about.
That scene—you know the one—could have been shot anywhere, but it will be forever intertwined with Katz’s Deli. Katz’s, a postcard of Manhattan in the form of a delicatessen, as essential to the tourist experience as overpaying for a Broadway show or searching for traces of an ancestry still being uncovered at Ellis Island, but it could have been anywhere, really. It could have been any two actors—any two people—but Billy Crystal’s inherent New York-ness and Meg Ryan’s relatability certainly contributed. It could have been any sandwich serving as the springboard for Sally’s simulated orgasm. The ability of Crystal, Ryan, Rob Reiner and Reiner’s mother, Estelle, to play off Ephron’s delightful script and escalate the scene to joyful abandon. The scene is forever immortalized at Katz’s, the table emblazoned with the words, “Where Harry met Sally… hope you have what she had!” One can’t help but wonder how many recreations of that scene the average Katz’s pastrami-slinger is subjected to each year.
When anthropologists centuries from now dig up the archives to determine what New York in the second half of the 20th century was like, they will find the discarded laugh tracks that once looped through scenarios in Central Perk, a faded copy of Audio Two’s “Top Billin’” and tracks from all the emcees who would go on to sample it, and Meg Ryan, mid-way through bites of a meticulously ordered sandwich, riffing on Molly Bloom’s soliloquy to the delight of generations of moviegoers. And the anthropologists of the future will shift uncomfortably in their seats, some will laugh, but more than anything, they will delight in it, in the sheer goofiness, in the discomfort but mostly for the real slice-of-life (with sauerkraut and smothered in Russian dressing) that Ephron gave to the script, to most things she wrote. Long after Katz’s is an underground museum/EPCOT version of Manhattan and long after When Harry Met Sally turns 50, 100, and the Nora Ephron canon has been revised hundreds upon hundreds of time, audiences will still be finding joy in that moment.
Even with its geographic and landmark context, this scene could have really been shot anywhere and still have resonated, and the influx of YouTube-ready recreations of that iconic scene prove it. There’s “When Hairy Met Shaggy,” the vaguely disturbing all-canine version made for Lifetime, the version featuring Mike and Mal, two Australian comedians who show up at an unsuspecting restaurant and recreate the scene over a pasta salad. The unsuspecting patrons respond with uproarious laughter and looks of recognition. Halfway around the world and this allusion is still so recognizable. Billy Crystal has recreated that scene with Miss Piggy; Zach Galifianakis fully committing to the Meg Ryan alongside Maria Bamford. A pair of Columbia students—one from the UK—recreated the scene in the very same booth at Katz’s for a class project. The reactions are varied: some puzzlement caught on camera, a few stares. In the background, there are a few approving “woos” and claps. There’s at least one eye-roll, and probably off screen, more locals thinking to themselves, “Ugh, tourists.”
And that’s the neat thing about this scene. It’s Katz’s, it’s Manhattan, it’s the collective result of the bright minds that wrote and cultivated it and is unique to those experiences, but the situation and the humor make it a universal. Amid all the recreations, there’s a video of a couple from Florida, Robert and Rachel, who flew up to New York for a quick trip, and Robert opted to pop the question at the very table where Harry and Sally made a scene 20+ years before. They had seen the film on their first date, and it resonated so much that he opted to make one of the boldest and most terrifying decisions anyone can make at the table where Meg Ryan faked an orgasm on camera.
And although that scene was a collaborative effort, and Ephron wrote hundreds of thousands of other fantastic words, it’s these two memorable characters and these few minutes of film that have made so many people laugh and think and come to rather uncomfortable realizations. It’s this scene that drew more people to an iconic Manhattan deli and made it part of the pop culture landscape and help, in turn, facilitate marriage proposals and foster Internet fame and probably inadvertently caused quite a few people to get kicked out of restaurants for getting too passionate in their recreations.
May we all be so lucky to have what she’s having.