You’re Lucky You’re Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom
The following excerpt is the prologue to “You’re Lucky You’re Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom,” (Viking, 2006) a memoir by Phil Rosenthal, creator and executive producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright Â© 2006 by Buona Sera Productions, Inc.
My brother, Richard, got married on September 5, 1993. I was the best man, and with that honor comes the giving of the toast. I had been earning a living as a writer on an assortment of television sitcoms for about four years at this point, and so I felt there was an expectation to be humorous whenever forced to speak in public — a self-imposed pressure, but real nonetheless, as if I deeply needed to communicate to people, “See, I can be funny, it’s not my fault the shows are terrible.”
And so I racked my brain for material. Material at family functions often focused on the family at hand, and my particular family had served me well in the past — years earlier I wrote a little poem at my parents’ twenty-fifth anniversary party (at their nonstop insistence) that seemed to be hilarious to the relatives and friends. “Better than Broadway!” I had been told. But now, at this wedding, I was thirty-three, and there were people there who didn’t know the family, and worse, didn’t know me — but here he is: the Hollywood toastmaster. This could be a bad wedding, meaning I could bomb. And then it hit me, an anecdote that had actually happened, that I had suppressed for several years, that drove me nuts then and thinking about it again now rekindled the nuts, and that illustrated the insanity in our family and would serve as a warning to Richard’s bride, Karen, as to why she should perhaps reconsider marrying into this psycho ward. Why she should run screaming into the hills rather than subject herself to a life of unrelenting complaining and unbearable frustration, petty domestic politics and life under maternal rule. The more I thought about this story, I realized it wasn’t funny at all, but that didn’t matter anymore. I had to tell it as a purely cautionary tale. The fact that the toast would come at the wedding reception and that my brother and his wife would be already married didn’t change the urgency of my warning.
“Karen,” I started. “There is still time to run.”
I explained: When I first started to make a little money in Hollywood, I bought my mom, for Hanukkah, a gift of the Fruit-of-the-Month Club.
And then came the phone call from my mother in Rockland County, New York: “Philip, we got the pears.”
“Oh, that’s good, Ma. You like them?”
“Yes, they’re very nice, but please . . . it’s an entire box of pears. There must be twelve or fourteen pears here. There’re so many pears. Please, Philip, do me a favor. Don’t ever send us any more food again, okay?”
I said, “Well, Ma . . . another box is coming next month.”
She said, “What? More pears?”
I said, “No, Ma, a different fruit every month.”
“EVERY MONTH? My God, Max, he got us in some kind of cult. What am I supposed to do with all this fruit?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “Most people like it. You eat it … You share it with your friends.”
“I don’t know … Lee and Stan.”
“Lee and Stan buy their own fruit!”
“Oh my God, Ma…”
“Why did you do this to me?”
“What is happening?”
“I can’t talk anymore, there’s too much fruit in the house!”
I went on to describe my father’s misery as well at this misfortune that had befallen them. (“You think we’re invalids? We can’t get our own fruit?”) The wedding guests laughed. No one laughed harder than my parents, who really did treat the gift of fruit from their son as if they’d received a box of heads from a murderer. Richard and Karen remain married to this day and have even brought two children into the world.
My warning didn’t take. Nobody listens to me. Maybe you will.
I guess if we have to classify this book, it is a memoir of sorts. (That’s right, Oprah, and I’ll swear it’s all true even if you make the mean face at me on the couch.) We’ll also, if you’re interested, get into how to make a show, specifically the show “Everybody Loves Raymond.” We’ll see how it came to be, how “writing what you know” is not just a saying but essential, and how almost anyone’s life can be turned into fuel for comedy. We’ll use, for example, my life — where I’m from, the other jobs and other shows I toiled on, my relationships with family, with women, with The Writers’ Room, with show business, and how all of it found its way into the work, became the work, to the point where it wasn’t work anymore. And all of it is here — in the hope that you’ll be entertained, and maybe learn a thing or two that could help you in your own career, your life, your diet. You’ll learn a little about how to write, cast, edit, direct, run, cater, and, most of all, enjoy the gift of a hit show.
I was crazy lucky to get such a gift, and for nine years, I savored it; I loved it; I was tremendously thankful for it. It would not have occurred to me to return it or leave it or be unhappy with it, let alone complain about the gift to whoever gave it to me that it was all “too much.”
You still there, Ma?
On Oct. 24 from 7-8:30 p.m., Phil Rosenthal will be at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.
An Ode to Parents and Other Strangers
When Paul Reiser co-created and starred in the 1990s hit sitcom, “Mad About You,” — about a secular Jew married to a Christian — he helped spur a new trend in TV comedy: the cute but neurotic Jewish leading man. Along with Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Lewis (“Anything But Love”), he elevated male Jewish characters from whiny sidekicks to leads that remained appealing, despite their anxieties and preoccupation with exasperating parents.
Reiser’s new film, “The Thing About My Folks,” also revolves around a secular Jew, Ben Kleinman (Reiser), who is preoccupied with exasperating parents. In the comedy-drama, Ben bonds with his father, Sam (Peter Falk) on an impromptu road trip after mom (Olympia Dukakis) unceremoniously leaves dad. During assorted misadventures, Ben learns more about his father — indeed his parents — than he ever knew before.
The Jewish Reiser began writing the script around the time he starred in the 1980s coming-of-age film, “Diner,” in part because he was curious about his own parents.
“[I’d] look at pictures and go, OK, you were a young, handsome, beautiful couple,” the 48-year-old said. “How do you go from 24-year-olds who kiss for the first time in a car to 70-year-olds falling asleep watching Mike Wallace?”
The film explores their journey in fictional form; it’s also an ode to Reiser’s late father, a crusty, scrappy businessman who apparently did not reveal much about himself. Then, one day in 1983, the actor heard his father laugh hard while watching Falk — who excels at playing crusty, scrappy characters — in Neil Simon’s “The Cheap Detective.” It was a rare, much treasured glimpse into the inner life of the elder Reiser, who seldom belly-laughed, the actor said recently at the Four Seasons Hotel.
“I said, ‘Huh, Peter Falk is the only guy that always makes my dad laugh,'” Reiser recalled. “The next morning, I woke up and thought, OK, I’ve got to make up a movie … with Peter Falk as my father.”
Perhaps because of his father’s affection for Falk, Reiser, too was a big fan: “I fell in love with him … from the first time I saw him in ‘Robin and the Seven Hoods.'” he said. He later noticed similarities between the two older men, who both seemed unpretentious and down to earth.
Yet over the years, Reiser did not complete his Falk project, in part because he was intimidated by the personal nature of the material, he told the Bradenton Herald. It was only after Sept. 11 reminded him that life was short that he sat down and wrote the script in just two weeks He promptly sent it to Falk, the son of Eastern European Jews, who accepted the role the next day. Apparently the fictional Sam fits into his long acting portfolio of cops, G.I.’s, husbands and other men who “don’t have a pretentious bone in their bodies,” Falk (“Columbo”) told The Journal. “This man can be wrong, but he’s never fake.”
Unlike Reiser, the older actor became a television star in an era when it was seldom acceptable for a show to revolve around a Jewish character. Hence his famed 1970s TV detective was the Italian Catholic Columbo, although he just as easily could have been named Goldberg. Conversely, the fictional Sam exhibits distinctly Jewish values.
“He works hard and he believes in this: You provide for your family. You provide for your children. You provide for your wife and you don’t cheat,” Falk said.
Reiser, for his part, is more Jewishly active than the fictional Ben, participating in Jewish charities and at his synagogue, Stephen S. Wise Temple, The Forward said in 2003. Yet he does not regard the feature as a Jewish movie. It’s a universal film about parents and children.
“We have been taking ‘Folks’ from city to city, and finding out this is so resonating with people in every market, in every demographic,” he said.
The film opens Friday in Los Angeles.
Raymond Barone, Crypto-Jew?
When you watch "Everybody Loves Raymond," you take it for granted that the Barones are Italian, right?
But don’t these people remind you a lot of people in your family? Your Jewish family?
While "Raymond" is a traditional family sitcom — not sexy or taboo-breaking like HBO’s "Sex in the City" — it has managed to draw a growing audience, and hold it for six years. "Raymond" is a top-10 show, the bulwark of CBS’ Monday night schedule at 9 p.m., and its repeats were the top-rated (this is its first year in syndication).
It’s the show’s family sensibility that makes it so popular.
Is it an Italian sensibility? Or is Raymond a crypto-Jew?
Back in the old days, in the Hollywood created by the founding fathers, Goldwyn, Mayer and the Warner Bros., there were no Jewish characters on screen, only idealized white Christians.
"…American values came to be defined largely by the movies the Jews made," writes Neal Gabler in his book, "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor, 1989). "Ultimately, by creating their idealized America on screen, the Jews reinvented the country in the image of their fiction."
As Hollywood grew and flourished, television and films began to be populated by what seemed to be Jewish characters: They spoke like Jews, joked like Jews, ate like Jews … but were they Jews? They were hidden Jews. Crypto-Jews. Characters with Jewish sensibilities all dressed up as Protestants. They were named Petrie and Bratter and Reed and played by actors like Dick Van Dyke, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda and, more recently, Meg Ryan. Illustrating Neil Simon’s oft-quoted edict for commercial success: "Write Yiddish. Cast British."
"Seinfeld" was a veritable hive of crypto-Jews. Jerry himself was, of course, openly Jewish, but what of the supporting cast? Anyone who wanted to could recognize that George, Elaine and Kramer were Jews. They were based on real people, all of whom were, in fact, Jewish, but on the show they were not. Network rule: only one Jew per show.
Are the Barones Maranos? Is Marie lighting candles in the basement on Friday night without knowing why? Don’t look for that scene on your television anytime soon.
So, is the show really about Jews but with gentile characters to appeal to an American public? Well, no: It might as easily be said that the show is Italian and was then infused with a Jewish sensibility to make it acceptable to an American public which now is used to comedies emanating from a hamish sense of humor. But that’s not really it either.
So what is it? Jewish or Italian? Ray Romano and his family are what the show was built around from the beginning and they are, of course, Italian. Phil Rosenthal, the creator of the show, is Jewish, and he brought his own family to the characters.
The characters on the show are named Barone — obviously an Italian name, but in Italy, it is, in fact, a Jewish name.
Is this choice a deliberate one that brilliantly addresses the question: are they Italian or are they Jewish? It might be, except they’re named after the Italian restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. Rosenthal used to pass it all the time, and he’s very into food. So they’re the Barones.
Is there a difference between Italian sensibility and Jewish sensibility or does it all turn into a New York state of mind out in the midlands? Let’s figure this out pseudo-scientifically, with charts and everything.
What’s Jewish and What’s Italian on Raymond: Listed on the chart at the top of Page 28 are blatant and insensitive clichés, essential to the creation of television comedy and now shamelessly used to make facile jokes in this article.
What we can see from this chart is that sometimes "Raymond" is Jewish, sometimes it’s Italian, but mostly some degree of both. And therein lies its significance as the representative of a new American sensibility.
What it comes down to is that stereotypes are useful for comedy but don’t mean much in terms of individuals. Jewish, Italian, Greek, Danish or Arabic, what mother wouldn’t want her son to prefer her cooking to his wife’s? What father doesn’t resent his son’s surpassing him? What brothers don’t compete for their parents attention and what wife doesn’t get exasperated with her husband’s lack of appreciation for all she does around the house?
Everyone sees their own family in Frank and Marie and Ray and Debra and Robert. This universality that emerges from the specific is what has made Raymond one of the most popular comedies of the last six years
"Everybody Loves Raymond" does not have an Italian sensibility or a Jewish sensibility. It has is an American sensibility, where cultures don’t so much melt together but rather overlap each other, and the lines blur. It’s not about insistence on a bland sameness, but rather about recognition of common humanity. That is what makes American culture so very … well, American.
Bringing us finally to the American breakfast, which, as we all know, is no longer coffee and a doughnut, but cappuccino and a bagel.
From Middle to the Top
Michael Glouberman felt the déjà vu the whole time he was reading the pilot of the Emmy-nominated Fox sitcom, "Malcolm in the Middle." "It was like someone had hidden a camera in my childhood home," says the 33-year-old "Malcolm" writer and co-executive producer.
OK, so Glouberman never tied up his younger brother and hung him on a hook. His mother didn’t punish him by making him run in circles in the living room. Dad didn’t blowtorch mom’s dress and extinguish it in the toilet. Mom didn’t shave dad’s hairy body in the kitchen during breakfast. "That would have been Linwood’s mom," Gouberman says of "Malcolm" creator Linwood Boomer.
But something felt familiar about the quirky sitcom family with the genius middle kid (Frankie Muniz), his three hooligan brothers, clueless dad and drill-sergeant mom. "Mostly it was the way the brothers fought and blamed each other for everything," says the Orthodox Jewish writer, who attended Emek Hebrew Academy with his two younger brothers.
Apparently viewers — and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences — agree. "Malcolm" became an instant hit after it debuted last year, rescuing Fox from a Nielsen black hole. Last month, it raked in eight Emmy Award nominations, two shy of HBO’s "Sex and the City" and four shy of the NBC comedy "Will & Grace."
While "The Sopranos" again stands out with 22 nominations and Holocaust fare predictably dominates the miniseries category (specifically ABC’s "Anne Frank" and TNT’s "Nuremberg"), "Malcolm" surprised observers by edging out NBC’s "Friends" to vie for best comedy.
The sitcom shares a thing or two with competitors "Sex" and "Grace," shows also based on the lives of their creators. "All the humor comes out of real kinds of relationships and interactions," Glouberman says of "Malcolm." "It’s not just ‘setup-joke, setup-joke.’ We write funny scenes. We don’t feel the need to shove jokes in every two sentences."
About a third of the show’s dozen writers are Jewish — including Glouberman, who believes he was destined early on to write for television. "My parents say I was glued to the tube from the time I was 2," confides the Montreal-born writer, who moved to Los Angeles at age 10. "I watched all the trash, from reruns of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ to ‘The Brady Bunch.’" At Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, Glouberman says he was the class clown who "got thrown out of class a lot for having a [smart] mouth." At home, he annoyed his then less-observant parents by pointing out all the food items that didn’t have a heksher.
After graduating from UCLA, Glouberman worked the reception desk at a film distribution company and descended on all the comedy scripts that arrived in the mail. By the age of 25, he was a staff writer on NBC’s "3rd Rock From the Sun," where he helped create the story line in which the fictional aliens decide they’re Jewish because their last name is Solomon. On "3rd Rock," he shared the writer’s room with Boomer, who eventually hired him to work on "Malcolm."
Glouberman has since written seven episodes, mining his own childhood for yuks. One show is based on the time his parents accidentally left his brother standing in the corner all night long. Another recalls how he discovered his dad sitting in a car at 2 a.m., smoking a stogie and wielding a lead pipe lying in wait to catch some teenage hoodlums. Malcolm’s dad is less forbidding; he falls asleep and awakens with cigar ash all over his face.
"Malcolm in the Middle" may be rife with gross-out humor and sight gags, but Glouberman insists it jibes with Torah values. He points out that Malcolm’s mom and dad actually love each other, unlike the bickering parents on Fox’s "Married… With Children." The TV family has dinner together. The kids don’t get away with anything. "The children honor their mother and father, but they don’t necessarily do that in classic terms," Glouberman chuckles.
The show is so hot that observers have wondered what will happen when 15-year-old Muniz and his co-stars complete adolescence. "For a while, they were bleaching the [fuzz] on our lips and having us drink hot lemon juice so our voices didn’t crack," says Justin Berfield, 15, who plays Malcolm’s second-oldest brother, Reese.
For Berfield, a Jew from the West Valley, the relationship between Malcolm and tough guy Reese rings true. "That’s how brothers are — they pick on each other," he says. "Every day, my older brother picks on me somehow."
Sometimes, he confesses, he wishes Malcolm’s family was his own. "Then I would be the older brother in the house, so I could do the beating up, instead of getting beaten up," he quips.
"The Emmy Awards" will air on CBS on Sept. 16.