Comedian Paul Reiser has returned to where it all began for him, performing stand-up comedy. Between when he first began in the late-70’s, and now, by the standards of anyone in show business, he’s put together an enviable body of work.
In 1982, by happy coincidence he landed a role in Barry Levinson’s film “Diner,” which led to other small, but significant parts in what are considered blockbuster movies.
Then came his first, often forgotten, sit-com, “My Two Dad’s.” That was closely followed by his second sit-com, not oft-forgotten, “Mad About You,” which he co-created, and co-starred in with Helen Hunt.
What you may not know is that Paul Reiser is also an accomplished pianist, wrote the theme song for “Mad About You,” and has collaborated musically with Melissa Manchester.
He’ll be at the Meyer Theater in Green Bay, March 5th.
Michael: You’ve come full circle.
Paul: It’s funny. I’ve been telling everybody that I have no plan. The truth is, when I started years ago, all I wanted to be was a comedian. Then I got these nice “breaks,” and that sort of got me busy chasing movies and TV, but in my head I always thought of myself as a stand up.
M: Mad About You happened in 1992.
P: That’s when it got crazy, and by default, I put stand up on the back burner, fully intending to get back to it. But it wasn’t until three years ago that I just decided to go back out and do it.
M: The intent wasn’t to go back “on the road?”
P: No. More like going to the gym. I wanted to exercise that part of my brain, the comedy muscle. As soon as I did I was suddenly reminded how much I loved it, and how much I missed it. As opposed to doing films and television where there’s the wait, and the numbers of people and partnerships involved, it can be overwhelming. Stand up is so direct and immediate. It’s just you, and your ideas, and the audience. It has been really joyful.
M: You already have such an impressive resume, and long career…
P: And I’m only 32 (laugh) it’s amazing!
M: Going from hell-gigs back when, to suddenly reading for Barry Levinson, is it true you were just tagging along with a friend? It was he who was auditioning, and instead you got a part in Diner?
P: I literally stumbled into this very fortuitous thing which was not only my first “job,” but it also became such a distinguished film. That opened up a lot of doors. Serendipity has certainly played a part in my life.
M: Did the friend get a part?
P: No (laugh) he got nothing, sorry to say.
M: The name you gave your production company ‘Nuance,’ came from the ad-libbed scene in the car with Mickey Rourke?
P: Yes. Right now I have three or four TV shows I’m producing and writing for, not starring in. Nuance is the umbrella organization for whatever I come up with…it’s not a factory with people wearing sweatshirts and hats that say ‘Nuance’ (laugh). Good for you for catching the Nuance name. I recently did a Q&A with an audience, and they asked ‘why that name, and why don’t you like that word?’ And you’ll have to go back and watch the movie, but the funniest part of that scene is watching Mickey Rourke’s reaction. He’s staring at me like I have three heads (laugh), he’s so underwhelmed, like ‘what the hell is he talking about?’ and ‘I don’t find this guy funny at all.’ (laugh) It was all improvised by Levinson’s suggestion.
M: Comedians dream of what you realized. Getting a sitcom. Before ‘Mad About You,’ there was ‘My Two Dad’s.’
P: It never happens overnight. You don’t suddenly wake up, and find you’re in something you weren’t in yesterday. You know, Mad About You, it’s all a crap shoot…the number of successes compared to the number of TV shows that are written or are pitched, is a tiny ratio. Sometimes you don’t get to take stock of it until its over, and say ‘Wow, that was pretty impressive.’
M: You were asked to write a script.
P: And came up with the idea, and it sold. Nothing happens magically, hits don’t happen that way. It’s one step at a time. It sold, but then will they shoot the pilot? You make the pilot, then have to come up with episode two, and three and four…so you’re busy chasing that. Then after a season you hope you’re picked up for another. You don’t really breathe a sigh of relief for a while. You’re so into doing it, that you don’t get to rest and wax philosophic about it.
M: And now there’s going to be a Chinese Mr. & Mrs. Buchman?
P: SONY just sold the show to China. They took our scripts and redid them, and cast an actual married couple, and it’s becoming a big hit. Now they’re talking about taking it to Argentina. I look back now at this idea based on an argument I had with my wife, Chinese people are now laughing at (laugh). It’s actually kind of heartwarming, and I think it speaks to the universal nature of what we were doing. All the writers were bringing in stories of their own marriages, ‘Listen to what happened today…I got in this great fight (laugh).’ You put it out there, and it registers with people for a reason, it’s very all-embracing.
M: Your film career has been a series of small gems, beginning with Beverly Hills Cop, and I think everybody hated you after Aliens.
P: To this day. Even not having seen the film! (laugh) I get on a bus, and people say, ‘I don’t like this guy.’
M: That wasn’t the kind of movie you would naturally be thought of as ‘right.’
P: I think that was part of James Cameron’s thinking. I wasn’t real well know yet, but to the extent I was known, it was as a comic. I think he was trying to cast someone you wouldn’t necessarily suspect immediately as the ‘problem.’ I’m not sure that was the case, but I think most who watched Aliens thought, ‘Something’s wrong with this guy.’ Sort of like the guys in red uniforms on Star Trek who you knew weren’t going to make it off the planet and back to the Enterprise.
M: Fast forward to your role as the dad in Whiplash. You played a protective father.
P: I think that’s part of why people responded to the film, I think every parent faces the harsh reality of wanting only the best for your children, but there comes a point when you realize you have very limited power. You can’t necessarily steer your child away from danger. You can when they’re two or three, but not when they’re twenty. This character was this well-intended, devoted dad, and part of what drove the kid was the kid’s perception of dad as less than successful. As much as the dad loved the kid, the kid was a little repelled. That was a heartbreaking, loaded equation, and it speaks to some really great writing in the screenplay.
M: Speaking of writing, you’ve written several books including Couplehood, Babyhood, and Familyhood.
P: They all sort of organically happened. Couplehood came about while I was doing Mad About You. I was approached to write a book, and I suggested writing about what the show was about, relationships. Then my wife and I had our first son, and there was plenty material there. Then there was a long gap while we were busy raising our family. I think I’m most proud of Familyhood because its deeper and maybe more thoughtful. Much of it lent itself to being written about, rather than being performed.
M: Does some of what you’ve written in the three books come out in your stand up?
P: Actually yes, there are a couple pieces I wrote specifically for the book I thought could work on stage. There are chunks that I rewrote, and reworked for the telling. It’s different when you write for a book, I’m not going to be there to perform it for you (laugh) it has to be written so the reader can enjoy it on their own.
M: You started your career on stage doing stand up, what was it like performing someone else’s material on stage, specifically Woody Allen’s “Writer’s Block” series of one-act comedies?
P: It was odd. I’d never done theater other than some silly musicals in college. It’s a strange hybrid performance, in that you are on stage getting laughs, but unlike stand up, you can’t acknowledge them. But the thrill was performing Woody Allen’s words, and he was directing, and it was a very small intimate venue, maybe a hundred seat theater. Here I am with this comedy giant, and amazingly he wasn’t precious about his words. If we wanted to change something and it made the line better, change it. The thrill was to watch him, and his process. Like if a line didn’t work as well as he’d hoped, how he would work at it, and work at it, and never settle.
M: I don’t think many know of your musical chops, and your talents on piano.
P: It’s never really been part of my act, in fact the opposite. What I like is gut wrenching, emotional, melancholy music (laugh). I did an album a year ago with a great singer and songwriter, Julia Fordham of whom I was a big fan, and I dopily suggested, ‘Why don’t we write a song?’ And she took some music I’d written, and made a song out of it, and that was cool. Before we knew it we had an album, her singing and me playing piano. But that was sort a one-off…it was great fun, and we did a few concerts. In fact I had a friend who said, ‘I’ve never seen you so happy on stage.’ And I said, ‘That’s because I wasn’t talking.’ (laugh) I was just quietly watching, playing piano, watching her be the focus. Music has always been a big part of my life, but I’ve never felt the need to ‘put it out there’ as part of anything else.
M: You majored in music in college?
P: It seemed like an easy choice because I already played, so I figured I was done with 30% of the credits.
M: You wrote the theme song to Mad About You?
P: What happened was, it was a couple weeks before we were going to go on the air, and again serendipity…Helen Hunt and I were traveling to New York to do some publicity, and we bumped into Don Was whom Helen knew through a mutual friend. He’s a Grammy winning artist and I say, ‘We have this theme song, but I don’t really like it.’ He says, ‘Why don’t we go write one?’ That night we went to a studio, I suggested an idea I had on piano, started playing, he hit ‘record,’ and the next week we’re in L.A. with these incredible musicians. The drummer was Jim Keltner who had played with all the Beatles, Billy Preston was on the organ, the back-up singers were names you might not know but are so good, like ‘Sweet Pea’ Atkinson, all these great voices. It was one of those moments where I just sat back and thought, ‘I’m on some cloud, how did this happen?’
M: And the ‘keeper’ take for the show theme?
P: I think it was the first take, I didn’t know he was recording. Don Was said, ‘Just show the band the chords.’ We started jamming, and that became the theme. It was sort of accidental.
M: Now you’re back on the road.
P: I joke about it, but my kid said, ‘Dad…it’s time to get out of the house.’ (laugh) I was home all the time with the kids, but now getting out a few weekends here and there, it was an adjustment, but they’ve come to like, it, I’ve come to like it. I like coming home as much as I like leaving, there’s an excitement about it.
M: You knew early on in life that you were supposed to be in front of people.
P: When I was in college I solidified in my head that I wanted to be a performer. During the summer breaks I’d do stand up in clubs, but what really did it was when I was in a play, freshman year, it ran for a week. I remember the feeling every day, from about noon on, I’d check my watch and think, ‘Okay, five more hours until show time, three more hours until show time.’ There was something about the excitement of doing a show that I felt, ‘That’s what I should be doing.’ That’s what drives me. Last week I was in Philadelphia, and I was checking my watch and saying, ‘Okay…six more hours until show time.’ It’s the same excitement I felt when I was twenty. I feel real lucky. Not everybody gets to do what they love. For me, being able to still come out and do stand up…really excites me, and still feels like the right thing.