Why does everybody love "Raymond"?

Because its stories and cast make it one of the best, and funniest, sitcoms on TV. Creator Phil Rosenthal talks about the success of his show as it nears its final season.


Heather Havrilesky
April 11, 2003 12:00AM (UTC)

"Everybody Loves Raymond" (Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBS) is one of those shows you pass for years on your way to some other channel. Oh, here's that grouchy family show, you think. Ray Romano. Annoyed wife. Overbearing mother. Loser brother. Sure, it seems mildly amusing, but ... What else is on?

Then one day, while you're waiting for your spaghetti to boil or your laundry to dry, you sit down and watch an entire episode. After the second or third time you've laughed out loud, it occurs to you that this show is different from the others. Not only is "Everybody Loves Raymond" much more entertaining and weird than the current batch of family sitcoms on the air, it's a hell of a lot funnier. Like a strange mix of "The Cosby Show," "All in the Family" and "Seinfeld," it unflinchingly exposes its characters' worst impulses without veering too far from familiar territory.

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And while most sitcoms are packed to the brim with shtick that doesn't suit the characters, punch lines that interrupt the action, and ridiculous situations that are as unbelievable as they are uninteresting, "Everybody Loves Raymond" is grounded in interesting, human stories and incredibly funny but realistic dialogue. When Ray avoids confronting Debra (Patricia Heaton) about her PMS, or Robert (Brad Garrett) tries to win over Amy's incredibly square parents, the laughs are organic and don't require exaggeration. Even the kids act like real kids, instead of bouncing in and out, "Full-House"-style, wisecracking and making cute remarks.

More than anything, "Everybody Loves Raymond" is an exploration of the daily trials and tribulations of marriage. The writers expose the ugly underbelly of family life to the harsh light of day, and everyone ends up with a sunburn. Ray and Debra are alternately bitter, annoyed, apathetic or simply resigned to tolerating each other, reflecting the constant struggles of accepting a spouse's quirks and limitations.

But what would the show's writers have to say to those idealistic singles who might find such cynicism off-putting? One glimpse of a response is offered when Robert's fiancie, Amy (Monica Horan), delivers a rousing speech to Ray, Debra and Ray's parents on the joys of wedlock: "Robert and I are getting married, and I want us to be honest and trusting, and I hope those feelings will only get stronger the longer that we're together." The couple exits, and after a stunned silence, Ray says, "Wow." Debra turns to him and says nostalgically, "Yeah. Remember when we were that stupid?"

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Phil Rosenthal, the amiable creator of "Everybody Loves Raymond," talked to Salon recently about his show's success as it nears its final season, waxing philosophical on the pursuit of the "hip and edgy" demographic, the joys of Bruce Springsteen, and the overwhelming importance of lunch.

"Everybody Loves Raymond" is so different from the empty slapstick of most of the sitcoms that are on TV right now. How do you do it?

It's what we call a character-driven sitcom as opposed to a joke-driven sitcom. When we first started in 1996, "Seinfeld" was still on, and "Seinfeld" was a great show. And I always say the only thing that was wrong with "Seinfeld" were all the shows that tried to imitate it. What they thought they were doing were shows about nothing. That's what they had to imitate: shows about nothing. Shows that talked about comical issues and were very jokey and superficial, and they were all trying to do younger versions of "Seinfeld." What you wind up with is a Xerox of a Xerox.

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I couldn't have done one of those kinds of shows if I wanted to. The shows I grew up with were "The Honeymooners" and "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Taxi." They were all character-based sitcoms, where the humor comes from character, and the story comes from character and there is a story.

You could argue that "Seinfeld" is somewhat character-driven. It's a show about nothing, but certain characters do certain kinds of nothing.

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Right. Originally, one of the notes I got from one of the studio people was: "I don't understand the type of show you're trying to do here." I said, "I'll tell you. We're trying to do a traditional, well-made, classic sitcom." And he said, "All words we should be avoiding." And I said, "And what words should we be going for?" and he said, "Hip and edgy." And I said, "Listen, you got the right guy, because I am hip and edgy."

Hip and edgy, meaning superficial and irritating.

I guess to you and me, but people in the studios are going for young "demos." It's a silly thing; I don't understand it. You try to do a show for you, and you hope that other people have your sensibility. If you try to hit some idea of what an 18-year-old likes, I think you're in trouble.

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Plus, the thing that stands out about "Everybody Loves Raymond" is that it feels like an honest reflection of real lives. It doesn't feel like an absurd, imagined thing.

Thank you. We have a couple of rules on the show. Probably the main rule is, "Could this happen?" You want to stretch credibility as far as you can without destroying the reality or the thing that people relate to when they watch the show. You want to take it to the edge but you don't want to go over that edge. Otherwise you wind up with so many shows that I don't need to mention. Silly shit happens, and then they have to top themselves because that's all they have.

As they exhaust their stories, it's easy to evolve in the direction of the unreal. Like on "The Simpsons" -- the characters start acting out of character. Homer goes from sitting on the couch drinking beer to scheming to rule the universe.

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I love "The Simpsons." I always have, and it's more realistic than most of the other sitcoms on television.

It used to be amazing, but it seems like it's tough to keep characters and situations from spiraling into craziness out of desperation.

Right. Well, certainly it's hard to come up with stories. You want to maintain some level of reality so the people who watch the show for a certain reason -- and we think it's because they relate to what's happening -- will have a reason to watch.

It also seems like the jokes on "Everybody Loves Raymond" don't interrupt the flow of action.

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Right. If they do, we take them out. We work on the jokes last.

Really?

Yeah, it's never centered around them. We come up with the situation that's the most interesting to us, typically something that happened to one of us. I'd say 90 percent of what you see on that show happened to me, or to Ray, or to one of the other writers. And we take it from there, until the characters start to have their own lives. We're also not afraid of dramatic moments. Not dramatic episodes, where the whole episode is suddenly a Very Special Episode. We don't want to do that. But, dramatic moments we're not afraid of, because they actually help things.

Did you integrate drama into the show from the beginning?

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Yeah. I truly believe dramatic moments help to strengthen the characters, and then make it funnier when that character does something. Like on "The Honeymooners," I remember one where Norton got hurt after a fight with Ralph. Norton is the funniest character ever on television, all he ever did was make you laugh, and if he's hurt, oh, my God! Your heart breaks for him. And then you see how it affects Ralph, and he rushes to the hospital to get a transfusion, and of course, Norton is fine, but Ralph has to give the transfusion anyway now. So you just laugh harder because suddenly, they're more real as people. And you laugh more because it's a heartier laugh, it's not a surface laugh. We believe them as human beings.

Listen, how many chances do you get to have your own TV show, right? Something that succeeds in the short term -- just make' em laugh at every second, you gotta have 10 laughs per page or they're gonna turn the channel -- or you can try to make something that might have lasting value.

Can you imagine writing about anything else?

Yeah, sure. There are other aspects of my life, different jobs I've had. But I don't think that I'll ever have this opportunity again where I'm actually writing about my own family: My wife and my kids and my parents. I'll never have this again. That's why I'm savoring the show. And now, we are a family, the people who make the show. Most of the writers have been here from the beginning.

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The sets of so many sitcoms are reported to be wildly dysfunctional, but your show is rumored to have one of the friendliest working environments in TV.

I think that's the food. The name of my production company is Where's Lunch? That's the writers' main preoccupation. So the food has to be very good, because when you're in the room all day, the only sunshine that comes in is the menu.

So has everybody gained about 10 pounds per season?

Yeah, now we're trying to lose it. Now we all have our little diets and stuff. We're a very happy group, and we do things together outside of work, I think that's important. Yesterday we all went to the Laker game, and we go out for lunch a lot. We have a great time. We understand how rare this is. Nothing is taken for granted. We're living in the moment and enjoying it. I hope it comes through in the show. I hope a spirit of fun is underneath all the apparent discord.

Definitely. I think one interesting thing about the show is that you push the boundaries of likability for each character, yet they all still remain likable.

Likability is a funny word. The network always wants the characters to be likable, to which I say, "Who in your family do you really like?" To me, people are likable if they make me laugh.

I just saw the episode last night where Marie buys the family a trip to Italy and Ray doesn't want to go. He says, "I'm not really interested in other cultures."

Oh, the one where they went to Italy!

Yeah, it's a great episode.

Thank you very much. Can I tell you something? Ray actually said that. I asked him what he was doing on hiatus. He said, "I'm going to the Jersey shore." I said, "Why don't you go to Europe?" He said, "I don't know." I said, "Why don't you go to Italy? Have you ever been?" He said no. I said, "You're Italian! You've never been to Italy?" "Nah." I said, "Why not?" He goes, "I'm not really interested in other cultures." Even his own! Even his own culture!

So, I said, well, we're doing that show. That was the season opener of Season 5.

I couldn't believe it when they were actually in Italy -- you're not sure at first because it looks like a sound stage, and then the shot opens up.

Oh, it was so beautiful there. And what a scam we pulled! I said, "I think we have to go! I think we have to go, and I think I have to go a month before to scout locations."

Nice work!

It was one of the highlights of my life! To combine the things that I love: Italy, the food in Italy, and the show that I love.

So how many more seasons do you have left in you?

I honestly think next year is the last season. For no other reason than I think it will have been enough.

Really? It doesn't seem like the show is suffering at all.

You're not in the room with us. It gets harder and harder. You look at the board, you know, the board where we have every show we've done, over 175 shows, right? When someone's pitching a story, and you say, "I think it was number 47 ... We did that."

It's very hard. And you don't want to repeat, you don't want to get stale. The only thing this show ever had going for it was the quality of the writing and the acting. It's not about the beautiful people. Although I do think Patricia Heaton is beautiful and Ray is cute. But we're not "Friends," it's not about hairstyle. So all we have is this kind of writing and acting.

I try to tell people I'm trying to be the Bruce Springsteen of sitcoms. You know, when you go to a Bruce Springsteen concert, best time you've ever had, most fun you ever had, and yet you leave with something. It might be an emotional moment or something powerful happening, but you're left with something, there's some thought behind it, not just rock 'n' roll, or in our case, just laughs. Something that stays with you. And it's because we're here for a short time, not just life, but our sitcom life. We have a chance to make our mark, right? So why not make that count? That's what I learned from Bruce Springsteen, from watching him.

You manage to set the bar high consistently, probably for that reason.

Exactly. You have to thank God to be having so much fun. I can't tell you how many people don't think that way. They think, I'll just grab the money while I can.

The money is so astronomical it clouds people's motivations.

The best advice I ever got from an old show-runner was, do the show you want to do, because in the end they're gonna cancel you anyway.


Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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