It's a shame about Raymond

"Everybody Loves Raymond" creator Phil Rosenthal talks about Monday's final episode, sitcoms in the age of reality TV, and why you're always more popular when you're dead.


Heather Havrilesky
May 17, 2005 1:30AM (UTC)

Nobody I know will be mourning the passing of "Everybody Loves Raymond" since, for years, everybody I've talked to thinks that "Everybody Loves Raymond" sucks. Here's the thing, though: None of them had ever watched it, or if they did, they flipped by, saw an ugly couch and some older people, and figured it was just another outdated, painfully dorky sitcom gleefully consumed by the masses.

I'm a fan of the show (and -- full disclosure -- contributed to an authorized book about it before I joined Salon). I consider it one of the best classic sitcoms on TV, and one of the darkest, populated by characters who, due to their very natures, absolutely torture each other. When they're not manipulating, wheedling, lying, teasing, undermining or openly criticizing, they're sitting on the couch facing the television, trying like hell to turn down the volume on the absurdly myopic humans around them. In other words, they're just like family.

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While convincing young-ish, hip-ish people to check out the show is like trying to convince a fashionista to shop at Pic 'n' Pay shoes, the true joy of "Everybody Loves Raymond" is not unlike the joy of wearing a cheap, delightfully ungainly yet very comfortable pair of shoes. The ugliness of the couch at Raymond's mother's house is an active choice: This is the crappy couch your grandmother or mother has had in her living room for 30-odd years. Creator Phil Rosenthal is a purist when it comes to these things. He doesn't want hipness or unrealistic cleverness from children (the kids are rarely seen) or obvious punch lines. He wants real people doing familiar things, having familiar arguments. The absurdity of "Raymond" rises from the ridiculous overreactions and sneaky maneuvers we all attempt, particularly in the company of a favored sibling, a bossy wife, a curmudgeonly father, a passive-aggressive mother-in-law.

All of which might help to explain why the show (based on Rosenthal's and star Ray Romano's family lives) has been quietly drawing huge ratings for nine seasons now without really a great deal of media attention. But all of that changes on Monday, when the show ends.

So what I really wanted to know, when I sat down recently with Rosenthal over lunch, was: What do you do once you've had a huge hit that will continue to rake in syndication millions for years to come - besides sit by the pool swilling mai-tais? His answer? Get back to work.

How did it feel to tape the final episode of "Raymond"?

I guess I would've been emotional if I didn't care so much about the work itself. That's the good thing about it: There was a show to do. And it was not just any show, it was our last show, so I cared very much, I cared as much about that as I did about the pilot. Part of being a good storyteller is telling a good beginning, middle and an end. This is the end of a story, even if it's not a typical story, and it has to end well. This is how we'll be remembered. You can think of some finales that you've seen that have tarnished the shows a little bit, right? So it's very important, I didn't want to be that disappointing to people. And who knows? I still may disappoint everybody. I don't know yet because it hasn't been on. But that's what was going on in my head more than "Oh my god, we're ending!"

So in that respect, the work is a very good distraction for the ending. It's like you're driving a car and you're busy getting the steering right on the car and making sure it's perfect as you go off a cliff.

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Did you feel like you had driven off a cliff after it was all over?

No, I really didn't. I felt like we did a good job, so I could only be happy. I knew that if I was concentrating on the work and if we did a good job and I enjoyed myself for nine years, that at the end, I could only be happy. It's like eating the best meal of your life. When you're done, you're happy.

Because you're full. You've had enough.

Well, I'm satisfied. Now, I might feel differently on Monday when we watch the finale together, and then it's really over. You know, I've still been working on the show in some respect. I've done more publicity and more interviews than I ever had in my whole life in this last week or so.

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Generally, we got about 30 percent of the media that other shows with similar ratings got. In other words, we were not a hip and sexy show. So "Desperate Housewives" is gonna get the cover of magazines more than we will.

So now, suddenly, you're very popular.

Yes. It's very nice how the media completely devotes itself to a death. It took us ending to get such attention. You wouldn't believe the schedule for Monday. We'll be on "The Early Show," "Regis and Kelly," "Tony Danza Show," "Access Hollywood." Ray's on Letterman, plus we're going to the New York Stock Exchange to ring the closing bell.

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Jesus. How are you going to make it through 12 hours of talking and glad-handing?

Well, here's how: Because right next to May 16 on my calendar is May 17. You know what May 17 has on it? Nothing! Nothing! Zero! And from then on, nothing! No one will talk to me again.

You'll probably be hoping for that.

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But that's how you get through this. Because you know, yes, it's way too much. You can't even enjoy it, it's like being at your own wedding. Fun, but you can't really enjoy it. But you have to understand that it comes when it comes, and when they're done with you, they're done with you.

Well, you probably know people who created smash hits and they haven't done a lot since. What if this is the biggest thing you ever create?

It's fine. Again, you can only eat the best meal of your life once, but you're happy you ate it. It doesn't matter. I'll either have another success that'll be of a different kind, or I won't. Who knows? The trick is trying to enjoy all of it. That's the only way to make it through, right? You have to enjoy everything, or at least find what there is to enjoy in every experience. So the way I'm going to do that is by working on stuff that I want to work on rather than stuff I feel beholden to work on. So that way, whether it's a success or not, at least I'm doing what I want to do. Who's lucky enough to have that?

So what comes next?

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I'm working on a book about my experiences. And there are movies that I might be interested in writing or rewriting with an eye toward directing.

Why do you think that movie comedies are so inferior to the very best TV comedies these days?

Because the work stops at the poster. "Hey, we have so-and-so as a something!" "What about the script?" "Don't worry about it, we'll get them in the theater." The last thing that they worry about is the script. Unfortunately, that affects every part of show business now, not just movies. It affects TV shows, too. It affects Broadway. You know a straight play on Broadway -- meaning a non-musical play? If you've won the Pulitzer Prize you have a hard time getting the audience ... It's not just movie comedies, it's movies, plays, books, even.

There's a lowering of standards. And we're living in a tabloid celebrity-drenched culture where a famous face for the poster is the only thing that matters, because we're on to the next poster. It's a rarity that something comes along that's worth a second look, isn't it?

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So how are you going to find the stuff that's worth a second look, do you think?

I don't know. I have to make it!

Is there a time period where you have status and then it goes away?

Yeah, I don't know. I'm not really sure. I'd like to think that Norman Lear can still get a meeting with somebody if he wants. And "All in the Family" was a long time ago.

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It just seems that the atmosphere is so divorced from content. I mean, Britney Spears and her husband have their own show ...

Yes! That's going to be very good, don't you think? That's going to be one of those things with lasting value. This is just one more sign of not a trend, but what I think is the end of civilization.

Sometimes it seems like there's no one out there saying, "That's not good enough." One thing about "Raymond" has always been that the stories always had to meet a bunch of criteria: They had to be relatable, they had to be believable ...

Well, thanks. And I like to think that this type of thinking is valued, it's just not valued in the tabloid culture that is prevalent. Again, they're only gathering around us now because we're dying, not because they value so much what we were doing. But the people at home seem to value it, and that's more important. And that's the hope for the culture, isn't it? That there is a discriminating audience out there, that it's not just "Show me Pamela Anderson."

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Do you think Raymond would make it onto TV today?

Well, I can't say it was an easy sell then, either. But now it would appear to be tougher. First of all, there's a good chunk of real estate gone, which is no longer available because of these so-called reality shows.

Which you do watch ...

I do, but I would never call them "reality shows." They're as fanciful as anything ever made. They're wildly imaginative. As a matter of fact, that's what appeals to me about them.

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What's wildly imaginative about them?

"Survivor"? When does that happen? The moment I heard the idea for the show I said, "Wow, that sounds really cool! I want to see that fabricated situation -- put real human beings into a completely unreal situation. Right? That sounds like a good show. "The Amazing Race" takes that one step further, and puts them on the go. "Survivor" while you're moving. And at the very least, it's a wonderful travelogue. That's one of the things I love about it. By the way, I'm very behind. I think I've missed three episodes. I love "Project Greenlight," too.

So there just aren't that many slots left for sitcoms?

Yes, yes. I can enjoy the things that are killing me.

Well, you're committing suicide -- you all decided to end "Raymond" -- you can't really claim to have been murdered.

What I'm saying is the reality shows that I'm enjoying are taking up the space on the schedule so that I might not be able to get my next sitcom on. So I'm enjoying the thing that's killing me.

We could certainly volunteer some sitcoms to commit hari-kari. There are obviously still people who watch sitcoms, and there are obviously still sitcoms out there, good or bad. Plus, there was a serious sitcom glut a few years ago.

Yeah, and you know what? It's all cyclical, and then all these reality shows will start dropping off and then the next sitcom hit will come along, and then they'll say, "Wait a minute! The hit is over here now! Run over there and start imitating that!"

But if something great came along, you'd think that people would recognize it. Still, even "Seinfeld" was bad at first.

Yeah, stuff needs time to grow. By the way, about reality shows, why are they so popular at the expense of comedies? Because a lot of comedies are not writing real people! They're not believable as people. So we turn on a reality show and we say, "That character is funny!" That's a real person that we recognize and relate to, because we understand what it's like to be a real person. So when we watch a sitcom and they speak like nothing on the planet, and don't act human, and it's a cardboard cutout of a human being, I'd rather watch the reality show. Even though it's not reality, the person on there reminds me of a person.

Does anyone recognize this?

We know it, don't we? Even if we don't know it and can't articulate it all the time, we know it intrinsically. Why am I not relating to this? Because this is not dialogue that anyone would say, this is not a situation that anyone would believably be in. This is crap! And here's a person in a reality show that's plopped in the middle of an island, and he's acting more like a person I'm in the office with than this person on a sitcom who is actually in an office setting.

We're looking to connect. That's all we do as human beings on the planet, is look to connect with other human beings. So we look for the most relatable, connectable thing. Self-consciously, not even consciously. We're attracted to these reality shows because we like -- and documentaries. People say, "I love a documentary." Why, because they're so intellectual? They must see a factual thing? No, because those people in those stories are more interesting to us and more connectable and relatable to us than the crappy supposed best pictures that we have to sit through.

"Raymond" is pretty subtle and its pace is very patient, particularly compared to the breakneck speed of most sitcoms, where everyone's stepping on each other's bad punch lines. All of this makes the characters feel much more like real people.

Well, that's the best compliment we could get. The show plays in like 171 countries. We get letters from Sri Lanka: "That's my mother."

Are they all dubbed?

Some are dubbed, some are subtitles. It's funny to hear it in Germany, which is such a humorous place. [Imitates angry German voice.]

How long does the syndication thing go on?

Forever. We just sold a cycle that takes you to at least 2013. But who knows what the distribution system is going to be? Our grandkids are going to watch it on their wristwatches in their spaceships.

So few characters in sitcoms today are similarly relatable.

You like to think that things bottom out and then people start to want to see something of quality. And that happens every so often, where something of quality makes it through. But I don't think this is the end of sitcoms. I think it's the end of our sitcom and I think that ... you know, I jokingly tell people, "Yes, I believe [it's the end] not only of sitcoms, but of laughter."

Ah, yes, the death of laughter!

And soon after that, no more smiling. It's ridiculous. We know that it's all cyclical and that the next hit sitcom, the next one that's any good at all, will be elevated and they'll say, "Ah, we're back! The sitcom is back!"

Everyone imitates the format instead of the content these days. It's amazing that so many people could be operating under this delusion. It's like they sit around saying, "What is it about banana splits that everyone loves? Maybe it's the little nuts they put on top. Let's just make people some of those."

Yes. Or it's a store selling banana splits, and they sell you a picture of a banana split.

Why shouldn't the crappy popular shows be able to support the great, unpopular shows? Do you watch "Arrested Development"?

Yes, it's a very good show. It really makes me laugh. And the only thing that I can possibly think of as to why it's not successful with the audience -- because it's certainly media successful, it's certainly critically successful -- the only thing I can think is that it's not relatable to people in a conventional way. It's wild.

This is what I love about it. It's hilariously funny, it's almost a cartoon. But the cast is perfect. I think about "Who would I love to steal from that cast?" and I think, "I would like to steal everyone." But then I have a problem, because they were doing what they were meant to do on that show. Who would I cast those brothers as? What characters would I cast them in? Well, I would cast them exactly as what they're playing right now. They're perfect. And the writing is hilariously funny.

Maybe people think if it's a comedy, it has to be like "Friends." They want to care deeply for the characters. Maybe they just get confused by the fact that it feels more like a loosely plotted sketch.

Well, "care" is not a little word. "Care" is a huge word. Do I care? That's what's holding the show back.

But shouldn't people be more flexible?

My kids should eat things other than chocolate. They don't want to!

It's a very new format, and if it's canceled, it may go down as something that everyone ignored that 20 years from now looks like a thoroughly modern show.

I can't believe they're going to let that show die. I still think they're going to pick it up. And I think it may be for as good or bad a reason as the critics will kill them if they drop it.

Well, you're Fox. How despised do you want to be?

The critics are saying, "Put that on, keep that on, and we'll let you have a few more 'Stackeds.'"

So do you think you'll ever do a sitcom again?

Yes, I love the form. There's nothing wrong with the form.

How hard are you going to work from now on? Are you going to try to relax a little?

In the immediate future, yes, I will try to work less hard. That's because I'm taking a break! But I'm sure if I find something that I feel passionate about I will work very hard, and at the time I'm working very hard I won't be thinking of it like work. Just like "Raymond." It was only at the end of the day that I'd say, "Oh, man. I worked so hard today!"

Do you ever get accused of being supernaturally positive?

Never, ever.

No?

No, I'm usually pretty cynical. Even in our conversation, there are very cynical things in there.

But your overall view is extremely positive and optimistic.

You have to be, or you'd kill yourself.

Someone was recently pointing out to me the difference between organically coming upon an optimistic way of looking at things and simply insisting that everything must be positive. "It's all good, damn it!"

You know, in "Raymond," there are very cynical jokes happening in every episode. A lot of the wife jokes, a lot of Ray's point of view is very cynical. We've had Frank say, "People are idiots." But at the heart of that show, if you watch more than one or two episodes, I think the feeling that I want to get through is coming through.

Which is - ?

Well, what are you getting?

You're afraid to even say it!

Well, you shouldn't say it. The show says it! I don't want to tell you how you should feel about the show, that's not fair. I don't want that. I want you to feel any way you want about it. But hopefully you'll know what the key word in the title is.

Raymond!

Ah, well. You'd better take a class, then!


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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