EVERYBODY LOVES PHIL - how Philip Rosenthal re-created "Raymond" for Russians
By Carl Kozlowski
Phil Rosenthal is the co-creator of one of the most successful family sitcoms of all time – the nine-season ratings juggernaut “Everybody Loves Raymond.” The show won the Emmy for Best Comedy Series twice along the way, and is still playing in reruns in nearly 150 countries around the globe.
But just when Rosenthal could have kicked back and counted his money the rest of his life, a Russian television network came calling and invited him to re-create “Raymond,” adapting it for Russian TV audiences. Russian TV had never featured a sitcom before (go figure), so Rosenthal saw it as an intriguing challenge and jumped in.
He was smart enough to bring a camera crew with him, filming a humorous documentary about the process and surprising ups and downs involved for the new documentary “Exporting Raymond,” which opens in limited release today and expands over the next few weeks. It's a funny film, of course, but also fascinating for its insights into Russian culture and how an American phenomenon has to change to be understood by a foreign, and formerly enemy, nation.
Rosenthal sat down for a one-on-one interview with me recently to discuss his film and the history of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” offering up both amusing anecdotes and surprising revelations along the way.
Q: How did you first meet Ray Romano?
PR: Ray did standup for 12 years and had been trying to do a show like Letterman, finally got on Letterman and on the basis of one six-minute appearance Letterman said “There should be a show for this guy.” He was looking for a writer to create the show for him. I met Ray at Art's Deli, they had seen some of my work. He met a dozen other people, I don't even think I was his first choice. But we did hit it off. We're both from Queens, and for every story he had about his crazy Italian family I had one too about my Jewish family. It just happened to work out that I was gonna create the show, and here we are.
Q: It was immediate for Letterman to take interest, but how long did the process take from getting the call and hitting the airwaves?
PR: I would say it was about six months, really fast.
Q: I also remember the drama in first season, starting on a Friday night where no one was watching and then moving to Mondays where everything blew up. What was that like?
PR: At first you're slightly disappointed that you get a bad time slot. There hadn't been a hit in that time slot since “Gomer Pyle.” We didn't change that, but the three people who watched kept coming back and CBS noticed. To. their credit, the network liked the show and supported it enough to stay there. They liked it so much that when something crapped out for them on Monday nights on their big schedule, [network head] Les Moonves said he'd put us on but that if we didn't do well that was it. So we were nervous. Now it's like we made the playoffs, but you can be sent home anytime.
That first Monday, our ratings doubled. Great, but now we were really nervous because we had been fairly sampled and felt we could only go down from there. When our ratings actually went up the next week, we knew that maybe we could stay a little longer at the party. So I do remember that. I clipped the story in Variety that said our ratings went up that second week, because I knew that meant something.
Q: “Raymond” was great because it was a solid, family show but wasn't gushy. They were rather harsh, yet people loved and related to that. Was it that people related, this is what families are really like, or was it 'look at those people'?
PR: Yes, it was that they related because there were moments where there was some gush. Not whole special episodes, but there were moments that you could tell that underneath it all we really loved and cared about each other as family. Not in a sentimental way, but in a real way – and I think in a way people related too. We argue and make fun of each other, but you're not allowed to. The finale is about all that. I think that people understood by how good the acting was on that show, and maybe some of the writing, that underneath this harsh exterior is love.
Q: Did you have definite lines about how far you could take things with them? How harsh they could go?
PR: Yes. I never wanted Deborah to hate her husband. We always wanted her to be frustrated with him, because it was quite reasonable to be frustrated with him, but never wanted it to cross over into 'I hate you.” And we made sure it never happened.
Q: Did you ever find out you crossed the line without knowing it – that the network or viewers complained anyway?
PR: We got a note in the eighth season of the show. Somebody at the studio or network sent a note saying 'We tested the show and we think Deborah's being too harsh to Ray.” And we said, really? In the 8th season of the show – you suggest changing it now? We should change what we're doing, in the 8th season? We've been so successful, we should now go the other way?
Q: Transforming it to Russian, it looked like they were willing to follow the letter of the script but had a hard time getting the tone right. The actors were reading it like it was high drama. It must have been driving you crazy.
PR: Everything drove me crazy. Everything! But I realized it wasn't Russians, per se, it was the business. That's universal. I run into the same creative 'no' here that I did over there. It's just the action that's different. There's plenty of people who won't get what you're putting out. And it may not be their fault, maybe you're not bringing it out the right way.
Q: In America, the show was built around Ray's comedy. But in the Russian film, there's big fights over who to cast. Did you have any fights about who to cast for the supporting roles on the show in America?
PR: Of course. Lots of battles. I was told that the head of the network wanted a particular actress to play the wife. This was before we even knew who Patricia Heaton was, or that she was available. But I had three actresses picked out. And it came to me that “we want this person, someone outside the picture.” I said they were completely wrong for the role, but the exec said 'you didn't hear me. Les Moonves wants this woman for the role.” She was completely wrong for the part – not a bad actress, but blond and wispy. I went to my agent worried, saying 'what would you do? This could kill the show.” And he said “I would cast her.” I said, “I'm not casting her. I quit.” He said “Don't be an idiot. Why don't you meet with her?” I said I am being a little hasty, I'd love to be proven wrong and hire the girl who the head of the network wanted. We asked if she would read for it and she said no, because she was so-and-so and so-and-so doesn't read, but it was weird because she wasn't that big of a so-and-so. She met with me though – the morning of the afternoon that I was bringing my three actresses in to audition. I was told that at the end of the auditions that Les would ask me if I'd go with his girl. So I'm really nervous. I convinced her to read for me in the middle of the interview, and she's ten times worse than I thought she would be for the role. So I'm very sad, because this is the day I'm not going to have a show. My three actresses read, they're very good, and right on cue Les asked me what I thought about his girl. And I said 'I met her, I loved her, but I had her read and it's just not what I wrote. I think she could do it, but maybe we could do better. And Les said, “It was just an idea.” So he let me keep looking and two weeks later we found Patricia Heaton, who was probably the best wife ever on TV.
Q: Had she already been known for anything before?
PR: She'd been on 'thirtysomething,' but I'd never seen her.
Q: I've been to some events where Patricia Heaton and Doris Roberts were at pro-life events. It was always impressive to me that they were able to be outspoken about their views on an issue that was unpopular in much of Hollywood. Did you foster an open-minded set? Did you ever address whether it was an issue to speak up?
PR: We live in a free country, and everyone is free to say whatever they want – especially off the set. You do want someone's personal life not to interfere with the picture the audience has you in their head of the character. You don't want someone watching the show to be taken out of the character and the viewing experience because of a political view that they have in their mind about you. But other than that, everyone's free to say whatever they like.
Q: You have a great relationship with the Russian driver you had in the movie. What was your most unexpected relationship in Russia?
PR: I would say that because when he takes me to the museum, I got something I certainly never expected to get – this revelation about his life. I was just getting to know him and had no idea what was coming as in documentaries you don't know what's coming and you have to be lucky to have the camera on to catch it. He revealed something deep about himself and when somebody feels comfortable enough to do that with you, you develop a real friendship and I'm still in touch with him. That was the biggest surprise – making genuine friends over there. The translator came to New York for the first time two weeks ago and met my parents and saw the film. But I won't do this again. Poland took it, and Israel, England wants it. They may have the same language, but why did we need 'The Office?' I could take the show to Alabama and come up with a need to put a twist on it. There's cultural differences everywhere, but that said we're on the air in 148 countries in our original form – just dubbed or subtitled. We got a letter once from Sri Lanka saying 'That's my mother!'
Q: What was the biggest creative fight in Russia?
PR: For me, it was essential that the show play in front of a live studio audience. It was written and rehearsed like a play, and you needed the audience reactions because all that does for the acting and writing. The audience doesn't want many little scenes cut together like a movie. They want content. You could have two people sitting and talking in theater, or on the show, and hopefully it would be funny enough anywhere. In Russia, they refused to get a studio audience. They said “But we'll have to get chairs.” That's where they were coming from. So that was an argument.
Q: What was the most gratifying aspect of doing the show in Russia?
PR: Making friends. Always. That was the best part of doing the show here. It's a big reason to go into the business.
Q: What are you working on these days? Or do you just kick back and enjoy life?
PR: I work. That's what I enjoy. I love everything about the business except the business. I have two screenplays I might direct. I have an animated show. I have a show that England wants to bring me on. Raymond is done. Now i've brought it to somewhere else and tried. But if another country wants something new, I may be open to it. I even have a Broadway show idea and a reality show idea I'm working on.
Q: What do you think makes somebody stand out in comedy and be worthy of having their own show?
What makes a particular comic stand out from the sea of people who are pretty funny but not making it big?
PR: A clear point of view. A relatability. And a certain likability, I would say. That's all it is. It helps to have a point of view to your material and what you choose to say, but also how you say it. If you have a very abrasive manner that nobody likes, you're not gonna go far. It's the same in life. Larry David may be abrasive, but he's extra funny to make up for it.
Q: You had a very classy show. It wasn't reliant on dick jokes like “Two and a Half Men.” People of all stripes hate the sex obsession of comedy. How do you feel about the state of comedy?
PR: I think there's always been good and always been bad, and always more bad than good. It's always been that way. Some executive watched this movie and said “I love your movie but good doesn't really enter into it. I said, great. That'll be the title of my next book: “Good Doesn't Really Enter Into It: A Story of Hollywood.” You're always fighting the fight. How many books do you read that are wonderful? How much art really speaks to you? How many people do you really like? There's always more bad. If there was more good than bad, then you wouldn't know what was good.