When you star in and produce a very successful sitcom in the ’90s, you pretty much can do whatever you want in the ’00s. That’s what life was like for two NBC sitcom stars, Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser. But while Seinfeld was going back out on the road doing stand-up and supporting his wife’s burgeoning cookbook career, Reiser was just being a husband and dad, doing whatever projects came along that he thought he might enjoy. That’s why the former Mad About You star’s output over the last decade consists of a few independent films, some pilots that never got sold, and a melancholic music CD he co-wrote with Julia Fordham. But Reiser is now back on TV, playing a part he knows pretty well: himself. On The Paul Reiser Show, which debuts Thursday on NBC, Reiser plays a famous guy who’s spent the last decade at home. Sure, he has famous friends, but the guys he hangs out with most these days either have kids or are married to his wife’s friends. The show explores what happens when guy friends are thrown together via circumstances they can’t always control. Keeping with that theme, Reiser also has a third book, Familyhood, coming out in May. Reiser spoke with The A.V. Club about the new show and how closely it mirrors his real life as a husband and parent.
The A.V. Club: The question everybody would like answered, now that you’re back on the—
Paul Reiser: What’s going to happen in Libya? You got me. It’s going to be very tricky, I think, for the American government, if Gaddafi stays in, to go, “We were kidding... with the air strike... we were rooting for you the whole time, what are you kidding? We were being facetious. Those were facetious air strikes.”
AVC: “We didn’t mean any of that.”
PR: [Laughs.] Yeah! So what’s the question that everybody wants to know?
AVC: Well, where have you been since Mad About You left the air?
PR: I was ringing the bell of show business, but nobody answered. I was locked outside.
AVC: In what way?
PR: [Laughs.] No, I thought that was going to be funny, but it wasn’t. I was here. In my head, I was sort of taking it easy. I was very much enjoying being not in the limelight, but I was actually, you know, doing things. The show finished 12 years ago, and I have a 10-year-old who last year said, “Dad, what do you do? I see you here all the time and you seem to be flush, but what do you do really?” And I had to start explaining that I was—I mean, after the show was over, I was very much looking forward to not doing anything, but things kept coming up. I did a movie here and there, or I was writing. I wrote and produced about five or six different pilots over the years that I wasn’t acting in. And I had no desire to, really. I just was kind of enjoying choosing something when it appealed to me. Last year, actually, I finally did a music project. That was a surprise, because I’d always wanted to get back to music. I did it even before stand-up. I was a music composition major in college, and I ended up working with a friend of mine, this great singer named Julia Fordham, and we wrote a song by accident. And then we said, “Well, let’s write another.” And then before we know it, we had a CD. We put it out and went, “Wow, that was an accident.” That wasn’t a career move, but that was sure fun. So that was sort of the tone of the last 10 years. I was really content, frankly. And then I was approached by Warner Bros. and they said, “We want you to do a show. We want you to be back on TV,” and I said, “Oy, really? Why? I’m so happy. Why do that?” I wasn’t looking to do it, but when somebody invites you very graciously and encourages you, you say, “Well, all right, let me think about it.” And I said, “I want to go write something. I don’t know what it’s going to be at all, but let’s talk after that.”
AVC: Where did the contentedness come from?
PR: I wasn’t actively not trying [to look for work]. I just wasn’t looking to do it. Anything that I did was like, “Well gee, that sounds like it’ll be fun,” or “I’d like to work with that person,” or “I’d like to write.” The shows that I did were ideas that I liked, or they were for actors that I wanted to [work with], or writers that I wanted to write with. They were all projects that I had an unbelievably blessed luxury of being able to say, “Okay, you know, I worked really hard for many years, and it worked out, and Mad About You did very well.” And so now I’m able to be home with my family and be around, which was not only luxurious and wonderful, but as it turns out, it kind of fed what became the basis of the next show. Mad About You was very much mining the previous 10 years of relationships and into marriage. I sort of stepped off the treadmill for a while, and what came, raising kids and the discovery of my new friends—like I said in the show, my guy friends were all guys that I didn’t choose. They were husbands of my wife’s friends or fathers of my kids’ friends. We were bound only by our connection of families. Our kids were hanging out, so we’re hanging out. I stumbled into that not knowing it on purpose, but that’s what the show became about, this sort of eclectic group of five friends who were not really accustomed to being friends. Guys don’t really take to that normally. They don’t quite know how to open up and how to be friends, myself included. That became a really rich, funny, and it turns out, universal place to write from.
AVC: How do you figure that phenomenon happens?
PR: When you get busy, the priorities change. In your twenties, you hang out with who you were in school with. Then you grow up and you hang out with the people you’re playing ball with, things you like doing with. When you get married, it changes a bit and you lose some friends, or you gain other friends. You gain couple-y friends. It changes again when you have children, and then when your children are the focus of your life. So suddenly you’re not going to concerts with your buddies—you’re not seeing Springsteen four nights in a row in the Meadowlands. You’re, “Oh okay, I’m going to the school play and I’m talking to this guy, and I have to whisper to my wife, ‘What is his name again? Whatshername’s husband.’” You’re dropping your kids off at a birthday party, and I’m like, “Oh it’s that guy again.” And suddenly, you’re with these people. In fact, my partner on this show, Jonathan Shapiro—he’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met and worked with—we became friends exactly that way. Our wives were in a book club, and our wives kind of made a match and said, “You guys would really like each other.” And we both said, “No, what the hell do I need another friend for? I already have friends I’m not calling. I don’t need more.” But we met and we kind of hit it off, and then we started talking. And we got into this ritual of once a week, he and I would sit down and we’d go to each other’s houses and we’d sit and have a drink and we’d start talking. After a while, I went, “This is really refreshing. This is really good.” And because, you know, the other part of being a father—do you have kids yourself?
AVC: No. Just married, no kids.
PR: All right, well make a note. One of the things that happens is—and it was in the marriage, too—you start going through things that you don’t necessarily talk about. But when you find out other people are going through it, you’re so relieved to not be the only one. Magnify that 100 times when you have kids, and you go, “Oh man, I thought I was the only one screwing my kid up like that.” I was like, “Oh, okay, your kid was having trouble with school with that?” and “Oh gee, you had these health concerns and you had these development concerns?” You start to sort of sniff each other out. And you need friends. Before kids, I don’t think I ever had the same feeling about my guy friends. I still don’t have that many close friends. And it’s still a different dynamic than when my wife gets together with her friends. They’ll talk about everything. And I’ll go out with the buddies and she’ll say, “What’d you talk about?” “Hmm… nothing.” “Well, did you talk about the thing that happened last week?” “No, that never came up.” “Really? That huge fight we had?” “Yeah, no, it didn’t come up.”
AVC: They’re always shocked we don’t ask those questions.
PR: Yeah! “Well, how’d you spend three hours?” “I don’t know.” You know, we’ll go to a ball game, and we’re both so relieved that we can actually spend three innings not talking. That’s the thrill. But anyway, I didn’t have that in mind, but when I started writing the show and when we started writing the six [scripts] together, that’s sort of what came out. It’s really an ensemble show about that. These guys are bound by their association with kids. But they’re really guy stories. So to me, it has a much broader appeal than Mad About You. I mean, it certainly should bring in women, and it certainly appeals to men, I’m hoping, because it’s about five knucklehead guys who don’t know what they’re doing in every step of life.
AVC: Are your friends as diverse as the ones we see on the show?
AVC: So you know someone who owns a warehouse full of knock-offs and seconds?
PR: Yes, I do, and I get baskets of crap from him. I go, “Really? Second-hand paper towels?” And here’s the crazy thing: Almost everything in every episode happens to someone we know.
AVC: The guest stars you’ve recruited are quite impressive. You’ve got Henry Rollins in one episode, and Larry David in another. Mel Brooks does the voice of a cat on one.
PR: Yeah, I’m so glad you caught that.
AVC: How did the Mel Brooks spot happen?
PR: Well, it’s crazy, you know, we wrote this thing with the cat. I know Mel, he worked on Mad About You and I got to know him, and he always does the cat. That’s like, his go-to thing, he does a funny cat. He even has it in The Producers; he pre-taped a cat. So I kind of jokingly said, “You know, we should get Mel Brooks.” And my partner looked at me, and he goes, “Call him.” So I call him, and I think he was very tickled that someone wanted that particular talent. My favorite phone call I’ve ever had in show business, the day before we were going to record it—we had sent him the script, which was a mistake. We should have just said, “Come in and make cat sounds.” But we sent him the script, and he called me to say, “Now listen, I want you to know, I only do angry cat. I don’t do pissy cat, I don’t do sarcastic cat.” [Laughs.] He starts listing me the cats he doesn’t do. I said, “Mel, just do your cat. That is all I need.” Then of course, we get there and he does 47 flavors of cat. He’s a genius. The other thing we’re sort of being a stickler about, because I’m playing myself, if we get famous people, they gotta be themselves. If Larry Miller’s on the show, or Jerry Seinfeld, they’re gonna be my friends Jerry and Larry. It’s not gonna be a dentist played by Larry. It’s not gonna be, “Hey, there’s a guy on the street that happens to look like Jerry, but he’s playing Captain Courageous.” So Larry David plays Larry. Henry Rollins is Henry Rollins. Mark Burnett was Mark Burnett. Mel was a cat. But if Mel was on camera, he’d be Mel.
AVC: But it kind of helps that you know all these people.
PR: Here’s something I’ve learned: People are often just happy and tickled to get the call. Jerry Lewis played on the very first season of Mad About You, and he played basically himself, but he was called some other name. He said he’s never done it; he’d never done a half-hour of [sitcom] television. This was 1992 or ’93. And I said, “Well how is that?” And he goes, “Nobody ever asked me.” It’s like the pretty girl at the dance; everybody’s too afraid to ask. You know, Larry David, he was brilliant. His whole thing was, he said, “I’ll do it, but I’m not going to learn a script.”
AVC: The scene between the two of you is very funny. But is the rest of the show improvisational?
PR: No. The show is scripted to within an inch of its life. I mean, now having said that, we have such talented, funny people that they’ll throw something in and we’ll go, “Oh, keep that, that’s funny.” But it’s not story. You know, with Larry [on Curb Your Enthusiasm], the actors don’t have anything. They just get a vague instruction and then they have to wing it. Our show is entirely scripted, but Larry’s scene was not.
AVC: It’s very much like a Curb Your Enthusiasm type of format, so a lot of people were reporting that it was unscripted.
PR: No, it’s very scripted. I did an episode of [Larry’s] show once. And our director, who directed [Larry’s] episode [of my show] actually was somebody that directed a lot of Curbs. So he was able to tell us how to make it most pleasant for Larry. You know, we said, “Here’s the three points we want to hit.” So he’s brilliant at it. He’s really gotten it to an art form. I felt like I was getting in the ring with Ali. I’ll just keep running around and hope to not get hurt. He’s really frickin’ brilliant at it. So it was a minute-and-a-half scene and we have 40 minutes of film. Well, how are we going to cut this? This is a special. This is a two-hour special. But you know, thankfully, it blends in. I don’t think it contrasts with the rest of the show.
AVC: Your son Leon is in the show.
PR: You are a good reader of credits. My son plays [Andy Daly’s] son.
AVC: How did that come about, and how is it having your son on the set?
PR: [Laughs.] It was a thrill. It was the joy of my life. It was the greatest week ever. This is the same kid who said, “Dad, what do you do?” And I think in a subconscious way it was like, “I kinda want to do what you do.” And he’s really funny, and he said he wanted to be in the show. I said, “That’ll be great, but you’re going to have to audition,” and he went through every process. In the beginning, he wanted to play himself. He wanted to play my son. I was really tortured, because I thought, “Well, that’d be really great, but....” I said, “You know, next year, you may say, ‘I don’t want to do that anymore,’ and then I’ve got to recast.” It’s just also too weird. I said, “You know, it’s bad enough I’m playing myself, but we have an actress playing your mom, and you’re playing you, but another kid’s playing your brother. It’s too strange.” And we kept giving the [audition] tapes, and everybody kept saying yes. I kept telling the head of the studio, I would whisper, “Don’t pick him, you’re killing me. I promised him I would show you the tape. But don’t pick him.” And they would just go, “He’s really good.” I go, “I know! But don’t pick him!” Then finally, I said, “I have to be the big boy here.” I said, “Let’s go with the other kid.” And they actually, they did it for me, because they knew I was tortured. He had one line on the batting cages [episode], which we had shot first, and that’s when he got the bug. And I said, “You were really good.” He had one line, and he made it funny and hit his marks. I said, “I’ll write your part, and you’ll be in it even more than the kid who plays my son.” He’s going to be unstoppable. Should he choose to do this, he will be unstoppable.
AVC: And you’ll encourage him?
PR: You know, I will encourage him to find himself, and if he wants to do this, yeah, come and do this. But it was a joy. I mean, to sit and watch my kid be that funny. But truly, what was even more great was just watching him become himself. You know, he worked for a week, and he wasn’t hanging around me, he was hanging out with Henry Rollins. He’s a drummer, my son, and he just likes hanging out with Henry Rollins. I’m going, “Well look at this. How did this happen?” And [he was] hanging out with the other actors, as actor to actor. I’m going, “Wow, I think he just grew up, from Monday to Friday.” So it was wonderful. So I’m hoping we get to make some more. I’ll write some more for him and get to drive to work together.