The caricature of the crass American producer who kicks the art out of a production has become a comic cliché, but Phil Rosenthal’s documentary Exporting Raymond flips the script. Rosenthal is the co-creator (with Ray Romano) of Everybody Loves Raymond, which ran for nine seasons on CBS in the ’90s and ’00s. In 2009, Rosenthal visited Russia to help supervise their version of Raymond, only to find that the style of comedy he thought he was doing on his show—rooted in the common annoyances of domesticity—didn’t sync with a Russian entertainment industry used to pumping out slapstick. So Rosenthal worked to understand the Russian mindset, both to determine whether Raymond’s humor would be relatable to the locals, and to pick up tips on how to get his message across to skeptical collaborators.
Exporting Raymond would be more edifying if Rosenthal took his “understanding Russia” mission more seriously. The documentary plays like a home movie—“My crazy trip to Russia”—with the emphasis on Rosenthal’s comic frustration with his inscrutable, intractable hosts. He jokes about the crumbling industrial district that houses the studio, and about the humorlessness of the Russian Raymond’s creative team. He spars with the show’s costume designer, who wants the characters to look fashionable, even when they’ve spent the whole day cleaning. Throughout, Rosenthal cuts from uncomprehending Russians to his own face, looking into the camera and silently saying, “Can you believe this, folks?”
But Rosenthal is a funny, likeable guy, which makes his culture-clash emphasis a little less objectionable. And though Exporting Raymond doesn’t have enough to say about 21st-century Russia, it’s on solid ground whenever Rosenthal walks the audience through the universally frustrating process of working with not-always-simpatico people to write, cast, rehearse, and produce a sitcom. Everybody Loves Raymond has a not entirely justified reputation as broad comedy, but compared to what the Russians wanted to do with it—turning it into a show where well-dressed, good-looking actors do pratfalls and spit-takes—the original Raymond is practically Ernst Lubitsch. Exporting Raymond is at its most compelling when Rosenthal explores why the crassest entertainment is internationally successful, even in the home of theatrical naturalism. He isn’t arrogant enough to compare himself to Chekhov or Stanislavski, but he begins to get through to his partners when he explains, “In our own little way, we’re going for the same thing.”