Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Paul Reiser’s 30-plus year career has spanned genres and media, a remarkable feat for someone whose early aspirations were mostly limited to stand-up comedy. A chance encounter landed the up-and-coming comic a part in Barry Levinson’s Diner, which also also launched Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, Tim Daly, and Steve Guttenberg, and set Reiser on a path to blockbuster comedies (the first two Beverly Hills Cop films), action movies (Aliens), numerous TV roles (including his massively successful sitcom, Mad About You), and bestselling books. When Mad About You finished its run in 1999, Reiser slowed down and mostly stayed behind the scenes of other projects. He re-emerged in 2011 with a famously short-lived NBC project, The Paul Reiser Show, but a small role in Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic Behind The Candelabra sparked a career resurgence that included high-profile roles in Whiplash and, most recently, the Amazon dramedy Red Oaks as well as the recently cancelled FX comedy Married. This month, Reiser heads on the road for some stand-up performances on the East Coast and Midwest.
(Note: Reiser discusses key plot points in Red Oaks’ first season finale.)
The A.V. Club: Getty’s a gruff, condescending prick, but you learn more about him as the episodes progress—even though he’s still a prick.
Paul Reiser: Yeah, he’s got some hard edges. It’s a really fun role because originally when I read it, that’s all they had in it: He was this nasty guy, and I said, “Well, I don’t really see it.” Then they showed me the second episode where he starts to take the kid [series lead David, played by Craig Roberts] under his wing, and even if it’s manipulative, you start to see, okay, he’s teaching the kid. It may be presumptuous to do it, but he’s teaching the kid some lessons. So I said, “Okay, now I get it.” It’s been fun, and as the show’s gone on, it’s a very collaborative and really terrific group, and they are totally open to suggestions and broadening it out. I love that they gave him a loving relationship with his wife. It’d be too easy to make him a prick at home, too, and even if his daughter is not enamored with him, we see that he’s coming from a good place. Like every other parent, he’s mourning the fleeting passage of time and wanting to be closer to his daughter and regretting that he’s not. It was really fun, but the other stuff is really fun to play, too—a guy that thinks he’s this really enormous fish in this incredibly tiny pond is very fun. He’s just in that particular country club, which is an awfully small domain.
AVC: There are some nice moments, too. You see him waiting up for his daughter to get home, and that really nice moment where he’s asleep on the chaise and she comes by to check on him.
PR: Yeah, there’s a little sweetness to it.
AVC: Was there anything particularly challenging about playing him?
PR: No, it was trying to make my tennis game look mildly respectable, which I found you don’t even really need to practice if you have a really good editor. They can edit it and you’re like, “Hey, it looks like I’m playing really well.” That was the fun part, but it was like going to summer camp. We were at this beautiful club swimming and playing tennis and golf, and going around in golf carts. It was a fun shoot, and a great group of people. It was a lot of people that I knew or worked with. I’d worked with Greg Jacobs, the creative director, before, and Richard Kind, of course, and Freddie Roman is an old buddy. But, then meeting and discovering these other huge talents—Craig Roberts and Ennis Esmer, and Jennifer Grey I knew as well, too, but there are so many people. Oliver Cooper and Alexandra [Socha], who plays my daughter. They’re all just really talented and all different flavors; they did a great job casting, and it was a really fun show to do. I’m glad we’re getting to go make some more.
AVC: Where do you see him going in season two? Have you talked to the producers?
PR: I don’t know. It ended on a very interesting button: He’s hauled off to court in cuffs, so I don’t know what happens. I’m as curious as anyone to find out. I hope it’s not Orange Is The New Blue.
AVC: Did this part come about through working with Soderbergh and Greg Jacobs on Behind The Candelabra?
PR: I think so. You never can quite trace these things, but I think it did. It’s one of the most interesting things, the serendipity of these things. It was a last-minute thing I did on that Soberbergh project, and I met Greg very briefly. He was the AD on that project, though maybe he was producing it. [IMDB lists Jacobs as both producer and assistant director —Ed.] But it was one day, and it was fun for me to work with Matt Damon and Steven Soderbergh and Michael Douglas, so cut to, whatever, a year or two later, and I get a call. You can look back and almost trace, like, I think Beverly Hills Cop came from the director having seen me in Diner, and Aliens came from the director, Jim Cameron, having seen me in Beverly Hills Cop. There’s no plan here, but you can stand back and trace the evolution of these things, I think.
AVC: While we’re talking about Behind The Candelabra, you’d done some stuff after Mad About You, but that was one of your first high-profile things in some time?
PR: Well, a few years after [Mad About You], I did a couple of movies for Showtime and in 2005, I did a movie I wrote for Peter Falk that wasn’t as widely seen [The Thing About My Folks], but basically, from then on, I was sort of writing at home and I wasn’t out there much. I think it was a last-minute call on Thursday if I could come in on Monday and play Matt Damon’s attorney, and I said, “Sure. What’s the downside of that?” Actually, my recollection, if I did indeed get Red Oaks out of that, it’s a nice bonus. But to me, the big thing was my kids got to come to the set and meet Matt Damon because they’re huge Jason Bourne fans. So it was like, “Okay, here’s the reason to do this: If I can facilitate a picture between Matt Damon and my kids, they would be happy.”
AVC: It was probably pretty quick, right? Soderbergh is famous for only shooting a couple of takes.
PR: Really fast. Everyone on set warned me that if I had something on set that I wanted to do, do it early. There may not be a second take.
AVC: One other thing about Red Oaks: You’ve done a lot of traditional TV and now with streaming series. You’ve said that Red Oaks is the way a TV show should be, where they write all the episodes and shoot all the episodes and not, as you said, “chasing your tail.” Is that the setup you’d like to pursue with other projects?
PR: Yeah, it’s really hard to do when you’re doing 22, 24 episodes. In traditional TV, it’s very hard to have the luxury of banking all your scripts and getting everything in a row, but it does make it very easy, and it’s very productive and beneficial and you learn as you’re going. You get to script seven and you go, “Oh, we should drop this in episode two,” and you go back on the season as a whole and you can see it better. Once you get to the ending, you know what you need and you say, “Let’s ratchet this up and plant this seed there.” So, creatively, it gives you a lot more leeway. Plus, in terms of production, you get to say, “Okay, we have this guy for four episodes—let’s shoot him out.” You can be more efficient with actors with schedules. I like to work like that; I like to have everything done. So, if for no other reason, you don’t have to think about it. Red Oaks, I’m just a hired hand, so it’s really fun to do that, too, to go in and just be an actor and not have to worry about the whole script. But when you’re involved in the production of it, you don’t want to be acting and, in between takes, rushing over to the writers and saying, “Let’s get next week’s takes.” It’s very frenetic and not my favorite way to work.
AVC: Your first IMDB credit is The Toast Of Manhattan, which was a variety show?
PR: [Laughs.] Really?! It was a scripted show about a variety show. I don’t know if it was called Toast Of The Town or about a show called Toast Of The Town. Toast Of Manhattan, wow. It’s so funny. I totally forgot that happened. What was it, ’82? Summer of ’82, maybe. Barry Levinson, that also came directly out of Diner, and he had this idea: It was sort of behind the scenes of an Ed Sullivan-type show that literally the beginning of the show was, “And goodnight, everybody!” finishing the show. The show was Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, leading all the way up to “Good evening, everybody, here’s the show.” It was all basically behind the scenes. It was a really good idea; it had some cool people on it and very funny, but I guess we didn’t hear about it. It disappeared. I had almost forgotten about that.
AVC: You sort of happened into that Diner role, right? You were accompanying a friend.
PR: Yeah, that was in actor lore. The idea that, again, things come from the most unexpected ways and places. Something that I wasn’t auditioning for. They happened to see me outside waiting for my friend to come out the audition, and we were very different types. But the casting director said, “Do you have a picture?” and I said “No,” and I tried to be invisible and said, “I’m not here to audition. I’m waiting for my friend.” She said, “Do you have a picture?” And I said, “At home,” and she said, “Well, go home and get it, and come back tomorrow.” That was that, yeah. It’s something worth remembering for somebody starting off or even someone who isn’t just starting off: We bump into people, and things happen sometimes. You can plan and plan, and sometimes your success can come from the least expected way.
AVC: Were you planning to do stand-up full-time?
PR: Yeah, it’s funny you say that because I was talking to somebody for some local East Coast gigs I’m doing next month and I said, “I started [stand-up], and that’s all I wanted to do. I didn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go be an actor. I’m going to go be on TV.’” I wanted to be a stand-up, and success in stand-up means you went on The Tonight Show and talk shows because this was the early ’80s, the late ’70s. There were enough examples of comics who would then break out and have a TV show, but that was never the plan.
I guess in the back [of my mind] I imagined there was this mystical thing called “you’ll get discovered.” They’d come in saying, “So-and-so at ABC is looking to come watch a night or two of comedy and come in to see 20 to 30 faces” because they’d had success with discoveries from Freddie Prinze to Jimmie Walker to Gabe Kaplan at clubs, which had become the hotbed and, at the time, were the new thing that didn’t exist 10 years earlier. It was pretty common, less so on the East Coast, but often enough that people would say, “Oh, so-and-so is looking for a new Garry Marshall show, and they’re looking for casting and faces,” and they would see people. I think they did that with Diner, but even then I wasn’t on that list. I don’t know how that happened, but my friend was. He was a tall, Irish Catholic kid who looked totally different than what the group was, so it really just happened to be a lucky, fortunate break that I went with him that day to hang out with him. It’s funny because I don’t ever remember ever doing that with him before. I don’t think we’d ever hung out until that day and it was like, wow, that day changed a lot. [Laughs.]
AVC: And ’82 was the first time you did The Tonight Show, right?
PR: Yeah, although that was a very significant milestone. As a comic, that’s the end of your rainbow—it’s the end of your rainbow, then a new rainbow again. But your first rainbow ends in a pot of gold on The Tonight Show, but even then, that came about because of Diner. Diner came out in April of ’82, and it was like, “Here’s this new comedian we’ve never seen before. He’s in this new movie.” I don’t think, without that, I’d have been ready to get this big break as a comic.
AVC: Do you remember waiting to go onstage?
PR: For sure, for sure. Yeah, I don’t know how long, [but] I must have had a couple weeks’ notice, so you work on your set, and you put your set together and you go from club to club working on five minutes of material and your five-minute act. You want to get the right suit or the right jacket, shirt, and tie. It was exciting to me because you’re literally leaving one level of your life and now you’re entering the point beyond that, and who knows what lays beyond that? But you get on The Tonight Show, and it’s like, “Wow, it’s The Tonight Show.” It meant everything—it meant everything in the sense of recognition. It’s like saying, “Now, you’re one of those guys” because people are always asking, “Have you been on The Tonight Show?” and you’re like, “Yes, I have, as a matter of fact, just last week.” That was a great credit, a great feather to have in your cap.
AVC: There’s like two and half minutes of it online—
PR: Oh, yeah. I don’t know why that’s up there or how it got up there, but it’s painful for me to watch because it doesn’t sound like me. It doesn’t look like me, and I don’t mean age-wise. It’s like, “Wow, I look so unformed and so slow.” It’s painful for me to watch.
AVC: But it was such a gutsy way to open a set on The Tonight Show, that joke, “Who’d like to just skip this and go get a coffee?” You’re immediately putting it in the audience’s hands.
PR: It’s so funny because now I’m thinking of this odd synchronicity. The Diner casting director, Ellen Chenoweth, had asked me to come back and sit with Barry Levinson. I can’t remember now if I read something; I don’t know what I could have read because there were no pages for my character. It was just improvised on the set. But I remember I was, at the time, in an acting class and I thought if you get auditions, you need to know what you’re doing. You need to know how to act, so I remember being in that meeting and eager to do something “actor-y” or show the depth of my range. I had this serious thing, and Barry said, “No, you don’t have to do that.” I said, “Well, I feel like if I’m not, I’m just some guy going out for a cup of coffee,” and he goes, “Well, oddly enough, that’s what this movie is—it’s just guys having coffee.” In fact, I had a whole bunch of stuff in my act about diners. I don’t know if he’d seen it, or maybe he went to see it that night. But diners figured large in New York comedy ether. I’d forgotten my opening thing was, “Let’s skip and go have a cup of coffee.”
It’s interesting you say that because the times I’ve seen it, or it’ll come up or somebody will send it to me, it makes me uncomfortable. But at the same time, it’s like actors, like would I do it a different way? Would I do it better? I never like to come out and just do material; I like to connect. Let’s talk. Let’s just be here. So it’s funny you mention that 35 years ago, I was aiming for that same beat because it always seems absurd to just come out and start hitting jokes, but guys do it. I don’t know how to do it—let’s diminish expectations then take it from there.
AVC: Let’s talk about Diner a little bit more. Did Barry Levinson really have you guys come out a week early to get to know each other and hang out?
PR: He did. Yeah, exactly. We came out, it was a week’s rehearsal and he actually shot all the diner scenes at the end. Then, furthermore, for that week, instead of everyone having their own dressing room—which was this little tiny camper—he got a big camper and shoved us all in there. It would just become combustible, and it would work. It was called the “camaraderie camper” and everyone would just get in there, shut up, and become comrades. Bond. And go!
AVC: You reprised the role for a pilot in ’83, right?
PR: Yeah, it was really, really, good and ahead of its time because it looked exactly like the film and felt like the film. It was that same sort of slow, cinematic, non-jokey thing that, at the time, was not done. It didn’t go forward, but that vibe and type of thing is now very common. That experience was in February of ’83. I don’t know if I had the idea or Barry Levinson suggested it, but it was like, “You should write an episode.” I was like, “I don’t know how you’d do that,” and he just pushed me and I remember writing a script—it must be somewhere—of what I thought would be episode two or episode three. Like I said, the show didn’t go but it got me into, “Oh, you can be a writer for a half-hour of television,” and I still feel like I write like that. I don’t see multi-camera in my head, even though Mad About You was a multi-camera show. I still think very cinematically and with a single-camera energy.
AVC: Warren Littlefield’s book Top Of The Rock has a whole chapter about Mad About You. The executives talked how simple the pitch was. The material was informed by your stand-up, right?
PR: Yeah, but it was always an intimacy we were pitching. The joke was you know when you’re out socializing and you always think you’re being yourself with you and your wife, but then you leave the party, you get in the car, and the minute that door slams, that’s when our show begins. When somebody turns to the other one and says, “Man, wasn’t that guy an idiot?” or “Why did you say that?! Why would you embarrass me like that?” “I didn’t say anything!” Put the camera in the back of that seat, and that’s the show. People got it. Luckily, it was one of those premises that wasn’t far-fetched—it was really, really simple.
At the time, I guess it was around 1990, so I had just been married, and at the time my stand-up was very much about being a newlywed, living together, and having never done that before, and it did grow out of my stand-up; it was really simple for me to write that. It began a focus for me. It was like, “Yeah, that’s what I do.” It’s like write what you know, but that was easier for me to write. If you put a gun to my head, I couldn’t sit down and write Star Wars. I couldn’t write Goodfellas, but I could write some of the scenes where the guy is yelling at his wife—I can write that. I can argue. I can write the scene where they’re arguing about food. I can do that. But in stand-up, it’s only become more so. It’s like my comfort, my zone, where I always go to because that’s what I always want to do and what comes to mind. Yeah, let’s talk about relationship stuff; let’s talk about family stuff; let’s talk about insecurities that happen as you get older and deeper into life. For me, that’s comfort. That’s what interests me.
AVC: In Top Of The Rock, Helen Hunt talks about how she thought Mad About You was going to have to get bigger and zanier and crazier after the pilot, and you said, “No, no. it’s going to go the opposite direction. We’re going to get smaller and smaller.”
PR: There were certain things from the beginning that we said we wanted to do, and I remember sitting there with Helen saying, “Here’s an episode I want to do, and here’s an episode I want to do,” and they were all tiny. I said, “I want to do an episode of the show where we can’t leave the house; we can’t get out of there.” There’s always like the phone rings, or you forget something, or you just can’t get out the door. That’s really small. I wanted to do one where we’re just in bed for 30 minutes. The idea was we always wanted to do the one-take shot, and I said, “Okay, you just have to have a really great conversation in bed.” It took us years to find the one great conversation that’s going to hold the audience. It wasn’t quite that, but the show we ended up doing was one of my absolute favorites and it was one shot, one continuous uncut live—it wasn’t shot live, but we filmed it live in front of an audience. The story was we were trying to get the baby to sleep without going in, and we’re timing it every two minutes, every three minutes, and it was like, “Okay, there’s your story.”
It was very gratifying if, for no other reason, that from the very beginning we said that’s something we wanted to do. The small always appealed to us—even the big, zany ones always came down to small. Even the high-concept stuff, it always came down to what conversation would that big event engender, what happens in that two-shot of the two knuckleheads figuring it out. So, in that way, it was a small show.
AVC: It came from your experiences and your stand-up, and your character’s name was Paul. Did it ever feel too personal?
PR: Well, I named the character Paul, and my thinking was, “If someone ever stops me at an airport and says, ‘Hey, Paul,’” I’ll never know if they know me or they just watch the show—I’ll just take them both. There was a great staff of terrific writers, so we all brought in our stories and threw them on the table and blended them so nobody ever got too much in trouble. It was an awful lot of me and an awful lot of marriage in there, but what made it work was, in fact, it wasn’t so unique. Everyone can say, “Oh, I’ve had that argument, I’ve had that issue, I’ve had that fight, I’ve had that moment,” and we did blur the lines. We could say, “Oh, sweetie, that wasn’t me. That was the other guy that made that joke.”
AVC: Jumping ahead, when you were doing press for Married, people would position it against Mad About You noting how different the shows were, but you said something interesting. Obviously Married was single cam versus multi-cam, and there’s a decade-plus separating the shows, but the core wasn’t all that different from Mad About You.
PR: No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t. They were very much the same. [Married’s Nat Faxon and Judy Greer] were a little deeper in their marriage, their marriage was about parents with three kids, but that is a universal and timeless thing. It’s always going to be the balance of work and being the provider and all those insecurities and loving the home life, but also wanting to push against the boundaries and missing your single days, but glad you’re not single and all those things and motivations are still there. It’s interesting because I thought it had rougher edges and it was FX and, as you said, 20 years later, so the language and the content was a little racier. But at the heart of it, what I thought worked about and what made me disappointed that they didn’t choose to go forward with it was you were rooting for that couple. I liked that lead couple, and you sense that they were, at the end of the day, committed to slugging it out. Not fighting, but there are a million bumps every day, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to consider, “Screw it, just walk away.” The nobler challenge is to say, “Phew! How do we move forward from here?” That’s, I think, what show did really well.
AVC: You say in Top Of The Rock that My Two Dads taught you what you didn’t want to do, but you didn’t elaborate.
PR: What I meant, mainly, was content-wise. That was a show that I didn’t mean to do. [Laughs.] I literally went to do a pilot and thought, “Oh, these things never go,” and it got picked up. But I was more surprised—and I don’t know why I was so naïve—because it was pitched to me as something a little bit more “adult-y,” and it had no title. The minute they went with that title I was like, “Ooooh… My Three Sons, My Two Dads… I can see where they’re going with this.” What I meant was it’s not a show that I, myself, would watch. That doesn’t mean it’s bad; I ultimately made peace with it and realized I manufactured a product that I, myself, don’t use in my home, but somebody is enjoying this, so that had value.
But I left there saying, “Okay, I don’t want to do a show that, whether it’s successful or not. I don’t want to do a show that I don’t care about or want to be in or I don’t watch.” When I left, initially, I really wasn’t eager to do a show at all. But about a year later, a studio came to me and asked me to develop something for myself. I said, “I don’t know if I’m eager to do that again, but if I did, it’d be a small show, as opposed to a big device unlike My Two Dads.” I would want it to be about small things. I pitched like my act so, like Married, people who were watching it would be people that I would relate to—like, yeah, I’d want my friends to watch it. It’s the difference between saying, “Gee, my daughter and niece love the show!” versus “My husband and I watch you show every week.” So, every week, it’s like I’d rather have people my own age, watching the show, and my own sensibilities.
PR: The only thing I’d really done was Diner, and I guess the director, Marty Brest, had seen that. Yeah, I don’t remember discussing it, but I can only assume that’s how it happened. Believe it or not, there was somebody [cast] before Eddie [Murphy]. Eddie came in, and I was supposed to come in and play this small role. The other big star dropped out, and Eddie came along and I thought, “Oh, this is great. I know Eddie from the comedy clubs. This is even better.” It was huge, and he was brilliant.