Phil Rosenthal got his start in low-budget theater, starring in the original production of Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding, among other things. But he found a home on television, where writing and producing work on sitcoms like Baby Talk and Coach eventually led to a deal to develop a sitcom with CBS and stand-up comedian Ray Romano. That show—Everybody Loves Raymond—may have been the last sitcom mega-hit, growing from initially low ratings into a top-10 show that won multiple Emmys, ran nine seasons, and lasted more than 200 episodes. Rosenthal recently began developing foreign-language versions of Raymond to air in other countries and made Exporting Raymond, a documentary film newly out on DVD, about the process of bringing the show to Russia. He’s also featured in the upcoming PBS documentary series America In Primetime, arriving later this year. Rosenthal recently sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss cultural differences in humor between Russia and the United States, the moment he knew Raymond was safe, and just how much he loves Louie.
The A.V. Club: Had you always wanted to direct a documentary?
Phil Rosenthal: What happened was, the head of Sony called me into his office a few years ago and told me that Sony created the sitcom business in Russia, which is true. They brought The Nanny over there. Before they brought The Nanny over there to be translated, there were no sitcoms ever in Russia, okay? The Nanny became the first—in [the Russian] language—sitcom. Big hit. But he said, “You’ve gotta see what it’s like over there. How would you like to come over, observe how we work with the Russians, and then come back to America and write a fictional feature film about the creator of a show who goes to Russia to have his show translated?” And I said, “Well, if the situation exists, and the people really exist that you’re telling me about, why not bring a camera crew over and film what would really happen?” And he said, “I love that idea. How about you do Raymond over there and film the whole process?”
So, it seemed like an undeniable adventure, and I said yes, and I was all excited to go until I heard that I needed kidnap and ransom insurance. Then I wasn’t as excited.
AVC: Did you end up getting the kidnap and ransom insurance?
PR: It’s not for me to buy, because I can’t. It’s for people who would pay to get me back. Assuming they want me back. That’s what the insurance is for. It doesn’t do me any good while they’re cutting my ear off and torturing me. It’s only nice for them. I’m assuming Sony got me something, or maybe they didn’t. I insisted on security, that was my—to prevent the torture and kidnapping, I wanted the security. And they gave me a great guy. One thing that happened off-camera was, this guy you see in the movie, Eldar—who’s terrific—said to me, “Mr. Rosenthal, I have to tell you: Sony did not go for the gun package.”
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AVC: What were, to you, the biggest differences between the Russian way of making TV and the American way?
PR: Well, the first thing you gotta notice is the budget. It costs about $2 million to do a half-hour of American TV. And in Russia, all together, all in—I mean actors’ salaries, pre-production, post-production, the food, everything—$80,000. And I have to say is, it looks it. It looks like you took your home camcorder and went in your basement and made a show, which is kind of what they do.
So that then affects everything. Because it’s all about the business. It’s all about all of them working not just one show at a time, but many shows at a time, the speed at which they do it, then the care that they are able or unable to give the script and the production as a whole. It affects everything. So yes, it’s a very different world. Plus, culturally, there are differences, too. They would like to present the Russian male as very strong. And if you’ve ever seen our show, that’s not really Raymond. So that was a clash.
AVC: What was your way around that? Did you just ultimately have to say, “This is your show now”?
PR: Ultimately, that is what I learned. It’s just like your children. You raise your kids as best you can. You love them and nurture them, but then they do have to be free to go off and disappoint you.
AVC: Are there any things they do in Russia that you wish we could do here in our industry?
PR: I would like to drink more vodka.
AVC: In the film, there is a lot of vodka drinking.
AVC: What was your personal best?
PR: Oh, that scene with the family where they just kept pouring it. I mean, they toast everything. They toast your eyes and your nose and the last toast. They toast to their mother-in-law and their father. Everybody gets their own toast. You get 50 toasts. And I’m drinking, and I have to tell you that the reason I was able to do that is that I’m a real man, it turns out. I stayed up. I did not fall. I kept up.
AVC: Way back in the day, you did really low-budget theater-type things. Were there any similarities between your life in the low-budget theater and this?
PR: Absolutely. Always, yes! That’s exactly what it’s like. It’s like low-budget anything, you know? A little like cable access, that kind of thing. A little like taking your webcam and making a little short. This is not to say that they don’t know what they’re doing. They do, they’re professionals. It’s just that the budget affects every aspect of life when you’re doing this.
AVC: What would you recommend about working within a very small budget? What are some ways to stretch that?
PR: Well, luckily, the web is very forgiving. In other words, the people who watch YouTube videos, they don’t expect big production values, and most of the time, they don’t get them. So if you have an imagination and you can write and be creative, the world is open to you. And the way you get better is to keep making these things. If my son was interested, I would tell him, as a teenager, “Go make videos! Go do this!” The more you make, the better you’re gonna get at it. And then when you are in a professional situation, you kind of already know.
By the way, it’s not that much different. It’s just the toys are bigger, and you get more money to present what’s in your head. But writing and acting doesn’t cost very much. And if you have that and a little imagination—which also doesn’t cost anything—you can really make great stuff. Think of the best things you ever saw on YouTube, and then think of their budgets. They probably weren’t very big.
AVC: You said that Russia didn’t have the sitcom before The Nanny. Does Russia have a comedic tradition otherwise?
PR: They do in terms of theater. They do on television in terms of sketch shows and variety shows. In fact, they had a show that I thought would be great here, which was a combination of Saturday Night Live and American Idol. Sketch groups compete, and once a week, one group gets voted off until you have the funniest, best sketch group at the end. I thought that could be a very entertaining show.
AVC: Did you notice any particular differences in the humor? Are there things that they focus on that we would not necessarily find funny here?
PR: Yes, there’s always differences in the land and attitudes, but what we always focused on on Raymond was something that we thought was relatable to human beings, which was our interpersonal relationships, which don’t seem to vary that much from country to country. Which is why Poland is doing our show, Israel, Egypt. This is really happening now. The Netherlands, India. England wants to do it, South America’s probably gonna. They’re telling me that Raymond actually may become the most-produced show in the world. The only reason I can figure out is because it’s relatable to human beings. Not to Americans, but husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents, kids.
AVC: Are you aware of other shows that have had even close to this many new versions made? Usually we just send it over with subtitles.
PR: Right. And we have that in other countries, but this is now taking our scripts and having them translated and made into original-language shows in those countries. The Nanny is the current champion, believe it or not. That’s the one that paved the way for all of this. Married… With Children is out there—not as much as The Nanny. But they told us we’re gonna surpass The Nanny, which is just amazing to me. I never thought that anyone at CBS would even like the pilot script because it’s not a hot, sexy idea. A guy with this family who lives across the street from his parents. Nobody was jumping up and down, “Oh my God, we have to have that show.” But it just shows you, if you’re true to what you know, and do what’s in your head, sometimes it can work.
AVC: Raymond struggled in the ratings at first. What was the moment when you knew it was safe?
PR: We were on Fridays at 8:30 at first, following Dave’s World. There hadn’t been a hit in that time slot since Gomer Pyle. And we didn’t change that, but the three people that watched the show did come back every week. And CBS and Les Moonves liked the show enough to say when something was struggling on Monday night and was gonna fail, they’d put us there. But he did say to me, “Now, we’re gonna give you a chance here, six episodes. But if you don’t perform here, I can’t help you anymore.” So, that’s when we were very nervous. This was about halfway through the first season.
And that first night on Monday, our ratings doubled, and you’d think that would be the point at which we’d relax. No. Ray [Romano] and I became more nervous. Why? Because we had been sampled, and now they were gonna look to next week’s ratings to see how people liked the show. If they liked it, they would come back. If they didn’t like it, of course, it would go down. So we thought, “This, of course, is the end. No one is gonna… They can’t… We got such a good number… Couldn’t possibly…” Well, the second week there on Monday, our ratings went up. And that’s when we said, “Oh, we might have something here.” That was the first time.
AVC: Talking about the other end of the show, for years there, there were rumors that you might leave the air. How did you finally make the decision to stop the show?
PR: We ran out of ideas. If you worked for me, I would say to you, “Go home, get in a fight with your wife, and come back in and tell me about it.” And then we’d have a show. But after nine years, if we kept that up, our wives would leave us. And in California, that’s half. So we made sure that we got out before that happened. We also wanted to get off the air before somebody said, “Hey, you should go off the air.” You want to get off the stage before you wear out your welcome. And we actually cared enough about our audience to want to go before we became lousy. I think some episodes are better than others in our series—as, of course, they would have to be—but we pride ourselves in that there was a level we felt that we did not go below. And we wanted to leave before we hit that level. [Laughs.]
AVC: If you were going to pick an episode that was your favorite, what would it be?
PR: Well, I have lots of favorites for different reasons. I think the finale, which is a very good one to choose, because you hopefully build to a good ending. I think we ended well, and that’s very important. I saw many series that didn’t end well, and I didn’t wanna be one of them. I didn’t want to do a bloated, hour-long show. I wanted it to be a show that was also not atypical. That maybe just because the audience knew it was the last show, the story would have a little extra resonance—and that’s all we wanted. Other than that, it should be a good standalone episode. So I’m proud of that show.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Italy show, because we actually got to go to Italy for an hour-long show at the top of the fifth season and got CBS to pay for it. So I always feel like we won a prize. [Laughs.] And that turned out well, and I was happy about that.
AVC: There are a lot of strong comedies on right now that are struggling in the ratings. What would your advice be to the producers of those shows to improve or just hang on?
PR: I always say this: The best advice I ever got was, “Do the show you want to do, because in the end, they’re gonna cancel you anyway.” You can’t help it if people are gonna be boneheaded enough to cancel something like Men Of A Certain Age. What can you do? They could’ve made that show goofier. They could’ve had more sexy girls in it. Maybe that would’ve helped the ratings in the network’s mind. But it would’ve made the show not what it was meant to be. That show was exactly as intended; it was terrific. I had nothing to do with it, by the way. [Laughs.] Just my friends worked on it.
But I’m very upset about that show getting canceled because it shows a very short-term-goal mindset that seems to have now permeated our world. Not just the world of entertainment and television, but the government. [Laughs.] Wall Street, obviously. Foreign relations. Everything is, “We’re doomed anyway, so grab it now, and screw later.” And there seems to be no one willing to invest in a long-term-goal strategy in any of these fields. I happen to know about television. Don’t you think there was a time when a show with the quality and the reviews that Men Of A Certain Age got would’ve been allowed to grow?
AVC: Sure, absolutely.
PR: Because when do you get such reviews? Isn’t it good for your network to have a show—maybe the only one they have—that gets such reviews? Isn’t it good, even as a loss leader, to bring people into the store, other creators, to say, “Hey, look what we have. This great thing, this Peabody Award-winning thing?” That doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s all about instant money. “Not money down the road, we need it right now.” And so that is a plague on everything.
AVC: Have you been involved in the pilot process since Raymond went off the air?
AVC: How has that experience—
AVC: —changed since Raymond was coming up through?
PR: Well, I got Raymond on the air, and now I don’t get things on the air. That’s the difference! I mean, I think I will again. Listen, I know how lucky I was to get Raymond on the air. But we couldn’t have gotten Raymond on the air now. We couldn’t have gotten it on the year it went off. And we had trouble getting it on the year it got on. Because it’s not short-term goal oriented, that show. You have to invest in those characters, you have to get to know them. Out of the box, right away—that’s the hottest, sexiest show on TV. Of course it isn’t! It only works once you get to know the characters and the situation and relate to it, like everything else in life. We don’t get married on the first date to anybody, right? [Laughs.] It takes a while to get to know the person. So, TV is mostly people.
AVC: Do you think the focus on what the numbers for the pilot are, to the exclusion of everything else, is hurting the industry as a whole?
PR: Yes. [Pause.] That’s it. Yes.
AVC: How did you get involved in this PBS show?
PR: They called and asked me. And it sounded like a good idea for a series. I’m shocked at how great it turned out. I’m thrilled. Not the least of which, by the way, is they list the writers as if they were actors. You’ve never seen writers look so good. Not me, I’m talking about everybody else that I know. I said, “Look at that guy! Wow, he looks like a movie star. Look at that! That’s a writer? Good for writers!”
AVC: Speaking of you acting, you were recently in an episode of 30 Rock.
PR: I was. I embarrassed my daughter. What better thing could you do? I danced around, and then all her schoolmates came up to her in junior high and said, “I saw your father.” Can you imagine? Can you imagine being 13 years old and your friends are coming up to you, “I saw your father dancing on TV last night”? She wanted to kill herself. I must say, there’s a certain pride as father that you get from those moments. [Laughs.]
AVC: Working in that single-camera style—you obviously had a very big multi-camera hit—did you find anything refreshing about that?
PR: I was trained in theater my whole life. I was an actor in high school and college and a little bit in New York, struggling in those years after college. I only knew theater. And then I only knew multi-camera comedy. Single-camera, obviously, is like making a movie. You get to do it over and over again. You don’t have to be perfect. When you’re in front of an audience, you kind of do have to hit it. Single-camera, you can construct it. Now, you do have to hit it at least once, so that they have something to put on the film. You certainly get more chances, but you don’t get that instant feedback. The single-camera show is constructed in the editing to be funny.
AVC: Are you still watching TV comedies?
AVC: What are some of your favorites?
PR: Louie. Best show on TV.
AVC: What do you like about it?
PR: This is one guy’s vision—one brilliant guy’s vision—and you see that no one is telling him what to do. There are times when it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t have to for me, and I’m very forgiving of that where I wouldn’t be in other shows, because the rewards of that show are so big. He is such a talent. Talented writer, editor, director, actor. He’s doing it all.
You know how they made that show, right? You know that he told the network, “Give me this money and then you’ll see the show.” That’s it. He did it on his terms. He’s the perfect example of “Do the show you want to do.” That’s what he’s doing. And I think I love that about it more than anything else, that it’s so him. I just happen to love his sense of humor and his qualities as a human being that come through. I think he’s real and great and hilarious. So that’s my favorite.
AVC: Would you consider going to cable?
PR: Of course. They say the world is flat? TV’s flat, too. Not just the screen. You can go anywhere because in the world of TiVo, networks don’t matter anymore. We program what we want to watch. We go by the show, not by the network. Used to be that your parents sat in front of a particular network all night because they couldn’t get up and turn the channel. [Laughs.] Or didn’t want to. They just stuck with the programming. Some say that was a golden age when the programming had to really be good. But now, it’s all over the place, and you watch what you want. And you’re competing with the Internet and video and everything else.
AVC: Do you think there are still advantages to being on CBS or on ABC, as opposed to FX or TNT?
PR: Well, even though the world is changing, the networks still are in more people’s homes than the other things that they might have to pay for. So if you’re willing to put up with commercials, then yes, you watch this stuff. It’s still the biggest bang for the buck for advertisers. They’re still going to reach more people that way and that’s what drives the car.
AVC: We talked about Louie, but that show averages about a million viewers.
PR: Is that what it is?
AVC: The bigger shows are still the multi-camera, live studio audience. Modern Family’s pretty big and that’s mockumentary.
PR: That’s excellent, that show. I love that show.
AVC: Why do you think the multi-camera format still has more appeal to audiences, seemingly?
PR: I don’t know. There’s something traditional about it that they might like. That feeling, that comfort. Also, there’s an excitement to the studio audience, to knowing that you’re part of a live event. When they don’t over-sweeten the show—when they don’t add laughs—but you can tell these are real laughs coming from real people, you feel like you’re watching theater in your house. It feels like a performance for you, as opposed to a movie, which is its own thing. Single-camera shows feel like movies. These shows are something else. They seem to be more like television.
AVC: When you translate the show to other countries, are you still working with studio audiences in all those countries?
PR: I believe that almost all the versions that are gonna be done now will not have a studio audience because it costs too much money. I really did get the excuse in Russia when I kept pressing them for the studio audience, they said, “But we would have to get chairs.” It was a cost factor. And everything that went along with the chairs. You can’t have an audience sit there for a few hours without giving them water. We also gave them pizza. Getting that audience, wrangling them—especially at the beginning when they haven’t heard of the show, you have to sometimes pay places to bring audiences in, because why would they come see a show they never heard of? When we were starting, we paid services. I remember one particular audience was half nursing home, half prisoners. And my fear was that the show would be so boring to them that the prisoners would say, “This show is boring. Let’s kill grandma over there.”
AVC: For a while there, it seemed like every comedy on TV was trying to be like Raymond. Did you have any thoughts on that when that was happening?
PR: That’s the history of TV. There weren’t any family shows, really, between The Cosby Show of the ’80s and when we came on in the late ’90s. Why? I don’t know. Everything is cyclical, I would imagine. But because we became popular, all the executives, as they do with any show that hits, say, “Let’s copy that.” That’s the history of TV. It’s the history of everything, really.
AVC: Did you worry it was diluting your show?
PR: No. Our show was our show. There’s room for other family comedies just like there’s room for other families.
AVC: You first started out working on things like Coach. What has been the biggest change in the industry since those days?
PR: This kind of short-term thinking. This kind of bottom-line-is-everything thinking. Yes, people have always been aware of the bottom line, but not to the point where it drove every single decision. There was more forethought given to choices, like, “If we stick with this show, it could pay off for us later.” It’s a bit of a gamble. People aren’t willing to gamble, and so they think, “Only bet on sure things.”
And what they think are sure things are not. That’s the biggest difference. They think, for instance, that the sexy girl is gonna bring in the viewer. And she might, but not in a sitcom, necessarily. If you’re driving down the street and you see the billboard, “Sexy girl!” you look, as a man. “Oh, sexy girl! She’s in a sitcom? I’m not interested.” Why? Because we don’t go to the sexy girl for our comedy needs. [Laughs.] We have other needs for that particular person, not this. And so that’s why these shows keep crapping out.
AVC: If you were developing Raymond today, what would you be most worried about, realistically, the network making you do?
PR: I don’t know, I really don’t know. Have a talking bear in the show? I really don’t know.
AVC: It was such a small-scale show, and everything today seems so high-stakes.
PR: Well, high concept. So, the high concept is what gets you on the air, but the high concept isn’t what keeps you on the air, because then you’re a slave to that high-concept premise, like “they come from Mars,” or whatever. Every show then needs to be about serving that concept, and the audience grows tired of it. Whereas the low-concept thing, the family, has an infinite number of storylines because it was designed to look like something relatable to you. Look at Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s a guy with an attitude. That’s it. That is as low-concept as it gets, that show. And yet it’s enduring because people like or don’t like that guy and wanna watch that guy.