BY Gary Levine It began, quite accidentally according to Paul Reiser, when he wandered onto the set of Barry Levinson’s 1982 film, “Diner.”
Remarkably gifted and talented, Reiser’s successes were far more impending than fortunate when cast as “Modell” in the comedy-drama that included Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern and other notables.
A Piano major at Binghamton University, Reiser gained additional proficiencies in stand-up comedy and theater long before walking at graduation.
Roles followed in “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Beverly Hills Cop II” and “Aliens,” all prior to his 30th birthday.
Perhaps best known for his three seasons as Michael Taylor on NBC’s “My Two Dads” and for portraying Paul Buchman on the Golden Globe and Primetime Emmy winning “Mad About You” series, Reiser has since written three New York Times best-sellers, hosted and presented at countless award galas, composed songs with the likes of Melissa Manchester and appeared in dozens of films and television works.
Enshrined as one of Comedy Central’s “100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time,” Reiser remains drawn to the allure of stand-up comedy and the interaction with a live audience.
Despite a frenzied schedule and short notice, Paul was kind enough to chat ahead of this week’s comedy performance at Barbara B. Mann. His intellectual and situation wittiness makes him an absolute pleasure to chat with.
Gary Levine: You are, to say the very least, a man of numerous talents including acting, stand-up comedy, writing, music, film production and much more. What prompts such a diverse pilgrimage? Is it about new challenges? Are you easily bored? What drives an entertainer to become engaged in so many different industries?
Paul Reiser: “You know…it’s interesting. I never really thought of them as deliberate. None of the things that I have done have really been deliberate…other than stand-up. When I was in college, I started doing stand-up and didn’t really think as far as it being a career. I didn’t think that I would have the ability or the dedication to do it. But that was all I really had planned. I find in life…things sort of present themselves and, if they’re appealing, you go down that road and see where it leads you. So, I did not plan to be an actor. And, then, out of nowhere, I got this job in ‘Diner.’ It’s literally an accident. I stumbled into the wrong room…they were casting it and they asked me to sit with the director. I went ‘uh-k’ and the next thing you know, I’m in a movie.”
Paul and I laughed at, I suppose, the randomness and unpredictability in life.
“And that opened up some other doors. And TV happened similarly. ‘Mad About You’ came about because I was approached by a studio…’We want you to create a show for yourself.’ And I said ‘Well, I don’t know what I would do.’ I said, ‘I’d kind of want it to be, if anything, sort of like my stand-up,’ which, at the time, I was newly married and I was doing all that material. So, I wrote this script and that became that. Suddenly, it was a hit.”
“And, then, I did this album with Julia Fordham. You know, I was a Music major in college…that was a private thing…not private…I just never thought to do it publicly. It was just something that I enjoyed. And, again, it was an accident. I had been a fan of Julia and we had become friendly over the years. I hadn’t seen her in about ten years and bumped into her at a movie.”
Julia Fordham, A.K.A. Jules Fordham, is an extremely gifted British singer and songwriter who provided backing vocals for British pop-artists Kim Wilde and Mari Wilson.
“I said, ‘I just started playing piano, again. I hadn’t for a long time. I have this thing…I don’t know if it’s a song. You want to come over?’ She came over…she took that melody…she went outside and put words to it. I went ‘Oh my God, that’s a good song! Let’s do another one!’ And it was really a joyful, wonderful experience that came very naturally.”
Paul paused for a moment, then continued.
“There are very few things…the Peter Falk movie (‘The Thing About My Folks’) was one that I very deliberately had to persevere at. I always wanted to write that movie. I wanted to do a movie with Peter Falk playing my father. I really sat on it for twenty years. I didn’t sit on it…periodically, I’d take a stab at it…I didn’t know what to do. And then, one day, it hit me. I said, ‘Well, Peter’s not getting any younger. I’m not getting younger.’ So, I made sure that happened. So, very often, almost entirely, things come out of the blue. I don’t really pursue them. The books came because suddenly books were happening…and ‘Mad About You’ was on. I was asked, ‘How about making a book about that?’ Suddenly, there was a book. I didn’t really pursue that. A lot of these things just come up and…but although, I will say, coming back to stand-up was a conscious thing. I missed it. I waited almost too long. When ‘Mad About You’ started, is when I got off the stand-up train. I was just busy. When the show was over, my intention was always to get right back into stand-up.”
Paul indicated that kids and family became, of course, a priority and he was content spending some time at home.
“So, that was one of the few things that I said, ‘I’m going to go do this. I’m going to get back because I want to.’ But almost everything I’ve done has, sort of, presented itself and I said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at the right time.”
Gary Levine: Paul…writing, film and television can all be edited. That’s a safety net that one doesn’t have when doing stand-up. What is it about this form of comedy that you find so attractive? What keeps drawing you back?
Paul Reiser: “It wasn’t a conscious decision. I was sort of pulled towards that when I was a kid. I just loved stand-up. My friends were going to ‘Led Zeppelin’ and I was going to Robert Klein. I remember seeing Klein and George Carlin in The Village at ‘The Bitter End’…a 180-seat coffee house. Not that I wasn’t into music, as well, but I was always drawn to that. And, I don’t think that I had the clarity of mind to say, ‘I’m going to do that, someday,’ but, something was pulling me there.”
“The Bitter End,” situated on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, originally operated as “The Cock and Bull,” a haven for comedians and poets in the latter 1950s. Reopened as a coffee shop in 1961, the club hosted musicians including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon and James Taylor, in addition to comics including, but not limited to, Billy Crystal, Cheech and Chong, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Richard Prior, to name but a few. The historical and cultural significance of the club earned it “landmark status” in 1992.
“I just always loved it. It’s not like I made a decision, ‘This is the best avenue for me.’ I just liked it. I was drawn to it. But now, I’ve come to really savor it. Since I’ve been back, the last couple of years, getting up and doing it, I enjoy it more and more…because you’re getting immediate reaction. You don’t have to wait eight months…ten months. I love the simplicity of it. I don’t mean that it’s easy…but it’s uncomplicated. You stand up. You say the things you think are funny. People laugh and then you all go home. Nothing to it.”
“What I’ve also come to realize, and I didn’t think about it this way years ago when I first started stand-up, after having worked on so many projects that take so long…and most things hit a dead-end…you pitch an idea, you get a network to buy it…then you hope it gets made. There are so many steps and so many people involved that it’s invariably frustrating and time-consuming, whereas stand-up…there’s no middle-man. There’s nobody. You don’t have to raise the money. You don’t have to get approval. You just show up and then you go home. And, I love that immediacy of it.”
At this juncture of an abounding and diverse career, Reiser appears fiscally and emotionally able to opt for that which he finds enjoyable and engaging.
“It’s funny. Sometimes, my agents will shake their heads in amazement. I’ll turn down things that seem very lucrative or positive career things. I’ll say, “But that doesn’t sound fun.”
“They’d say, “But, you’re driving down to a comedy club an hour from your house to do ten minutes of jokes for free?’”
“’Yeah,’ Paul responds. ‘Because that was fun!’”
I’m guessing that agents aren’t exuberant about their percentage of “fun.” (Sorry, just thinking out loud.)
“When people come to a show, it’s so flattering. I know what it takes to get dressed and get out of the house! So, when you get an audience full of people I go ‘Wow!’ You’re already on the same wavelength…we came to see you…we obviously already like you. Great! I already like you! Let’s talk for an hour and a half and then I’ll drive you home! There’s an intimacy…and all my stuff is about relationships.”
Reiser’s three books, “Couplehood,” “Babyhood,” and “Familyhood” all celebrate the dynamics of our relationships.
“Mad About You,” Paul continued, “is about how small can we get it? Let’s just get two people talking in a bed. That’s the show. Or husband and wife in a car. How small can we get it? And, I think that my act is that way, too. The material is about small stuff and the relationship with the audience is small…no matter how large the audience is.”
Reiser circled back to complete his thoughts about the perils of unrecorded comedy.
“But going back to your statement that you can edit, you can change things and you don’t have that safety net. That’s the part that I like about it. If you’re on stage in theatre and you accidentally spit while you’re talking, you have to pretend that that didn’t happen, right? Stand-up is like…no, you have the luxury of going ‘Uh, let’s stop for a second. Did you see I just spit?’ You can actually comment on it. You have the freedom to go anywhere that you want and to deal with reality. That, to me, is the fun place to go!”
Gary Levine: So, let me ask you this: you have performed and delivered comedy in numerous forms…TV/film, stand-up and as an author. As they are very different forms of media, how does that change the manner in which you need to deliver the comedic component?
Paul Reiser: “Interesting. Well, they’re different, by definition. If you’re in a TV show or movie, it’s not you being funny. You have a character…and it has to be true…and you can’t break that reality. You have to go where the story is and a film is going to be different than a sitcom. And, in a book…the first book…a lot of it was my material from my act…really, just piped up. But you have to change it, anyway, because you have to make it sound…you’re not there to perform it…you have to write it as bulletproof as you can so somebody can read it on the toilet and it still be funny. I have to trust them to be funny!”
I remarked, “It’s a different delivery, right?”
“It is,” Paul replied. “So, if people say, ‘It sounded like when you were talking,’ I say ‘Good, that’s what I was trying for.’ You have to put the italics in…or the exclamation point in. So, there is a difference.”
“Taking stand-up and transforming it into book form…then sometimes, you take a funny bit from a book and you want to bring it back to stage…it’s sort of like when you go to Europe and you want to exchange currency and each time you change it, you lose a little something. In and of itself, this comedy doesn’t know how to perform itself.”
Most fortunately, Paul Reiser will be performing his comic work, in person, on Friday, February 1 at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall. Some tickets remain available and can be purchased by clicking here.
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