Q&A: Paul Reiser
The actor, writer and comedian on getting back in to the stand-up scene. He performs Friday night at Hyena’s Comedy Night Club in Dallas.
published Thursday, February 28, 2013
Paul Reiser is a sauntering kind of guy, life is easy and pleasant. Conversation with him rolls easily; exchanging words and ideas is how he breathes. His life expressed is his career, a mirror of his journey. A young stand-up who walked into a role in Diner as a guy who wanted to be a stand-up, a young married guy who helped create a highly successful sitcom Mad About You concerning a young married couple. His books Couplehood, Babyhood, Familyhood followed the same arc.
It’s been a life of provident intersections and loops for Reiser. A chance encounter with a persistent talent scout led to him getting cast as Modell in Diner. Watching Peter Falk on television with his dad one night, he was struck by how similar the two were and the idea for a movie took root in his mind. Over two decades later, a conversation with friends prompted him to start thinking about it again. In WTF with Marc Maron, he related the story of when he happened to meet Peter Falk at a party and the movie idea began to sprout, ultimately becoming The Thing About My Folks with Falk and Olivia Dukakis. Reiser met his wife in a comedy club and after 25 years of marriage she suggested they go out to a comedy club for his birthday. That got the stand-up rolling once more and an on-air prodding by Jay Leno sent the idea into overdrive. Next thing you know, he’s Modell again, out of the closet and on to the stage.
Reiser will be doing one show on Friday at Hyena’s Comedy Nightclub in Mockingbird station in Dallas. Though he was fighting a cold, Reiser took time to chat with TheaterJones.
TheaterJones: I loved the Peter Falk story on Marc Maron‘s podcast.
Paul Reiser: The first time I can remember is Peter Falk in Robin and the Seven Hoods. I was about 8 and I remember falling in love, if you can call it that. Who was this guy who talked like that? I was intrigued. Years later I have this idea to do a movie with Peter Falk to play my father. I sat with it for 20 years. That we got to do it was very much a dream come true. It was probably my favorite professional experience. The impetus was with friends, having one of these existential conversations, and somebody asked “If you had just a year to live, what would you do differently?” Without thinking I said, “Well, I’d write that Peter Falk movie a lot quicker.”
It reminds me of this long incubation for your return to stand-up. Have comedy routines been taking up space in your head all these years?
It’s 20 years or more since I was last out on tour. I guess subconsciously I was incubating, so it is similar. I always had it in the back of my mind that I’d get back. There are comics that as soon as they get the chance they’d leave stand up they plan to never come back. But that was never me. I was just always waiting for the right time to work up some material. As it happened, I was hosting some charity event like I’d do periodically, but it’s not the same as doing a show. On this particular night, it was a hot audience and I was on a good roll. I got off stage and asked my wife “What, am I crazy. Why am I not doing this? This is really fun.”
So I started from scratch. I went down to the local comedy club I used to work out at and asked “Do you mind if I come down and do a couple of minutes?” They said any time, so I took them up on it. I’d do five minutes, then 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, to just get my sea legs back. But it does take a while, it does take a while. There are comedy muscles and even body muscles, you know, being up late at night. The club will say “The show starts at 10.” At night, 10 o’clock at night? I’m in my pajamas at 9, man. OK, I’ll have to adjust a little. So it took a while, but all the time I was having a great go at it, really enjoying it.
In the last 10 years, it’s been getting the movie up and running, and lot of television projects. The writing is fun and the performing is fun, but you’re always waiting for somebody’s green light, you have to test it, and there are so many chefs in the kitchen. With stand up, it’s so immediate. You think of something and you go tell it on stage, boom, and people laugh. And if they don’t laugh, you work on it and fix it for tomorrow. The immediacy has been really refreshing.
To be honest, I’ve been such a homebody that just getting out of the house and getting on a plane and going to meet people has been a surprising charge. I could do without the airport time. But just doing a show and seeing the faces, seeing people, and afterwards signing books and meeting people and hearing stories, and realizing, “Oh you weren’t doing this in a vacuum. People were watching your show, people were reading your books and enjoying your work.”
What are you discovering about America doing stand up shows you didn‘t learn from acting?
My experience so far is that everyone is the same. There is not an ounce of difference between somebody in Salt Lake City or Chicago or Florida or Kentucky, give or take a jacket or hat here and there. They’re the same people and they’re laughing at the same stuff. I always tell people that I’m not smart enough to make anything up, so all the jokes I’m doing actually happened, or were stuff that make me laugh or scratch my head, about having kids, getting older, the intricacies of being married almost 25 years. Mad About You came out of being newly married. Now it’s different but it’s the same. Marriage is still just as beguiling, just as challenging, of a tap dance. So when you talk about that kind of stuff, people respond “Yes, I’m going through the same thing.” I find that comforting that there is a universal vein of comedy people are laughing at.
You certainly tapped into that with your books.
For me, everything has been in a similar way. It’s surprising to me that a lot of people who know me didn’t realize that I did stand up. Which makes me laugh because I think well, that’s why any of this happened. I only did this because I was a stand up.’ There’s always been a consistent through line. Stand up turned into Mad About You and Mad About You turned into books and books kind of brought me back to stand up. It’s all very much me. So if you liked the show or liked the books, there’s a good chance you’ll come to the club and go, “Oh yeah, that guy. I like him.”
Your books have such an easy tone with great rhythm. It‘s easy to hear your voice. How is crafting a stand-up set different from the book writing?
You’re not there to perform the books, so you have to trust the reader to do the work. There are a couple of pieces I took from the books, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. In the last book, Familyhood, in particular there’s a lot of stuff that’s a little deeper, more thoughtful, philosophical, and you say “That’s better left as a chapter in a book so people can read it at their own time.”
There is an art of stand-up. Somebody asked me “Has comedy changed after all these years?” and the good news is that it hasn’t. There are certainly a lot more comics out there now, and a wider breadth of comedy styles, but the art of doing it, the craft of doing it, is the same. There are no short cuts, no high-tech way to do it except to go up there night after night after night. That’s how you get better and that’s how material comes into play.
What does stand-up teach you that you don‘t learn from any other craft?
My younger guy is 12 and he’s telling me “I hate homework.” Of course you hate it; it’s not fun. It’s a discipline. And that’s the word I keep coming to: it’s a discipline. You have to keep putting time into it and then you’ll enjoy the fruits. I don’t necessarily like getting out pen and paper and working on a joke. But I sure like going on stage and having it be funny. You have to put in the elbow grease, put in the time, and the good stuff comes.
Might your stand-up become a televised special sometime in the future? It‘s been a long time.
I don’t know, it seems like it’s really easy to do one. Not sure I want to do that. I’m enjoying the low-tech simplicity of just showing up town to town and telling jokes.
How has being married to a psychologist shaped your act?
I don’t know because I never tell her anything truthful. It keeps you on your toes, but that’s all right.