Despite its multitude of awards and millions of fans, it may surprise you to learn that not everybody loved RAYMOND when it originally aired on CBS from 1996 thru 2005. More surprising still, it took until last December — courtesy of a 16 hour road trip spent listening to creator Phil Rosenthal’s autobiography “You’re Lucky You’re Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom.” — to realize that we completely missed out on what is hands down one of television’s funniest sitcoms.
Since then, our love affair with RAYMOND has blossomed to the point that when we were recently offered the opportunity to interview Phil Rosenthal about his latest project Exporting Raymond, a documentary arriving in theaters today that chronicles his hilarious journey of transporting RAYMOND to Russia, we jumped at the chance.
One of the things that really comes across in your “book is your commitment to RAYMOND. In fact, you stuck with the show throughout its nine year run, which nowadays is somewhat of a rarity for showrunners. That being said, just how apprehensive were you about handing over your legacy to Russia?
Phil Rosenthal: It was very hard to let someone else do that but here’s what I thought was going to happen. The head of Sony called me into his office a few years ago and said, “You know, Sony created the sitcom business in Russia.” Turns out, the sitcom did not exist in Russia until Sony brought THE NANNY over there and they translated it into a huge hit. So the head of Sony asked me how would I like to go over to Russia, obverse how they make make sitcoms and then come back and write a fictional feature film about a guy who goes over there to have his show translated. And I said, “Well, that sounds good but if the situation really exists why not bring a camera crew and film what would really happen.” He loved the idea, asked if I would be the guy, and like an idiot I said yes.
Had you ever been to Russia prior to shooting this film?
No, but I had to go because it’s a life adventure and you have to do it. What better way to see a country then to have work that you love bring you there. And of course, I thought I was going over there as an expert, and that I would be welcomed as an expert. After-all, I’m not an expert in many things but I think I understand the show I made and ran for nine years, so I went there and what Exporting Raymond is about is a guy who thinks he is an expert and goes to a land that nobody cares.
What was one of the more curious things that you encountered upon your arrival?
Russian writers over there, having never worked on sitcoms often came from soap operas because they were also a half-hour so the assumption was that just because they worked in a half-hour format meant that they could work in any half hour!
Are Russian Networks executives any different than American ones?
That is kind of answered in the film, in that we find that executives tend to be executives no matter where you go in the world.
Has the cast of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND seen the film and if so what has their reaction been?
They love it, and Ray especially loves it because he sees how I suffer. He was laughing harder than anybody.
Now that you’ve gotten this adventure out of your system, is there any chance you’ll return to the small screen with another sitcom, or is the experience of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND simply too hard to top?
I was so very lucky enough to have somebody read the script that I wrote, to like it enough to give us money to cast it, like it enough to give us money to make a pilot, then to pick up the show and put it on the air for a week, let alone nine years, so to want it all again… Think of all the planets that would have to align for any of that to happen again. Would I like to do another show? Absolutely! But I don’t know if you’ve heard, business is terrible, so I’m diversifying. I’m working on a Broadway show, a show for England, I have a sitcom idea for America, a reality show idea, I have to screenplays that I wrote that are at various stages of nothing’s happening, I have a lot of things that I’m working on, but it’s never easy. This movie, from the idea — that first meeting that I had with the head of Sony — to it being released was six years! Everything takes a very long time to get done.
It’s interesting that you mention “Reality TV” among the projects you’re working on as I was going to ask you your take on the genre that hadn’t quite permeated nearly as much of the Primetime landscape when you were working on RAYMOND as it has now.
Well, I think the glut of reality TV shows that we see now could signal… the end of civilization.
Rest assured, you’ll get no argument here.
There are a few that are great to watch. I watch AMERICAN IDOL with my daughter, but there are two kinds of anything. Good and bad. I would rather watch a great reality show than a bad fictional one.
Having spent the better part of the past few months immersing myself in everything RAYMOND the thing I really marvel at most is how much comedy is mined from your core cast simply talking to each other. Could a show like RAYMOND that wasn’t flashy and didn’t rely on gimmicks work nowadays on Network TV?
I think it could work, but I don’t know if we would get on the air. There’s a lifelong struggle of style over substance where Network executives seem to just want a shiny package and they forget to fill the package with anything. What I always say about movies that I go to see, because it’s not just television is that the work seemed to stop at the poster. They didn’t bother writing a script. They thought of some kind of package deal with actors, a director and a premise and figured they’d worry about the rest later, which of course they don’t, and the result is that we, the audience, is ripped off.
What’s your take on the current state of TV sitcoms?
MODERN FAMILY is very good. I just don’t know why it took so long for another family sitcom to make it. There was a long break between THE COSBY SHOW and us and then there was another long break between us and MODERN FAMILY. And now, what you’re going to see are a lot of people start to imitate MODERN FAMILY because the studios and networks will see dollar signs. MODERN FAMILY did a great job of being modern to today and that struck accord for people. I of course maintain not because it’s so modern, but because it’s so well done.
Another bit of trivia I picked up from you book was that you started on in this business with aspirations of being a performer. Is it mere coincidence that you are now starring in a movie?
It really is all accidental. Yes, I did start as an actor, but only because I didn’t know there were jobs writing, producing and directing. Growing up as a kid and watching TV you would watched THE HONEYMOOONERS and fall in love with those guys and say “I want to be like them.” So that’s what I went to do, I wanted to be in funny shows, try to be funny and then when you find yourself eating tuna fish every night as a failed actor you stop and think, “What else can I do?” You write and suddenly you start eating what you like for dinner. That was the transition there and it just so happened to be chance that I was asked by Sony to be in as well as make the movie. It was all accidental. I’m not acting in this movie, it’s just me. I had a job to do and the camera follows me. If people like me in the movie and want to put me in other movies, I think I would say yes because it’s fun. I love all parts of the business, except for the business part. I like acting, writing, directing, I even like producing other people’s stuff. They’re all branches off the same tree and I really am one of those people who really love what they do and feel very lucky to get to do it.
Final RAYMOND related question, unlike most family sitcoms, your show never was about the kids. What was the impetus for such a curious decision?
As a father, and I know Ray felt the same way, I felt a responsibility to them. We didn’t want to exploit these kids. I see them every now and then and it’s amazing how tall they got. They’re doing great, in High School and College. They’re wonderful kids from a very nice family and I wish them nothing but great things.
Thanks so much for your time, and my apologies for taking so long to jump on the EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND bandwagon?
That’s all right, it doesn’t matter. In fact, 99% of the people who have seen the show over its lifetime will not have seen the original broadcast. We’re just lucky that we’re in syndication, on DVD and it seems to be sticking around. So again, lucky.
For more information on Exporting Raymond, visit the official website by clicking here.