Paul Reiser Talks on the Anatomy of a Sandwich and a Joke
Paul Reiser is the type of guy who could have been a Jerry Seinfeld, but didn't quite make it to that level. We mean that in the nicest way possible. The comic is best known for his role in the hit TV show with Helen Hunt Mad About You, but that was like 20 years ago! So when speaking with him recently, we were more interested in chatting about his other projects as he makes his way to the Palm Beach Improv this June. A musician and author, Reiser's skills go far deeper than television.
The comic is back on the road for the first time since the '90s, and working his hardest to not skip a beat. In what proved to be a very natural and entertaining interview, Reiser pulled back the curtain on some of his writing philosophies, and we even got him to spill the beans on the uncertain possibility of another season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Pretty, pretty good.
New Times: I don't think my dad has ever been more proud of me than when I told him I was going to interview Paul Reiser.
Paul Reiser: Really? Wow, I am so happy to be a part of that moment for you. Where's your dad at?
My parents are living in Baltimore now which is actually relevant to my first question. When I told them we would be having this chat, my mom insisted that I watch Diner.
You had never seen it?
No, I had not seen it, which surprised them as I do consider myself a movie buff of sorts.
(Laughs) That's alright. Better later than never.
You would be happy to know, I got my butt right over the the West Palm Library and rented it.
And, did you learn anything, Dana?
Yeah, yeah, I enjoyed it.
Alright good. Well, you are up to snuff, you know everything about me now. There is nothing left untold.
Because Diner was the first thing that came to mind for my parents, I was wondering if that movie is still something you consider a big part of getting your career started.
Yeah, for sure. Absolutely. That was my first job, I hadn't done anything. When Diner came out, I got my first Tonight Show to publicize the movie, and it opened the door for casting. It wasn't a huge hit, but it was a very well received movie and since I had never been out, it was like "Who's that kid?" To this day, when I am out touring doing comedy, people often come over to me, usually from Baltimore. For a lot of people, mostly men, that movie really hit a nerve. It has a found a spot in a lot of people's hearts.
Give me another one, give me a tougher one.
I rewatched The Aristocrats not too long ago. Your part is very much focused on the anatomy of the joke. Is joke writing formulaic like that for you?
I am always tickled by looking at jokes carefully and looking at moments carefully. Sometimes, it's counter productive because it takes you out of the moment. It's about listening to and watching a set and trying to isolate why something worked better than expected or less well than expected. And also, you know, just admiring other people's craft and when someone does a joke asking "Well why was that so funny?"
It is just a fascinating art form. Just being excited when someone chooses a beautifully selected word and it's so much funnier than any other word they could have chosen, or the rhythm, or the timing. There are 1000 elements that go into making something work and many of them are intangible. It's like how some people like taking apart cars, I like taking apart jokes.
You have written three books so far; Couplehood, Babyhood, and Familyhood.
Yes, and I have read 7.
You've got me beat. What do you like about writing books versus writing television?
There is something intimate in a way when you are writing a book, the experience of the read is different. You are not there to act it out or direct it, it's all got to be on the page. So the fact that you are writing it and somebody else will be enjoying it and reading it themselves makes it a different experience than performing.
And also, it lasts longer, in a way. I mean yes, you can watch a movie forever, you can watch a show forever, but there is something kind of nice about a book that it is out there. It always surprises me when people come up to me after a show with a really dog-haired copy of Babyhood and say "I have had this near my bed for 15 years." You are not going to have that with an episode of a show. There is something intimate that you are handling it and it is something not to be taken lightly.
I want to talk about something that might be a sore spot for you. But I want to talk about The Paul Resier Show. It lasted only two episodes. Are you looking to ever get back into television?
You know, I wasn't even looking then to get back into television. The opportunity came up, and it was a great experience until it suddenly wasn't. But I was sort of very happy not being on TV, and I was invited back to create my own show, and I did, and I liked what we came up with. It was literally sold to NBC and then NBC itself was sold to someone else. New people came in and they didn't know what was in their claws and it was like, oh, yeah, we have this show.
It's sort of like the Godfather joke: "Just when I thought I was out... They pull me back in." And I was very happy not being in there, and then I started doing it and, "Oh gosh, I forgot this is fun." We had a great time making it and we are very proud of the show, but then you forget all the other intangibles or tangibles and other elements involved.
It is a very different experience than doing standup. TV and movies, you have a lot of people involved and you need their money, you need someone to make it and someone to put it out. By definition, it is a longer and more laborious process. And it's so refreshing for me going out and doing standup, because I started out doing stand up, I hadn't really done it in 20 years since Mad About You started in 1992. I kind of just put it on the back burner and forgot to get back to it. And now I am going out and having such a good time and a large part of it, I realized, is just the immediacy of it. That you don't have any little intermediaries, you don't have anybody waiting, you don't have to run the jokes by somebody, you don't have to sell it, you just think of it, write it down, tell it. Done. Audience laughs. Everyone goes home.
I read that you majored in music, that's awesome. It's something you have pursued intermittently throughout your career. Is there a project you are working on now?
I am doing some writing, I am always writing, but it has always been sort of private stuff. I did one project with Julia Fordham who is a great singer, and she and I just sort of fell into this accidental thing where we wrote a song, we decided to write some more and it became an album. So it was never part of a career or something I was aiming to do, but I am always writing and always playing my stuff. Someday, I might surprise myself and do an album of songs with another singer. It's something I am always playing with but I don't have any real clear cut plans right now.
You played yourself on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I know Larry David was on your show, as well. I just need a little peak into what it is actually like knowing LD.
He is always kind of surprising in that he is a little different than you think. He is exactly like you think, and something will surprise you like he is not as dark as he is on the show, he is actually a very nice guy. He is not untroubled, but a very sweet guy and brilliantly funny and brilliantly creative.
I did one scene in one show and I worked for like an hour and we did 7 different versions of the scene. He would say "Now this time, just ask me about this" and then we would do another version, each time it would be a different story point and he wrote the show when he got the editing but he needed the scene in case. A really crazy, crazy way to work but it works for him. It is an excellent show, that is one show I watch for sure.
I know, me too, I hope they come back with season 9, it's still up in the air?
I think they are.
What is your favorite kind of sandwich?
My favorite kind of sandwich? That's interesting. I like a little variety, I like a little juxtaposition in there. You know, you have to put something a little different texture, so if you are going to go with like a roast beef sandwich, maybe a little coleslaw on there with a little Russian dressing. You want to have a little break up of the texture. I enjoy that kind of caring and finessing of the sandwich experience. And you need a good bread, you know don't belittle the bread. You can't just slap together white bread unless it is a PB&J, you want to get the appropriate thickness and crustiness, you want soft on the inside with the crust on the outside, so there is a lot of thought that goes into it, I'll have to get back to you with more detail.
Awesome, thank you so much Paul!
Say hi to your parents.
Paul Reiser, Friday, June 14 and Saturday, June 15, at West Palm Improv, 550 S Rosemary Ave. Tickets are $25 plus fees. Visit palmbeach.improv.com for more information.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.