The Carolina Theatre, Durham
Saturday, Jan. 31, 8 p.m.
Even Paul Reiser admits that he’ll probably always be most remembered for his Emmy-winning 1990s sitcom Mad About You, but the veteran actor, writer and comedian has enjoyed a renewed profile recently, including a supporting turn in Best Picture Oscar nominee Whiplash as well as roles on the FX series Married and Amazon’s Red Oaks—and now, a new stand-up comedy tour, coming to the Carolina Theatre this weekend. We recently spoke with Reiser about the surprise success of a small film, the changing entertainment business and whether he’s ready to become an action figure.
INDY: So I have to warn you—I wrote a blurb about your appearance, and it was a bit gushy.
PAUL REISER: Ooh, gushy!
I was saying I felt that you’ve been doing the best work of your career lately, with Whiplash, Married and Red Oaks.
Hold on, let me get my tape recorder. I need this for posterity!
They’re all very different projects, and different types of roles.
Yeah, it’s been weird to even try and figure out where all these roles come from, and why they seem to come in clusters. When I started stand-up a thousand years ago, I always said stand-up was my main thing, and everything else, the acting, it was kind of a bonus. I was kind of laying low by design, and about three years ago, I got back into doing stand-up. Coincidentally or not, everything else started to happen. Such is life! These things all generated from the filmmakers, who all had different things in mind. So it was very easy for me to say yes to all of them—the roles were great and the commitments were limited.
It’s certainly interesting to be in your 50s and get different roles than you would in your 20s. Red Oaks reminded me of Richard Crenna in The Flamingo Kid, and not that long ago I could have been the younger guy. But there’s something to be said about being the older guy. I find that true with stand-up as well—you have a lot more to say than in your 20s. You might think you know more when you’re starting out, but you really do know more when you’re in your 50s.
Congratulations to everyone on Whiplash for the Oscar nominations, by the way.
It was a very pleasant surprise. I knew Whiplash would be great because I saw the short, and that was great in and of itself. Everyone who saw the movie was knocked out by it, but because it was so small, we thought it might get overwhelmed by bigger films. But J.K. Simmons—that performance is just so overwhelming. And Miles Teller—I feel like that performance is overlooked. It’s as good as J.K. Simmons, but it’s quieter.
I thought your part was important because it was the anti-Simmons character—the angel on the kid’s shoulder. A good man, very kind and concerned for his son, but with a level of comfort that could represent holding yourself back from genius. There’s a lot you have to convey with that.
[Writer/director Damien Chazelle] wrote a lot of subtext in there, really beautiful. The truth is, as a father, I can see this—when your kids reach a certain age, you never stop wanting to protect them, but when you see them heading down a certain road, sometimes you have to let it happen. Miles’ character sees his father as a failure. We don’t know if the father is unhappy. He wanted to be a novelist and he teaches high-school English. That wasn’t his dream come true, but he doesn’t seem unhappy.
But it’s the kid’s rejection of that failed dream that makes him ripe for the picking. Someone says, “Hey, you want to aspire to greatness?” and he’s going to do it. It’s “I love my dad, but I don’t want to be my dad.” You push away the one you love because you want to be your own man. All that was in the script in very subtle and measured ways. And it made me very pleased to see it get recognized.
What’s the focus of your show at the Carolina Theatre?
It’s funny—I realize I’ve taken such a long break from doing stand-up that not a lot has changed. The material is all new, but my take on the world is very similar to what it used to be. Some people might only know me from Mad About You, and they’re not going to be surprised. [Laughs] The guy on Mad About You was designed to be like me so I wouldn’t have to act so much!
I can talk about stuff that amuses me and confounds me, like trying to raise kids, or talk about marriage—Mad About You was born out of my stand-up, being a newlywed and trying to figure that out. A lot has changed in 25 years, but there’s a certain relatability that’s still there. The best compliment people would give me was, “That sounded just like a fight I had at my house!” And now people are coming out of my show and going, “That was exactly right!” I say comedians are like everyone else, but they write everything down.
It’s an interesting time for stand-up because of new outlets such as iTunes or YouTube.
That old model of going on The Tonight Show and killing it—that hasn’t been the case in decades. There’s plenty of comedians who are building a base on YouTube or through podcasts, but quality rises to the top. If someone’s good, if they’re doing something different, they’re going to get noticed. But [YouTube] is not my path—I’m never going to pop out of the box. I’m slow and steady. I’m never like, “Let’s put some clips out there!” I’m more “Let’s go to the club, go to the theater!”
It’s the old-school way of refining your act, building it up, versus the newer way, where you don’t have to sand down your edges for a mass audience, but if you bomb, people will be Tweeting about it as it happens.
Yeah, that’s very true. Someone can see your clip and go “I gotta see that guy when he’s coming to town!” but if you’re having a bad night, and we all do … I’ve been doing different venues such as clubs, this beautiful theater, even casinos, and it’s a different feel, mixing it up. That helps things be more consistent, in a way.
What’s coming up for you?
I just finished a small part in a big movie, Concussion, with Will Smith—that’s coming out this Christmas. It’s about the NFL. And I’ve got a couple of TV things. I’m doing another season of Married, I’m doing a season of Red Oaks and I’m writing a thing for Amazon. They’re going to look at it and see if they want to do a pilot.
Amazon’s really changing the game, expanding on the Netflix originals with their pilot seasons.
It’s for the better! There’s more outlets, so you don’t just have to pitch to three or four networks, and you don’t need the same numbers to qualify as a success. Transparent just won the Golden Globe, and however many people saw it, I bet it would have gotten it canceled on a network. And you only have to do 10 [episodes], so it’s almost like watching a long movie chopped up into little pieces. It’s a very different way to proceed, and more comfortable than 22 half-hours or even hours per year.
I have friends who work in TV, and they talk about the challenge of coming up with enough story to keep it going.
Yeah, it’s a challenge! Every week, you go, “We faked them out again—fooled them until next week.” I’m reading Norman Lear’s book [Even This I Get to Experience] and at one point he had seven—seven!—hit shows on the air at once. It’s inconceivable.
When Mad About You started, I met Larry Gelbart, who created M*A*S*H, the TV show. This was the middle of the first season, and battle fatigue had set in. I asked him, “How do you do it?” And he said, “You have to remember—your shows are like your children. You’re going to make 22 children a year, and not all of them are going to be beautiful. A couple are going to be genius—you’re going to be so proud of their accomplishments. A couple, you’re going to want to keep in the house, don’t let ’em be seen. And the vast majority will be just fine. They’ll be upstanding citizens, they’re not going to hurt anybody, they’re okay.”
And it turned out to be about right. Every season, you’ll have a couple where you’ll go, “Put them in the vault! That’s classic!” You have two or three where you go, “Whew, got through that one. Don’t look too closely at the packaging.” And the majority, you’ll go, “That was fun. Got another show to make next week.” Which brings me back to Amazon—you get to do 10, you can write them all in a row and you’re not chasing your tail. It’s almost a luxury.
OK, we’re about out of time and I have one goofy fanboy question for you. Brace yourself.
They’ve been doing action figures from Aliens lately. As a great fan of the movie and your character, Carter Burke, I have to ask—are you ready for the world to potentially have a Paul Reiser action figure?
I am. I am sitting by, posing, in case they’re ready to call. You know, the Burke action figure’s gonna be a little dull. [Laughs] All the other actors had like two weeks of boot camp. They were learning to handle their guns and belts and all this great gear. I showed up and I got a little binder. I had a little diary I took onboard. The soldiers had all the cool stuff, and I had a pencil. That’s what the Burke figure would come with, a Filofax notebook.