It's Nice Work, If You Can Get It . . . : Paul Reiser Has a Hit TV Show, Hot Book, Movie Role. So, What's Next?

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Paul Reiser isn't an abusive kind of comic. But right now he is inflicting some serious taunting on his dog, Frankie, who is whimpering inconsolably as her cruel master deliberately chews his egg sandwich inches away from her lustful snout.

"It's for meeee , not so much for youuuuu ," Reiser tells Frankie in mocking Labrador-ese. "You want the eggs, and yet you didn't order." He reads the dog's mind out loud, pathetically: "I've never had a potato, I would so love one, but my people don't have the ability to grow them. You don't even eat potatoes, because you're gonna get fat. I'll take the smallest piece of bread and for that I'll never bother you again, I swear to God, I'll go away happily."

Reiser finally acquiesces to this imagined plea and tears off a piece of toast for the dog--"because you stayed for the whole show"--and offers his human visitor some crust, too. (No thanks.) "I'm just practicing for the end of my career," he explains, self-consciously, "when I'm doing a marionette and talking-dog act in malls around the nation."

Frisky Frankie--frustrated in stardom as well as brunch--was the model for you-know-who on "Mad About You," Reiser's NBC sitcom. "See, this is what Murray is supposed to do and doesn't. It was written to be a big (expletive) lab that, when they come in, is going, 'How are ya, how are ya, how are ya, whaddya got, food?' And Murray is this very sensitive dog: 'I'll be over here.' He's a transvestite, a cat dressed up like a dog."

Then again, would "Mad" fans love Murray sans doggy neuroses, fully in touch with and able to articulate his base wants and needs? We think not, no more than we would quite want his TV masters, Reiser's Paul and Helen Hunt's Jamie, to stumble into full relational enlightenment too healthily ahead of our own. May the three of them thrive, prosper and always have their corners to slink back to.

The domestic adult verite/slapstick of "Mad About You"--now in its third and most popular season--is Reiser's second situation comedy. The first was the juvenile-aimed "My Two Dads." Reiser gets to combine elements of both his TV personas on the big screen in "Bye Bye, Love," which opened Friday. There, playing a divorced parent just beginning to rediscover romance, he gets to do the dad thing and the sexy thing.

The movie has a TV kind of feeling in a way that, say, "Mad About You" usually doesn't. But it deals with common enough core issues that it will certainly nonetheless tug on some heartstrings. Reiser, Matthew Modine and Randy Quaid play a trio of divorced fathers, balancing child-custody and dating-intimacy issues with their daughters, ex-wives and girlfriends between distracting McDonald's product placements.

"As many people get divorced as don't get divorced, and there probably aren't that many examples of movies where it's dealt with very matter-of-factly yet seriously," Reiser says of the film. Though it doesn't reflect his own life, he hears that early screenings have produced emotional reactions from viewers dealing with tough family separations. "In a good sense," he swears, "it's a warm, fuzzy movie."

And, for him, an unstrenuous one. He relished "the idea of, frankly, being in somebody else's sandbox," using his summer vacation last year to be part of an ensemble cast and to enjoy the relatively laconic pace of feature film production between frantic weekly TV seasons.

Indeed, last summer's movie shoot was relaxed enough that Reiser was able to finish off his book, "Couplehood," on the set. Said tome shot to the top of the bestseller lists in the fall, and has been lodged in the Top 10 since.

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Ironic, isn't it, that--as successful in the Nielsen ratings as "Mad About You" has lately been--with the book, Reiser earned his first No. 1 in a medium not even on his "must-conquer" checklist?

"Didn't have it. That was one of those things that you put on your list after you've done it. It's like you have your list of things to do, and you accidentally bought stamps, and you add it to the list--'buy stamps'--and then cross it off, because you know it's already done."

An editor suggested the book's theme, but Reiser has made the travails of life partnership very much his stock in trade for three years now with "Mad About You," which was loosely modeled after his own marriage of six years to Paula, a therapist. He's hardly the first to make comedy out of the grist of marriage, but there is something novel in the edgy way he approximates the real messiness of matrimony while maintaining an unusual inherent dignity that makes his series one of the funniest half-hours on television, live-action division.

Almost three years into its five-year commitment, "Mad About You" has already addressed a good amount of the little tests young marrieds face, but Reiser doesn't think there's any danger of running short on material.

"A comedy based on relationship grows. Most people don't think, 'Oh my God, yesterday I showered and dressed and met 12 people and had good things and bad things. . . . I don't have anything left to do tomorrow!'

"And not only do funny things come to mind naturally, there's the growing of the relationship--is it getting closer to kids or not kids, or getting older, or getting tired of each other or more excited about each other?

"What I wanted to do this year--and we'll probably do it next year--is his work overtaking. My work, which is writing about a couple, has overtaken my being in a couple, because I'm busy playing it. If you're writing a show that's about life, you have to go out and have life. And I haven't been doing that."

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The hope is that viewers of the future will be able to guess from which season a rerun carbon-dates just by observing the couple's casual conversational dynamics.

"Hopefully it's mirroring their life, so by definition it's different three years in than one year in. When we started the show, we were married five months, and they were having discussions like 'Oh man, did I marry the right person?' We're way past that. Now you can afford to get cranky. We did a show recently where they're both asking their friends, 'Tell me again why it's bad to be single.'

"In the first season, everybody thinks, 'Oh, it's going to be a couple, and that TV language where you take digs at each other.' And we tried really hard to stay away from that: 'No, understand that these people love each other, and they're scared, but they're not going to take digs at each other.'

"Well, now that they're more comfortable and the audience is too, and there's a solid base (that) these people are pretty serious about each other, then you can go, 'She's makin' me nuts, I gotta tell you, she's makin' me absolutely crazy.' And it's not coming out of disrespect; it's coming out of reality that we've earned."

Only Frankie, it seems, gets no respect at all from Reiser. The Lab is pacing and whining at the door, itching to get out.

"What?" Reiser barks back. "Speak English already! You've been in the country 11 years." Scurrying out onto the lot, Frankie seems not so unlike her TV counterpart Murray after all, which, given the company they both keep, shouldn't seem so surprising.

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