Even though Ray Romano has got his home turf written all over him, the Hollywood hotshots overseeing his new CBS sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond" wanted to make him more, uh, "universal." Put him in some nebulous TV suburb somewhere. "Take the ethnic thing out of it," reports the Queens-born and -bred comedian in his trademark drone.
"How can it not be New York?" he wonders in amazement. "You know? Just listen to me and look at me. How can you take me out of my element?"
Well, you can't, not really, "and they compromised, and we went to Long Island," Romano was saying just after his smash appearance at the TV critics' fall preview press tour in Los Angeles this summer. He'd knocked 'em dead--a whole hotel ballroom full of cynical scribes--just the way he'd killed in six minutes as a stand-up on the David Letterman show last year, inspiring CBS' late-night kingpin to have his Worldwide Pants company develop Romano's very own prime-time sitcom. It premiered last Friday.
The critics' preview screening of "Everybody Loves Raymond" had already surprised everyone with its delightfully nutty blend of warm family humor and eccentric human observation. Sort of a "Seinfeld" with kids. Not to mention grandparents across the street. Critics were actually going around their hotel shrieking lines from the pilot--"There's too much fruit in the house!"--like Romano's TV mom (Doris Roberts) and dad (Peter Boyle), terrorized by Ray's gift of a fruit-of-the-month club membership.
"Somebody called me an Italian Jerry Seinfeld," Romano said. "Yeah. I'll take it."
You bet he'll take it, this 38-year-old whose only previous brush with TV stardom was when he was booted from the cast of "NewsRadio" just two days into rehearsal as the NBC sitcom's electrician character ("In my gut I kind of knew that I wasn't pulling it off").
The closest he'd come to celebrity before was a decade earlier, when he was getting started in stand-up at night and making his living by day delivering futons to star purchasers throughout New York. "I delivered to Cher, I delivered to Charles Grodin, and we delivered to Robert De Niro. He wasn't there. His house guy took it."
But Romano was no less impressed by the average folks buying futons. "They're also very affordable," he says. "So you go to other neighborhoods, too."
Like the one in which "Everybody Loves Raymond" takes place--a neat, middle-class, unspecified Long Island town where his sports columnist character Ray Barone lives with his wife (played by "Room for Two" star Patricia Heaton), 5-year-old daughter and 20-month-old twin boys. And where his busybody mother (Roberts), peculiar father (Boyle) and profoundly idiosyncratic 40-year-old brother (comedian Brad Garrett) live across the street, when they aren't barging into his otherwise average abode.
"We wanted to keep it as close to real as possible," Romano says of the supporting characters. His TV father obtains Ray's answering machine code and listens in on his messages. Romano swears his real-life father did this. Boyle also makes sure to always take a big sniff of his grandbabies' skulls, to "suck the youth outta their heads." Romano got this from his own dad, Al, a retired engineer, who, he says, "wants to show Peter Boyle how to do it: 'He's not following through!' Peter Boyle is actually less maniacal than my father really is."
Scary. Very scary. Even Romano admits his relatives are "weird."
Yet they can't wait to be immortalized on TV this way. Romano says his brother's "comment was, 'Hey, Raymond, if you can make money making fun of me, go ahead.' "
Romano's 5-year-old daughter (he also has 3 1/2-year-old twin boys) helped name his CBS series after Ray and his manager, Rory Rosegarten, brainstormed themselves bonkers trying to come up with a title.
Romano had taken to carrying around a thesaurus. By the time he was in San Francisco shooting an "HBO Comedy Half-Hour" special that is being shown this month, "this was just driving him crazy," Rosegarten says. "I was in the dressing room, and he just walks in the room and he throws a piece of paper on the floor and he walks out. It says, 'Who Needs Raymond?' 'Who Wants Raymond?' "
Finally, "I'm with my daughter," Raymond says, "and we're havin' a moment together. And I say to her, 'Do you love me?' You know. Just in a playful way. And she goes, 'Of course, I love you. Everybody loves Raymond.' "
Says Rosegarten, "He called me immediately. 'That's it!' "
* "Everybody Loves Raymond" airs Fridays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2).