Would We Ever Stop Laughing?
When Carl Reiner created “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in 1961, he borrowed liberally from his own life, wanting to do a sitcom based on his experiences at home and at work--in his case, as a writer and performer on the now-classic “Your Show of Shows,” starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.
Thirty-five years later, when Ray Romano and Phil Rosenthal created CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the two stole from personal experience to fashion a sitcom about a sportswriter trying to be too many things at once: husband, father and son to the intrusive parents who live across the street.
The economics and politics of the sitcom game have changed in the years separating Reiner and Romano, but one truth remains: Good writing and good ensemble casts make funny shows.
Recently, Reiner took a break from finishing a collection of short stories and Romano took a break from his TV series to talk to The Times about their respective shows and the business of comedy. This week, the 16th annual William S. Paley Television Festival, put on by the Museum of Television & Radio, gets underway, and Reiner and Romano will be featured on separate panels: “Everybody Loves Raymond” Friday at 7 p.m. and “A Salute to Carl Reiner” with Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon and others Tuesday at 7 p.m. (Complete schedule, Page 8.)
In addition to creating “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and writing on “Your Show of Shows,” Reiner, 76, is a film director whose credits include “Oh, God!” and “The Jerk.” He is known for his “2000-Year-Old Man” albums with Mel Brooks. The latest, “The 2000 Year-Old-Man in the Year 2000,” last week won a Grammy as the best spoken comedy album. The Santa Barbara Film Festival salutes him next weekend (Story, Page 14.)
After a long career in stand-up comedy, Romano, 41, created “Everybody Loves Raymond” with the show’s executive producer, Rosenthal. Now in its third season, the sitcom regularly ranks in or near the top 10 shows on television. Romano is also the author of the comedic book “Everything and a Kite.”
Question: Given that both of your shows were successes, can you say that there’s a basic recipe for a good half-hour comedy?
Reiner: The recipe for his is right in the title. “Based on the comedy of [Ray Romano].”
Romano: That’s the thing. With “The Dick Van Dyke Show” it was just real dialogue, the way people really talk.
Reiner: See, he has the big advantage that Ray [Barone] talks like Ray Romano. I wrote “The Dick Van Dyke Show” for a Bronx Jew. I [starred in] a pilot we did in New York and it was OK, and I’m glad it didn’t sell. . . . So when we got Dick Van Dyke, it was really my life as an actor on “Your Show of Shows.” . . . It was about who we were, and that’s why I watch his show every week. It’s about him and his wife’s relationship to his family. It’s all for real.
Romano: That’s the comment we hear the most. People identify with it. They relate to all the situations. They think we’re talking about them. All the good shows have been like that.
Q: Ratings are obviously important, but how do you block that out and just focus on the work?
Romano: Our first year on the air, we were [ranked] in the 80s, the 70s. I cared about the ratings, but you also care about the show. The critics were behind us, so we kind of knew we had this grace period. So I was more worried about the quality of the show.
Reiner: You really can’t do anything about the ratings. The only thing you can do something about is the show. It’s like saying, “Be handsomer. Be cuter.” Once they do that, the show is dead. . . . Sid Caesar’s brother had a wonderful phrase: “Funny makes money.” Whenever we would start to argue about it, that was it. Work harder, make it funnier and you won’t have to worry about the ratings.
Romano: I always quote [Jerry] Seinfeld, who said, “The way to make money in comedy is to just care about the comedy.”
Q: Sitcoms these days get away with content that is pretty raunchy. [To Reiner] Does it amaze you? And how did the network handle “The Dick Van Dyke Show”?
Reiner: We weren’t left alone. They stopped calling them censors, because censoring peoplewas a terrible thing. So they started calling them continuity acceptors. And the continuity acceptors were not accepting. I quit the second Dick Van Dyke show [“The New Dick Van Dyke Show”] based on censorship. But on the first show I remember I was so angry I was going to quit, but I said, “Wait, I don’t have enough money yet.” The first year of the first show we had a joke where the kid says, “Where do I come from?” And the line I wrote for Dick was, “Well, you come from Mommy’s belly.” And the kid says, “No, I know that, I just mean am I from New Jersey or New York?” And [the network] said, “No, you can’t say that.” And they won.
Romano: But as the show went on there was probably less and less of that.
Reiner: No, not for the six years that we were there.
Romano: There are still some boundaries, but I guess it’s looser.
Reiner: What are the words you can’t say on your show?
Romano: We say “ass.” We say “ass” too much. . . . We had a joke last night, I’m not proud of it, but I’m driving in the car with my brother [played by Brad Garrett]. And we had just argued. And he took his shoes off and put his feet on the dashboard, because we referred to his feet smelling in an earlier scene. And I look at his feet and I go, “Boy, we just must have hit a skunk that crawled out of the ass of another skunk.” . . . But we had one show the first year, where the theme is the wife and I are trying to get together, and it’s Halloween. And we’re worried about birth control. And I end up buying the condoms to show I’m putting in an effort. So I buy the condoms and they’re in these little wrappers and they look like chocolate candy. And Peter Boyle [who plays Ray’s churlish father] ends up giving them out as Halloween trick-or-treat candy. And the network said, “We don’t approve of it.”
Reiner: See in 1960, we couldn’t have this conversation. The fact that they would go to bed together? And the word “condom”?
Romano: Look at “Friends.” “Friends” is on at 8 o’clock, and it’s driven by sex, the whole show.
Reiner: It is the easiest way to get a laugh. It requires more thinking to write a show without sex. It takes a lot more work. . . .
Romano: That’s not our universe. We have one character who can date, my brother. So you do have to put more effort into the stories.
Reiner: Listen, in the “Show of Shows” days, that’s 1950-59, I remember doing one war [joke]. The line was, “War is hell,” right? Well, somebody said you can’t say “hell” on television. So we said, “War is heck.” We actually said war is heck.
Q: What about the life span of a show? It seems sometimes sitcoms exhaust themselves creatively, but everyone is making so much money that they keep going. How do you know when it’s time to leave?
Romano: [To Reiner] I remember hearing you say once, “We realized we were just stealing from ourselves.”
Reiner: You do steal from yourself, even the second or third year. But two things happened with the “Van Dyke” show. First of all, we did [about] 33 shows a year. So there were 158 shows by the end of five years. So in five years we were worn out. Plus, in the old television shows, the “Father Knows Bests” and the “Leave It to Beavers,” they were peopled by former stars of other mediums--radio and motion pictures. Most of them were in their 40s and 50s. And we had Mary Tyler Moore and Dick, who had just started to be viable in motion pictures, and I was interested in writing for the movies.
Q: So you felt liberated after the show ended.
Reiner: Yeah. I didn’t want to do another television show.
Romano: [To Reiner] When it was over, how much of it was like, “It’s so rewarding but it’s also torturous to do a show week in and week out”?
Reiner: Oh, of course. But you know it’s funny, I think you guys are more tortured now. I don’t know what’s happened. When we did the “Van Dyke” show, we used to come in [to film] at 8 o’clock, 7:30, and start the show. And by 9:30, 10, we’d finish, send the audience home and do pickups. Little pickups. . . . And by the time 10:30 came around, we were out.
Romano: But what about the writing?
Reiner: Well, the first two years I wrote 40 out of 60 [episodes].
Romano: I can’t even fathom that.
Reiner: And there was no supervisor. I was my own script supervisor. It took me four days to write a show and eight days to rewrite somebody else’s show.
Romano: It’s funny, because you have to take an outside script every year, it’s a Writers Guild rule. And no matter who it is, even if they’ve watched every single show, it always needs to be rewritten from the beginning.
Reiner: I’m still writing stuff for “Show of Shows,” thinking, “Ooh, that would be great for Sid.”
Romano: Send it to us.
RAY ROMANO: “Look at ‘Friends.’ ‘Friends’ is on at 8 o’clock, and it’s driven by sex, the whole show.”
CARL REINER: “It is the easiest way to get a laugh. It requires more thinking to write a show without sex. It takes a lot more work. . . .”
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TV and Radio Festival Events
Following is a list of remaining events in the William S. Paley Television Festival, which began Tuesday.
Tonight: “The Twilight Zone”
Friday: “Everybody Loves Raymond”
Saturday: “Sports Night”
Monday: “The Ben Stiller Show”
Tuesday: “A Salute to Carl Reiner”
March 11: “thirtysomething”
March 12: “Late Night With Conan O’Brien”
March 13: “L.A. Law”
March 15: “NewsRadio”
March 16: “The Jeffersons”
All events take place at 7 p.m. at the DGA Theater Complex, Directors Guild of America, 7920 Sunset Blvd., L.A. Prices are $13 for members; $15 for the general public. To order tickets by phone, call (888) ETM-TIXS.