Ray Romano returns with ‘Men of a Certain Age’

Those who subscribe to the familiar adage “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” have not been hanging around lately with Ray Romano. The star and inspiration behind the hit family comedy “Everybody Loves Raymond” has discovered something far more difficult than comedy or sustaining a hit network sitcom. It’s developing his Act 2.

Romano is grappling with the demands of being the creative force behind TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age,” his first TV venture since 2005, when “Raymond” ended its nine-year run on CBS. Toning down his familiar everyman comic persona, he is leaping from the plush neon flashiness of network TV to the less glossy and more frugal regions of cable, and with a risky concept. The show, which also stars Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula, revolves around three friends descending not too gracefully into middle age. Finding the proper tone has made Romano a bit anxious.

“Yes, I’m nervous about this,” he said, taking a break on the Paramount Studios set of the dramedy, which he produced and created with Mike Royce. “There are so many things I’m worried about. Will people watch? What will people think of me in this role? What if it doesn’t get picked up? What if it does get picked up and we’ve got to do another season?”

He paused, then smiled: “There’s no winning. There’s only less losing.”

Complaining about a heightened stress level, of course, is part of the joke. The success of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” now in syndication, has given him financial stability. And he has not been twiddling his fingers. He performs stand-up around the country and he’s featured on the Golf Channel’s reality series “The Haney Project,” with Hank Haney, Tiger Woods’ swing coach.

Sitting in the faux diner where the main characters gnash over their plight, he was reflective, though there was a twinkle in his eye.

“Ask my psychiatrist,” he offered. “This is the good kind of stress, unlike the stress you have if you’re idle. It is taxing -- I’ve had a couple of sleepless nights here and there. But I’m enjoying it even through the torture.”

Romano and Royce had originally planned for the series to go to HBO, but an executive shift derailed it. CBS indicated interest, but wanted the show to be a more traditional 30-minute sitcom. Taking the show to TNT offered more freedom.

But that has also prompted challenges. The male-centric “Men of a Certain Age” presents considerable hurdles for Romano and TNT. He wonders if he will encounter the pigeon-holing faced by other comedic actors in beloved roles, and he is unsure if audiences will accept him as a troubled character who doesn’t always have a ready punch line.

The series is not as instantly definable as a procedural, family or medical drama. The women in the men’s lives do figure significantly, but the series is not “Sex and the City” in khakis. More important, TV shows about older guys who are not blowing up things don’t exactly draw “Desperate Housewives” ratings. One of the last attempts, ABC’s 2007 drama " Big Shots,” didn’t last a season.

Michael Wright, head of programming for TNT, which has ordered 10 episodes, conceded that “Men” may be a harder sell than the network’s franchise dramas, such as “The Closer,” “Saving Grace” and “HawthoRNe.” “This show is not anywhere else,” said Wright. “That is wonderful and a challenge.”

A new direction

Though Romano is the star, the show, which is set in Los Angeles, is an ensemble piece, and his two costars have meaty story lines.

Party supply shop owner Joe (Romano) is neurotic and adrift due to his separation from his wife and a pesky gambling problem. Pudgy car salesman Owen (Braugher) has the support of a loving wife, which still might not be enough to offset his persistent health problems and the constant disapproval of his father, who is also his boss. Aspiring actor Terry (Bakula) dodges the reality of diminishing returns with womanizing and working dead-end temp jobs.

The unhurried feel of the series is marked by dialogue-heavy exchanges and awkward silences. The three stars, all TV veterans, have visible chemistry as if they have known each other for years -- even though they had never met before working on the series.

The series also represents a change of pace for Braugher, who is usually seen in intense dramatic roles. “Ray and the producers really took a chance on me -- I was not their first choice,” he said. “My wife and I have always been big fans of Ray. He’s a very observational comedian and the writers have grounded this script so much in reality.”

Of course, Romano also has a lot a stake. But with the exception of his voice work in the hugely successful “Ice Age” animated franchise (Manny the wooly mammoth), his film career (“Welcome to Mooseport,” “The Grand”) has been mostly lackluster. And post-"Raymond” possibilities were not particularly attractive.

“I got offered game show hosts, or guest arcs on other shows,” he said. “I didn’t get offered any sitcom vehicles, and I didn’t seek that out. There were films I wanted to do, but they didn’t want me, and the films that wanted me I didn’t want to do.”

That might come as a surprise, as “Everybody Loves Raymond” was so embraced by viewers and critics. But his “Everybody Loves Raymond” costars have had their post-"Raymond” struggles, as well. Patricia Heaton, who played Ray Barone’s wife, Debra, already has one failed sitcom (Fox’s “Back to You”) and her freshman ABC comedy “The Middle” is struggling despite good reviews. The title of Brad Garrett’s ratings-deficient Fox comedy “ ‘Til Death” says it all.

“Men of a Certain Age” will help determine if audiences will accept Romano as a character other than Ray Barone. Some actors escape being defined by their most famous characters -- Carroll O’Connor overcame being known chiefly as Archie Bunker on “All in the Family” with his dramatic stint on “In the Heat of the Night.” Other performers such as Kelsey Grammer, Bill Cosby, Jason Alexander and Roseanne Barr have had more difficulty.

Romano is frank about facing that double-edged sword: “Very few can make the jump over and rid themselves of that perception.” He added that he can understand that perception because he is now involved with casting decisions. And even though his new character is a few notches removed from his sitcom, Romano said “Raymond” fans will not be totally confused.

Romano is finding another element to working on the series that is attractive: He doesn’t have to shout to the rafters to get his point across. “It’s nice to be able to whisper,” he said with a laugh.

The idea for the series came to him and Royce about five months after the end of “Raymond.” “We both felt we needed to do something. Neither one of us was going to retire. So we figured, ‘Let’s just write about what we know.’ And it was guys this age who are searching for something at this point in life.”

Now he’s hoping that the show connects with audiences. “We don’t need to get a crazy amount of viewers,” he said with another smile. “Just the right amount.”

Forming the show and his character fueled Romano with fresh creative energy: “I wrote a little back story to this guy, and blended in guys I know who are like this. I’m trying to find his voice, even if it is just an extension of myself. It’s different than Ray [Barone] -- he would be childish and overreact to things. Joe may be more adult and under-react to things. In real life, I think I’m somewhere in the middle.”