It started as a joke.
The notion of reviving “Mad About You,” the hit NBC comedy about a New York married couple that ended its seven-year run in 1999, came up often during get-togethers between cocreator Paul Reiser and his costar Helen Hunt, who played his wife. The two had remained close friends, regularly catching up over lunch, and whenever they would kid each other about possibly relaunching “Mad About You,” it was always dismissed. Both had moved on to other projects they found fulfilling.
“We both were very clear that we would never consider going back,” Reiser said recently. “There was no reason. We ended the show well and we were very happy with it.”
But when Reiser and Hunt saw the popularity of revivals of vintage shows such as “Will & Grace,” “Murphy Brown” and “Roseanne,” bringing back “Mad About You” became a possibility they could not ignore. After one of their lunches, they got on the phone together. “The inconceivable became conceivable,” said Hunt. “All of a sudden, the thing we said we would never do became the thing we were dying to do.”
They aren’t kidding around any more, reuniting for “Mad About You,” which has jumped from NBC to Charter Communications’ premium content initiative, Spectrum Originals. The revival premieres Wednesday, with Reiser and Hunt back as the happily married Paul and Jamie Buchman.
The new “Mad About You” returns Hunt to TV’s limelight, two decades removed from a whirlwind period in which she won four consecutive lead actress Emmys for “Mad About You,” scored a lead actress Oscar for “As Good as It Gets” and starred in the blockbuster film “Twister.” (She also made headlines recently under less auspicious circumstances: The day after an October press junket for “Mad About You,” Hunt was involved in an accident when the car she was riding in was struck by another vehicle. She was not seriously injured.)
In addition to being an executive producer along with Reiser, Hunt directed the first episode of the revival, a task she took on for several installments of the original — including the last episode, “The Final Frontier,” which Reiser called “a beautiful short movie, very ambitious.”
Although she has had a relatively low profile since the curtain fell on “Mad About You,” Hunt has worked steadily in front of and behind the camera. She wrote, directed and starred in two independent films — “Then She Found Me” and “Ride” — that she called deeply personal. She’s also helmed episodes for several TV shows, including “This Is Us,” “American Housewife,” “House of Lies” and multiple Ryan Murphy-produced projects, including the FX miniseries “Feud: Bette and Joan,” about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and “The Politician” on Netflix.
The return of the series that made her a household name thus finds Hunt at an unlikely crossroads. Though she has already made her mark in Hollywood, it feels as if she still has something to prove.
Hunt recalled her heyday in the 1990s as “a wonderful blessing” during a recent interview at a West Hollywood hotel.
“It was a lot all at once,” she said. “Certainly, it would have been nice to scatter that over a longer period of time, but I got super lucky and I worked really hard — it was opportunity and luck crashing together. I made this big action movie and I was on this hit TV show and I begged them to let me audition for ‘As Good as It Gets.’ I just want it. I want good parts, I want to tell good stories. The big motivator is not to let ego or fear — fear of being not wanted — get in the way.”
Asked to speculate about Hollywood’s perception of her, she said, “I hate to think. I’m afraid it’s smaller than how I feel. Every narrative I hear is not the way I feel. ‘Well, you had this big moment and then you disappeared.’ Well, I disappeared and wrote two movies and acted in a zillion of them that didn’t happen to be $100-million-making movies and made a person [daughter Makena Lei, born in 2004] along the way. So when I hear that narrative, I feel reduced.”
She pointed to her Oscar-nominated role as a professional sex surrogate in 2012’s “The Sessions.” “That was a beautiful movie.” She added, “So when I hear, ‘Oh, you’re directing now,’ it all feels that it’s reducing who I am. My real hope is that wonderful writers and directors will say, ‘She can do so much more than we’ve seen. I’m going to put her in this part that no one would ever think of.’ This is why being well-known is a curse. You try so hard to be well-known so you get jobs, and then it becomes ‘You know me, but you don’t know me.’”
For now, Hunt is celebrating getting back to “Mad About You.” Although 20 years have passed and being on a streaming service allows for a bit more freedom, Hunt and Reiser say the series will maintain its established flavor. In moving forward, though, the show is going backward. The series finale featured Janeane Garofalo as Mabel, the couple’s now-grown daughter, discussing a documentary she had made about her parents. In the new version, Mabel (Abby Quinn) is just entering college, creating new anxieties for the Buchmans.
“We’re quietly doing it our own way, which is what we’ve always done,” she said. “The weird news is that our chemistry has not changed. We almost always have the same opinion about what direction the show should take. We just haven’t grown apart. We’ve both had real hard things happen and real wonderful things happen. That’s what a friendship is. So to meet at this thing that is a four-camera situation comedy about loving somebody, that’s a member of the friendship.”
Going back to directing on the series also means that Hunt will once again be able to inject her unique sensibility into the series: “My favorite kind of work, what I’ve been the most successful with on both sides of the camera, is to walk that line between something that is moving or disturbing or scary and something funny. That’s the dream.”
Reiser is thrilled that Hunt went back to the “Mad About You” director’s chair. “To be directed by Helen is very comforting,” he said, adding that his partner often injects a sense of wackiness into the proceedings. “For all her serious dramatic work and the Oscar, she unabashedly bows down at the altar of Lucy [Ball], Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke. She’s the one pitching the silliest, most outlandish pieces. As long as we can figure out a way to show that real people would do it, we go for it.”
As for her career since “Mad About You,” Reiser said, “Helen’s done a lot of directing that doesn’t get a lot of fanfare, comedies and dramas that are below the radar. But she has kept those chops going. She’s done these really beautiful movies that are so telling of her scope and sensibility. To write, direct and act, any one of those things is huge. But to do all of those things at once — to direct these emotional scenes while also acting in them — there are very few people who can do that.”
Hunt’s 2007 comedy-drama “Then She Found Me” featured Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler and Colin Firth in a story about an elementary school teacher (Hunt) caught in a whirlwind of personal upheavals. In 2014’s “Ride,” Hunt plays a New York book editor who tries to repair her strained relationship with her son by following him to Los Angeles and learning how to surf. Though the films won some critical accolades, both failed to find audiences.
“That’s the beauty of the independent film,” Hunt said. “It’s torture to make them, and then no one sees them.” She laughed before adding, “If there was a funeral of me tomorrow, I would say those two movies could be seen as a biography of me. Not the actual events, but the themes they’re looking at.”
But don’t prepare a eulogy just yet. Hunt is relishing being back on the small screen with her favorite partner.
“I feel protective of him, and I’m sure he feels protective of me,” Hunt said. “It’s a pretty tremendous thing. The trick, of course, is to appreciate it while you’re doing it.”