Paul Reiser talks to Pollstar about the thrill of returning to stand-up a few years ago and the process of coming up with a bit.
The comedian/actor/writer/author recalled bombing when he first started performing live – and knowing comedy was the right fit because he couldn’t wait to get back on stage. More than three decades later, he’s still having fun. He notes, “There aren’t that many things that you can do when you go back and [it’s] exactly as it was when you were 20. But stand-up it was.”
Pollstar chatted with Reiser in January, hours before he was planning on dropping in on a comedy club in Los Angeles to work out new material.
Reiser’s most recent film roles include Jim Neimann in the Academy Award-winning film “Whiplash” and Dr. Elliot Pellman in “Concussion.” Look for him next in “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” with Jason Sudeikis and Maisie Williams, “Miles” with Molly Shannon and Stephen Root, “Joshy” with Thomas Middleditch and Adam Pally, and “War on Everyone” with Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Pena.
Recent TV appearances include “Red Oaks,” “TripTank” and “Married.” He’s also working on a few other projects, including a script involving footage from the “Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” library. Plus, fans can thank Reiser for the long-awaited DVD release of the final seasons of “Mad About You.”
You have a lot going on this year. Has 2016 been treating you well so far?
It has been. Yeah, you know, it’s an exciting time. January and most of February [I’m] just staying home and I’m writing, which is a very different discipline and different vibe, working on a couple of different scripts. It’s fun. I’ve forgotten … when you get into it, how nice it is to get lost in a script. It’s a couple of TV projects that hopefully will go out and set up in the next couple of months.
The second season of “Red Oaks” is going to return this year. Have you already filmed that?
No. We haven’t even written them yet. We film them in the summer and I guess, same as last year, we’d film them in the summer and they’d be on in October or so. It used to be in the (laughs) good ol’ long-ago days when there was a show on every week, you could just keep the factory moving. You could edit one show while you were busy working on the other one. But now everybody watches the whole season in one shebang. So they have a very quick turnaround where they have to edit and finish, polish up the whole season in two months. But I’m excited about it because it’s really fun and I think sometimes it takes a whole season just to find your legs … and the writers to find their rhythm and everything.
The scripts that you mentioned working on, can you discuss those at all?
Well, one that I mentioned in other interviews. …It’s about a guy who works on “The Tonight Show” in 1972 so it’s a little bit of a period piece. We’re doing it in conjunction with “The Tonight Show,” with Johnny Carson’s estate. We have access to the full library of all the shows. It’s about a young guy and his coming to Hollywood and he gets his dream job in this very eye-opening time. It’s all new and he’s suddenly thrust into the excitement and, you know, the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of that moment in time. So it’s really fun and getting to watch a lot of these old Johnny Carson shows which I hadn’t seen [in so long], it’s so comforting, it’s like delicious comfort food.
You’re probably too young to have watched. How old are you?
Yeah, so you don’t remember Johnny Carson a lot.
Well, I mean, I know who he is, of course.
Yeah, yeah, but it was a very different world because there weren’t so many options. You couldn’t tape a show and watch it on the StairMaster the next day. (laughs) You had to stay up.
It seems like it was more of an event. You had to plan your night around watching that show.
Yeah, it was more of an event. It was more a deeply seeded part of your life. So it’s just fun for me to be back looking at these old tapes and being in that world.
And then I have two other things that are sort of unformed but in the works that I’m also working on – one of which that I’d be in and then one or two that I’m not going to be in. So it’s an interesting time. And it’s nice to have all these different avenues to play with. As I said, it’s a very different thing to sit at my desk and type out and imagine, put words in other people’s mouths and then on another day sit and write jokes that I’m going to go on and do. And you know, that’s been really fun. I took a long break from performing but it’s been really fun to get back and surprisingly refreshing to get on stage. I didn’t realize how much I missed that, the immediacy of stand-up. You don’t have to wait six months and sell it to studios. You just go out, tell your jokes and go home. And that’s been great fun.
As you’ve pointed out, you have so many opportunities and avenues going on right now so I was wondering what kept you coming back to the stage.
In my head, when I stated, when I was whatever, 20, I just wanted to be a comedian. And I wasn’t thinking of all the other stuff. I just loved performing and I loved the whole thing of it. I loved comedians. I was a student and a fan of comedy and when I started to do it, I found all the touring stuff somehow fun, noble and romantic. It was like, “Wow, sitting in an airport.” It’s like, it’s not fun if you’re going to your aunt’s funeral but if you’re going to a gig in Columbus, Ohio, well, then, that’s pretty cool. (laughs) So I actually liked and embraced the touring part because I liked why I was doing it. But anyway, I always intended to get back to it. I really stopped in the early ‘90s when “Mad About You” started so it was only about a few years ago when I went back on stage and I started really from scratch and had to get the muscles back. It’s like the muscles atrophy. But it was instantly fun and it instantly just brought me back. You know, there aren’t that many things that you can do when you go back and [it’s] exactly as it was when you were 20. But stand-up it was. It’s like, “Oh, I remember this. I remember not knowing what I’m doing.” (laughs) I remember taking that joke from nothing and trying to make it into something.
And then, after about a year, I started to go out to perform … I mean I use the word tour really loosely. Every other weekend I go out somewhere and I’ll do a couple of shows. Any corner of the country and it’s all over the place. … There’s no tour bus. It’s just really low-tech. But it’s been great. What I love is the immediacy that you’re standing in front of the ultimate user. You know, you don’t have to wait for results or polls or number or box office. It’s like, yeah, I know that joke works. I just heard them laugh. (laughs)
It sounds great to get that kind of feedback.
Yeah. And there’s very few places that you can get that. As I said, you come up with a TV idea, it’s great but you gotta write it, you gotta go sell it, you gotta set it up, you gotta cast it. It’s months and months and years, sometimes. I’m working on another show that we shot a pilot 14 years ago and we loved it and there was a young guy at the studio there said, “I’m going to make this someday.” And we said, “Yeah. Well, whatever.” It was a really, really inventive, very different pilot and cut to 14 years later, this guy is now the head of the studio and he called me and he said, “We’re going to do it. I’m going to do it now.” I went, “Really!” And I thought, when I started writing this my son was crawling under the table and he’s now about to drive. I went, (laughs), “OK, a lifetime has passed and we’re just now going to go out with this show.” So it can literally be a lifetime to get things done.
And stand-up is not only more of its own medium, but it’s a work in progress all the time. So you do a show one night and then you said something and then you try to remember (laughs) what you did that was good, and you try to replicate it the next night and it builds. I’ve been saying the big difference also is going out now, people know me now. So when I go out there’s this warmth that I was not prepared for. There’s people who were fans of “Mad About You” or people who enjoyed my books. It’s a very different ballgame (laughs) when you got out. People are coming to see you because they enjoy you; they didn’t come by accident. They didn’t just come to see a comedy club and to see who happened to be there. This is, “Oh, we’re coming to see you. We like your stuff.” And it feels like getting together with old friends. … That element was surprising.
An audience with friendly faces is better than a crowd that you have to win over, that might have hecklers.
Sometimes I’ll do a Q&A with the audience, which is always fun. Afterwards sign books or take a picture or whatever. In those moments you actually meet and greet the audience, invariably people have stories and they’ll say, “Let me tell you. This episode. Remember this joke from episode so and so?” And I go, “No, I don’t.” And they’ll go, “Let me tell you …” And you find out all that stuff we put out 15-20 years ago, it actually resonated with some people and it was important to them. Some people will say, “We played the theme song from ‘Mad About You’ at our wedding.” And I’ll go, “Get out of here. Really?” (laughs) Not having been out there, I would never have heard these stories. Getting out and actually meeting people and getting that direct contact has been really rejuvenating.
Do you give your agent any input as far as your tour schedule?
Well, there’s no real routing … [For example] like I’m going to Philadelphia so the next date should also be on the East Coast. And then I go home. So once I’m home, I can go anywhere. So yeah, I’ll go out and I’ll do Portland and Seattle or then the next time I go out I’m doing Long Island or I’m doing Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or D.C. But sometimes I’ll go, “Hey, I’ve never been to this market.” Or, “Gee, I’ve been to that town a couple of times already. Let’s try a new place.” So I’ll have suggestions. But basically if somebody calls and there’s a great venue and there’s a demand, I start packing.
What can you tell readers about the process of crafting a new bit?
There are a couple of ways. The more you do it, the more instinctive it becomes and I’ve learned now to recognize when something is potentially funny to other people. The nightmare is you do something and you go, “Well, it was funny to me.” (laughs) But that’s not important. What’s important is if it’s funny to them.
Sometimes I’ll have an argument with my wife. And I’ll just go, “OK, that’s crazy funny. Do you understand what just happened here? I said this and now we’re talking ...” And sometimes I’ll go on stage and that night and I’ll just say, “OK, listen to this.” And I repeat the story verbatim. And often it will work and then I go home and I’ll listen to the tape. I tape myself. And I’ll go, OK, now let me deconstruct it and make it a little better. And then the next night it won’t work as well. And I’ll go, “Why is it not working? I just made it better.” It’s like, yeah, but you didn’t. (laughs) You know, there was something fresh. Sometimes the first time, it’s like a puppy. A bit comes bounding out of the gate. … It had an exuberance and it worked because it was genuine and new. And then sometimes you’re chasing it.
And then there’s other times where you have a nugget, you come up with an idea. And I’ll just go out and I’ll dip my toe in the water; I’ll just mention a premise on stage. And if it gets a response of like, “Oh yeah, we know what you’re talking about.” I’ll go, “OK, let me just make sure of that.” And then I’ll go home and I’ll write it and expand it. And to me, the fun is, there’s a lot of elements and part of it is thinking about what’s funny and crafting the joke and writing it but a lot of it comes from pairing and associations of like, “This joke that I thought was about B is actually more about M.” That was a bad choice of initials. (laughs). But, you know, you think it’s a bit about marriage but no, it’s actually a bit about eating or whatever. (laughs) And suddenly, when you’re out there and you find those synopsis and those little connective tissue, that’s the night on stage where I’ll go, “Oh wow. That was fun to me.” And nobody else may notice the difference but I know I moved the order. It’s like a singer doing a setlist. There’s a rhyme and reason to what you do.
And sometimes you shuffle it up just to keep yourself on your toes or to keep the material fresh. I’ve heard other comics talk about this too. There’s a bit that you’ve been closing with, you say, “Well, why don’t you try sticking that in the beginning, see if it works.” It’s like rotating your tires (laughs); it’s like you want to lean on the other side of that tire for a while. There’s so many moving parts and many of these are translucent and ephemeral. In that way, it’s not like a car. You can’t just put another car part in there. Sometimes it’s just slippery and you don’t quite see it. But that’s what makes it fun to me, the fact that even when you get it, you don’t quite ever have it nailed down definitively because it changes the next day for a million reasons. Because there’s different people, because you’re telling it slightly differently. I always use the analogy that it’s sort of like a never-ending curve. You see the horizon and then you go to it and you go to it and you realize the horizon keeps moving. (laughs) I never quite feel like I’ve mastered it or a specific piece of material because it’s always moving and it’s always changing and that’s the challenge and that’s the fun of it too.
If you mastered it, it would be boring.
Yeah, then you’re just reciting.
You brought up an argument that you had with your wife that you tried out on your audience. Are you constantly working on stand-up – like any instance from everyday life could work its way into your routine?
Yeah, yeah. I used to say that comedians are just like everybody else – [everyone] notices the same things but we write them down. When you do a bit or a routine the audience is laughing because they know it to be true, they noticed the same thing. But they’re happy that you worked on it (laughs), you wrote it out and you performed it. You can’t just list things. You can’t just say, “Here are things that are true.” And they’ll go, “Yes, they are.” It’s not enough to be true. You have to be funny and entertaining. But you keep your ears open. And that was when I talked before about the muscle, when I took all that time off and the muscle gets atrophied. It’s not just the performance muscle, it’s the writing muscle and it’s fine-tuning your brain and your ear to go, “Oh, that’s a bit.” And there were some things that I didn’t think were bits. I once said something to my friend and he said, “Oh, gee. You gotta do that on stage.” I went, “Really? I just said that to you.” He went, “No, that was a bit.” I went, “All right. Let’s see.” Sometimes it is and sometimes it’s not but you don’t know until you go on stage. Like tonight, I’m going on down to a club here in L.A. tonight just because I have three new bits that I want to work on that aren’t there yet. … I sit at my computer and I’ll move words around and try to get it right, but I don’t know until I go out and do it. The process is really the joyful part.
Going out to the club in L.A. tonight – that’s something that you don’t advertise?
Yeah, no that’s just [me] dropping in. It’s not advertised. … In the clubs I’ll say, “Hey, can I come down and do 10 minutes?” And you just go down. So it’s a little surprise.
And it’s really the only way to do it. … I was reading a book about Richard Pryor. They’d say he was going to be at the Comedy Store for two weeks and he wouldn’t have an act. He’d just throw out a shovel full and just really work it out. Wow. You gotta be Richard Pryor to do that. Or a few selected, gifted others. But for mortals (laughs) I’ll go down and do 15 minutes.
There’s one club that’s about a 45-minute drive from the house. And my friend goes, “You’re going to drive basically an hour and a half to do 10 minutes?” And it’s like my favorite part of the day (laughs) because you can’t wait. If you have a new joke that you’re excited to do or you thought of a new bit or a new angle or a new grouping, you can’t wait to try it out. And when you go down and you do it, it’s like then the drive back is thinking about it – did it work, did it not work?
I remember I was talking to someone about when I first started. He goes, “Did you ever bomb?” “Well, yeah. In the beginning. Yeah.” But here’s how I knew I wanted to be a comedian for real. When I just started and I had a great night, understandably my next thought would be, “Whoa. I can’t wait until tomorrow, man. That was so great. I love it.” But when I had a terrible night, my next thought wasn’t, “Gee, I gotta get out of this. This sucks.” My next thought was, “Ooh, I can’t wait to get on stage tomorrow and make that better.” Or to get that taste out of my mouth. But it doesn’t matter what happened, my gut was, “I can’t wait to do that again.” So I thought this might be the right thing for me. And if you can love what you do, it’s a good thing.
You’re helping bring all seven seasons of “Mad About You” to DVD. Are release dates set?
I don’t have the exact [dates]. I think it’s May or June. It’s coming before the summer. By the way … I never knew all the seasons of the show weren’t out there [on DVD]. Enough people would come over [at meet & greets] and say, “Why can’t we get seasons five, six and seven?” I’d go, “What do you mean? I have them.” They’d go, “Yeah, but we don’t.” I guess I just took the copy when I left. … Enough people would tell me that I kind of looked into it. … I had to sort of knock on the door of the big powers that be. I went, “Is this a coincidence or is there not enough demand or is there a problem?” And then after months and months I finally got some answers. It was like, yeah, there was a problem because [of] music clearance. … A lot of episodes were held up so they couldn’t release them. I said, “OK, well, how do we clear that up?” So it took months [to go through] the whole process of music clearance. I was really thrilled that they did it. ... Because you don’t want to do all the shows and just have them sitting in an attic and nobody can watch them. But as I said, until I went out and performed and had that direct contact [with fans] I never knew that was an issue.
I remember we splurged and we used two Springsteen cues. And I thought, I'll bet that’s what's holding it up. But nope, it wasn’t that. Little things that I just didn’t think [about]. Like if you walk and you’re humming “Louie Louie,” you gotta pay "Louie." (laughs) So you add that up ... how many times do you sing or you use a little sting – I don’t mean Sting the singer, I mean a little sting of music – times seven years of shows. I suddenly went, “Oh. I guess there's a lot.” … So it was a real group team effort and everybody, thankfully, was willing and able to push it through.
My son makes me laugh. He doesn’t mean to. In fact, it bothers him when he does. (laughs)
I have [two sons]. 20 and 15. They make me laugh. I watch, you know, all the guys that you’d expect – Louis C.K. and Jerry and Chris Rock. These guys are at the top of their game and they’re terrific. And then there’s a lot of guys whose names you wouldn’t know and guys I had never heard of. That was the other treat – going back into the clubs and going, “Who’s this guy?” There’s a young comic named Rod Man. And I [thought], “This guy’s killing me. He’s really funny.” You know what? In about two years he’s going to be filling up arenas. He’s a young guy from Atlanta. He has this really unique style and I’d never heard of him. [I was told], “Oh, he has a following.” He’s someone who I think is going to pop and make his mark.
Upcoming dates for Paul Reiser:
Feb. 19 – Munhall, Pa., Carnegie Library Music Hall Of Homestead
Feb. 20 – Washington, D.C., The Howard Theatre
March 5 – Green Bay, Wis., Meyer Theatre
Sept. 22 – Ada, Okla., Hallie Brown Ford Fine Arts Center
Please visit PaulReiser.com for more information.