Celebrated author, comedy writer, comedian, and actor Paul Reiser has always been on my interview wish list. I’m one of the millions of people who watched the multiple Emmy award winner Mad About You (which Reiser co-wrote, co-created, and co-starred in) during its original run on NBC in the ’90s, and one of the many viewers who made the recent reboot of the show the most watched debut on record for CTV Comedy Channel. Jamie and Paul Buchman (played by Oscar winner Helen Hunt and Reiser, respectively) still hold a special place in my heart, as they do for millions of others. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to chat on the phone recently with Paul Reiser (who had just returned from the Sundance Film Festival following the premiere of Horse Girl) and the following is a condensed and edited version of our lovely chat.
Brief Take: Hi Paul! How was Sundance? You reunited with your The Little Hours team for another project I see.
Paul Reiser: [laughs] Yeah, that’s an interesting question. That’s an obscure thing to even know. Yeah it’s actually the fourth time…I did all of Jeff’s (Baena) movies. He seems to find a little thing for me to do in everything, so it was fun. It was fun to be up there. It’s a very strange movie, that Horse Girl, very odd. Alison Brie is fantastic in it but it’s odd. I didn’t even know what it was about until I saw it, so enjoy it.
BT: It’s on Netflix so I can’t wait to see it.
PR: Be prepared.
BT: As the co-creator, co-writer, co-star on Mad About You, why do you think it still resonates so much with such a wide audience?
PR: You know, it’s a good question. We always strived to make it feel real and be real and less like a tv show. For us, the best feedback we ever got was when people would go: “it’s just like my house!” or “that sounds like my wife” or “that sounds just like my husband”. So I think those things are universal. With this re-visit, we were really clear from the beginning that it wasn’t about nostalgia, we weren’t trying to replicate, we weren’t trying to go back to where we were, but rather just open up the apartment and see where would these people be right now. So as we’ve gotten older and the characters’ stories have changed, the audience has too. I’m sure there’s a lot of new people coming to it but I would imagine that the core audience are people like “ooh, we got married when you guys got married. We had a baby when you had a baby, and now we’re going through what you’re going through”. We’re all moving down the same tracks together.
BT: We’re about to watch the finale on CTV coming up.
PR: It’s a beauty!
BT: What was it like to reunite on screen with Carol Burnett in the finale?
PR: It was a treat and it was just as exciting as it was the first time. [laughs] I was trying to explain to Abby Quinn, who played our daughter, I said “You know who Carol Burnett is, right?”, and she said “oh yeah, I’ve heard of her”. [sigh] “What do you mean you’ve heard of her?!”. But you know there’s something special when you grew up, it wasn’t just that you knew of her, but for us, we grew up sitting and watching her and she was part of our lives. She’s been iconic for as long as I can remember, and she still is. She’s just as funny and she’s just as disciplined and just as hard working. That was one of the things that I was so struck by when she first came on the show twenty years ago – how hard working she was, beyond the call of duty. She would work and come up with suggestions and work to make everything better. I thought: “you don’t have to work so hard”, but she does because that’s how you get to be the Carol Burnett.
BT: Speaking of your co-stars, on screen and off screen your relationship with Helen Hunt is so special. Your pairing is just magic on screen. What do you like best about working with her as your co-star and then also as your director, since she directed the first episode of this season?
PR: Well from the minute we met, we met when I was just writing the pilot almost thirty years ago. My wife and Helen had a mutual friend who threw a dinner party, and I’d never met Helen, I just knew her work. So as we were leaving the dinner party, I turned to my wife and said “What do you think about her playing you?” [laughs], and she said “That would be great”. She just checked every box, you know? She was funny and smart and lovely and just quirky enough and just neurotic enough. She was just so real and down to Earth, and we had the same sense of humour. Through the seven seasons of the show, we’d kind of marvel at how in sync each of our thoughts were. When we’d have a table read, I would sort of circle something and write “that line doesn’t work”, and I’d look in the corner of my eye and Helen would be circling the same thing. [laughs] I don’t think we’ve ever had a difference of opinion creatively, and it only got better. We developed such a short hand and such a great working relationship.
And then over the years, since the show ended, we had been in touch and had gotten together all the time, so it wasn’t like we needed to re-introduce ourselves. I think when we decided to do this, even from the beginning, before we said it out loud that she should direct the first one…she directed the finale of the first series and she’s done two films since then, she’s a really talented director. But we brought in our writer, we wanted someone new and with a new writing staff, so we brought in Peter Tolan, who is brilliant and I’d always wanted to work with him. But for directors we thought “that’s going to be too tall a task for somebody to come in”. Helen and I have done this so many times where somebody comes in and has to try to tell us what to do. We just thought we’d eat ’em alive. And we have such a great short hand, so she can give me notes but we’ve already worked everything out. I’m very trusting of being in her capable hands. The truth is, even when we weren’t writing, we were always writing and changing the script. And even when she wasn’t directing, she was great at saying “you know, I think we should do this” or would give me a suggestion. It was very collaborative throughout, so it was a no brainer.
BT: As you said, you brought in this new writing staff headed by Peter and worked with them to write these twelve beautiful scripts. Looking back, is there a particular scene that you’re most proud of crafting?
PR: Oh, well that’s interesting. Yeah! It was a really fun process. We had a very small room, the writers room, it was four writers I think. It was Peter, Helen, and myself and four – three women and a guy. Three or two of them were younger because we thought we needed somebody to say “uh, people don’t say that any more”. [laughs] Or somebody to keep the old people in line. [laughs] “It’s not called ‘the internet’, it’s called internet”, “the wifi”. So we’d all throw our stories in together and all throw our experiences in. The great fun of this collaborative process is that one person would throw one idea out and another person would say “well I had a conversation with my wife” and boom, there it is.
I’ll tell you one that I’m really proud of. There was this script, I guess it’s the eighth one, where I’m house sitting for Anderson Cooper. It was this very silly romp but we’d always planned…you know the arc of the twelve episodes was that the kid leaves for college and Paul and Jamie are off balance. They haven’t been a couple alone and they have to find their way back. So we sort of plotted out that somewhere in the middle, say in episode seven, eight, or nine, they are going to have some big block that has them say “you know, we were doing OK” and then all of a sudden “oh, I guess we’re not”, and that was the episode where it came up. So there was a scene that we were proud of where something as innocuous as a little comment, within two minutes ends up being just brutal. And that’s what often happens in real life, you know? Fights don’t always start because of something big. It could just be a slip of the tongue and all of a sudden it’s “woah, I didn’t know you thought that”, and there you go. I also like surprising the audience because that was the end of a very silly romp of a show, it was very goofy and comedic. So it’s fun to keep the audience off balance. But that one made me happy.
BT: Everyone seems to have a different performance of yours that they adore, or for some it’s your books that mean something special to them. What do you get stopped on the street and thanked for most often?
PR: Oh that’s nice! You know it depends what’s going on. Lately it’s been The Kominsky Method, but I”m always surprised when people come over and say “I hate you in Aliens!”, and I go “thank you. I think I know what you mean.” Yeah, you never know. Usually when someone under twenty comes over to me, I know it’s from Stranger Things. If somebody over seventy comes over, I know it’s Kominsky Method. So I could see it coming. Between twenty and seventy, it’s anybody’s guess.
BT: Finally, will there be a second season of this round of Mad About You?
PR: I have been so wrong at predicting things, I wouldn’t dare guess anything anymore. There’s no plans for it, but you never know! But if we do, we’ll call you.
Mad About You reboot season wraps up tonight with back to back episodes on CTV Comedy Channel starting at 10pm ET. You can now stream all seven previous seasons of the hit show on CTV Throwback.