Paul Reiser on Getting Back Into Stand-Up, Helen Hunt's Success, and How He Ruined Steve Buscemi's Comedy Career
Paul Reiser via wikimedia
Comedian and actor Paul Reiser has starred in a wealth of roles over the course of his two decades in showbiz. Fans of NBC's "Must See TV" era will, of course, remember him for the seven seasons he spent as the neurotic Paul Buchman with Helen Hunt on Mad About You. And then there were his memorable cinematic gigs in such classics as Beverly Hills Cop II, Aliens, and Barry Levinson's Diner.
These days, Resier's has been busy tackling the role of stand-up comic, the profession he used as a stepping stone to success more than two decades ago, before his sitcom career took off in the early '90s. Having been away from the stage for close to 20 years, Reiser told Jackalope Ranch during a recent phone interview that he was a wee bit nervous about picking up where he left off in the comedy world last year. The 55-year-old comic, who is scheduled to perform Friday at Wild Horse Pass Casino's Ovations Live! Showroom in Chandler, quickly got his chops back and is looking forward to entertaining Valley comedy fans this weekend.
We asked Reiser about whether he's done with TV for the moment, as well as how he helped crush actor Steve Buscemi's fledgling stand-up career back in the day.
Was it hard getting back onstage after a 20-year absence? It wasn't hard. It was exciting. I'd forgotten how much I'd liked it. But it's like if you start to work out and you forget to warm up, it's like, "Woah . . . those are muscles I haven't used." And when I first went onstage again, it was fine. It wasn't like I was a total idiot, because I knew how to get laughs. But it was months and months before some of the subtitles came back. Remembering how your brain sort of works overdrive when you're onstage. It slowly revealed itself but it wound up being perfectly fine.
So you still got it. Yeah. I'm not as young as I used to be. [Laughs] Life changes, but there's comedy in all of it. And audiences still laugh because they're going through the same things. Whatever observations that you think are so special to yourself, turns out other people are thinking the exact same thing. They've just never said it out loud. That's why I have to go town to town, to say it out loud.
What sort of material are you using these days? Well, you'll see. [Laughs] I can't tell you now; it will all be shot. Like I said, talking about how it's different being older. And having teenagers is different than having no kids. After being married 25 years, a different kind of comedy comes out of it than going from single to . . .
So you're working with a whole different style than 20 years ago? Yeah, yeah. It's 'cause you're different, and what comes to mind is different. I always think of Bill Cosby as the perfect example of someone whose comedy has the same flavor over the last 50 years but the content itself has changed. So when he started out, he's talking about being newly married and having babies and changing diapers. Then it was having teenagers, and then being grandparents.
It's all still Cosby, but he's dealing with his life. I always thought that was great template and great role model and sort of what I've done, either by design or not -- 20 years ago talking about getting married and how it's different than being single. And now I've almost been married 25 years. It's a different conversation, but there's just as many funny things to find out it.
Um . . .Couplehood? Yeah. [Laughs] And the world has changed. So there's plenty of topics to cover and hopefully they'll be funny at my show. Here's my money-back guarantee. I tell people to come to the show, and if you don't have a great time, I'll come back to Chandler in a few months and I'll take you to see someone funnier. You can't beat that.
Did you ever make it Arizona 20 years ago, like a gig at the Tempe Improv? I can't remember. It sounds familiar. I was just in Lexington [Kentucky] and I thought, "Oh, I've never been here before." Then they showed me a picture of me performing at that club like 20 years ago. I went, "All right . . . I forgot." [Laughs] So for all I know, I could have a home in Chandler.
Are you looking forward to your gig this weekend at Wild Horse Pass? Yes, sir. What am I in for? Have I made a huge mistake?
It's a big casino . . . It's a huge casino in the middle of the sand.
More like in the middle of desert scrub on the edge of Phoenix. Are you much of a gambler? No, just to the extent that I'm gonna show up and tell jokes to people in the middle of a casino. That's my big gamble. Hopefully it will pay off.
I'm sure it will. It's funny, I hadn't been out doing stand up in probably like 20 years. It's where I started and I just put it away for a while and then realized that I hadn't gotten back, so it's really only been in the last six months that I've been out and about and performing again. And it's all new material and it's a really different experience in your 50s than [in] your 20s when I started.
But one of the things that's been an education to me is the places that I have never been to, a couple of towns I've never heard of, that have these great theaters and great communities. What I'm finding is, time after time, is that -- you know what? -- people are the same. Doesn't matter where you go. People like to laugh at funny things and laugh at themselves. And for good or for bad, there's a common thread going through all of us. We're not that different.
Are the rooms tougher than you remembered? No. Maybe I've been lucky. Well, some rooms are tougher than others, but in a way, I'm having more fun than I remember the first time around. One is 'cause they know me, I think. So if they're coming to see me at this point, it's 'cause they know me and hopefully like what they've seen over the years, as opposed to those who think, "You know, I hated his show and now I'm going to go see him to tell him I hate it." That rarely happens.
So, my comedy's been kind of consistent. What I did in my act was what turned into Mad About You and turned into books. And so it's a very similar conversation. And now the people know me, so it feels like, after all these years, seeing old friends. I'll joke about, yeah, it's been a while, things change and we're older and life is a little different, but the conversation feels the same. And it actually, in a way, feels easier and more gratifying.
Speaking of Mad About You, how do you feel about how Helen Hunt's career has taken off since the show ended? Did you see her movie [The Sessions]? It's great. She's really terrific.
So I've heard. Do you ever ponder how each of your careers have diverged a bit over the years? No. Listen, I'm very happy with my career, and she's very happy with hers. It's funny. We both took a long time off, and I don't think she really worked for a significant amount of time after the show. She did a few little things, but we were both happy to be not working at that quick a pace.
So are you completely done with TV after your battles with NBC over The Paul Reiser Show? For the moment. You know, I'm not in any rush to do anything, and I'm enjoying the simplicity of stand-up. TV -- it's such a needle in the haystack. You have to come up with an idea you like and then execute it, and then you have convince networks to buy it and put it on the air while a million people contribute to it. Stand-up is the exact opposite. Stand-up is just refreshingly free of any interference. It's just you and the people.
And a microphone. Yes. Just you, the audience, and a microphone. And I love it. So I'm developing things in no great rush, but I'm playing with a couple of scripts that maybe I'll sell this year and do sometime in the future. But it's very much sort of on the backburner while I've been having a surprisingly fun time getting out of the house. That's another thing, I haven't left the house in a long time. So it's a win-win.
Actor Steve Buscemi claimed in 2010 that you ruined his stand-up career back in the day. What was that about? Yeah, I saw him tell that [story] on Jay Leno. [Laughs] It's funny. He was, I think, on the very first season of Mad About You. I didn't remember him or remember the story until I saw that, but we cast him as this guy who was working at tollbooth in the New York subway and it was very tough . . . perfect job for a crazy person to get crazy. And in the story, and it had nothing to do with us, 'cause I didn't know it. He yells at me and is angry because I'm having this great life and I married the pretty girl and I'm a filmmaker. And [his character's] background was that was when we were in film school together, I came in and used the last editing machine, and he didn't have one. And he didn't get his assignment in on time and wound up dropping out and was now working in the subway.
So we cast [Buscemi] in the role because he was funny and he looked perfectly frightening. And then he tells me on the last day of the shoot, "This is kinda what happened with you and me." He told me that one time he was about to go on stage at a club in New York and I walked in and I sorta bumped him, which I didn't know -- obviously -- and he was, I guess, flirting with the idea of giving it up and that night thought, "Ah, it's over." So I thought, "Geez, that's wild." I had no idea that I had that kind of power over him. But you know what? He's done pretty good since then.
To say the least. In a sense, you helped start him off as an actor. Yeah. He's doing all right. So now I hope he throws me a bone.
Like maybe a guest spot on Boardwalk Empire? Sure. I could be a gangster that yells at him. [Laughs]
Ever consider developing a more mature sitcom for cable, along the lines of what Louis C.K. or Larry David has done? You know, everything I've ever written in my head, I write for sorta an HBO mentality. And not specifically to curse, but sometimes it's just easier and funnier to use some language that's not allowed. But I always kind of write what I write, and then it ends up where it ends up. Even Mad About You, in my head, I thought it was single-camera type of show, and then for various production-value reasons, they said, "We're gonna shoot it multi-cam."
But to answer your question, I have a couple of things that I'm playing with that I'm developing, and I always think sort of HBO because those shows have a bit less restraint on them. But I don't think of myself as particularly edgy. It's not like I'm sitting here waiting, chomping at the bit on a short leash, "If only they'd allow me to curse." It's like, well, it's not really that big a deal. It's not that big a part of my life. But I do a bit about getting into a fight with my computer spell-check that it intends to not let me curse. And I always thought somehow it feels like my computer thinks I'm nicer than I think I am. I curse so seldom. I mean, I don't . . . I can curse all the time, but my computer seems to look up to me and thinks it's beneath me.
Any chance of you doing a stand-up special in the near future? Yeah, maybe. That's something we've talked about. But I'm having so much fun going town to town. I'd rather do that instead of just doing it and having everyone see it without me showing up. There's something more fun and rewarding about hearing the laughs yourself.
Paul Reiser is scheduled to perfom at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 15, at Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino in Chandler. Tickets are $35-$45.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.