Monday, June 6, 2005

Writer Phil Rosenthal, right, appears onstage as the cast and crew take a curtain call during the finale of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Stars Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton are in the center.

Funny is all
around us

The writers of a hit comedy
explore amusement’s muse

A tight circle of men and women -- young and not so young -- were focused on a grinning and fast-talking man with green eyes and short curly hair.

"Do what you love and get started now, and don't stop trying," said a passionate Phil Rosenthal, creator and executive producer of the comedy series "Everybody Loves Raymond," a speaker at the Maui Writers Conference at Wailea several years ago.

Phil Rosenthal and Friends

An evening with the writers of "Everybody Loves Raymond":

On stage: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall

Tickets: $35, $45 and $55, at Blaisdell box office and Ticketmaster outlets

Charge by phone: 877-750-4400

"You're all here because you want to write TV comedy, right? Then do it. Funny is all around us. Open your eyes wide and write about it, then write about it again, but better and true."

Rosenthal, 45, knows of what he encourages. His pre-"Raymond" credits included "Man in the Family" and "A Family for Joe." He was a supervising producer and "Coach."

"Raymond" signed off on CBS May 16 after nine seasons. The series was nominated for the Best Comedy Emmy five times, winning in 2003. Rosenthal was nominated for a screenwriting Emmy with series star Ray Romano in 2000 and again in 2002.

"I'm one of luckiest people in the world," said Rosenthal in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "I have the opportunity to do what I love with people I love, and I get to eat all the food I love."

Rosenthal, Romano and nine other "Raymond" writers are coming to Honolulu for two appearances this weekend. They'll share show secrets, Rosenthal said, but the purpose really is to honor the scribes.

"The fact is, the writer isn't as valued in society as the actor. In this business a famous face gets you a lot further than the famous words you write," he said. "This show will attach a writer's face to the words. If the writer is respected, maybe the quality of TV and films will get better."

After the final episode of "Raymond" aired, Rosenthal and company hit the road with "Secrets of a Number One Sitcom: Inside the Writers Room at 'Everybody Loves Raymond'" -- showcasing writers' reminiscences along with clips from the show and a question-and-answer session with the audience.

Their first appearance, two years ago at the Aspen Comedy Festival, was so well received that the group has played New York and will go on to Los Angeles, Montreal, Toronto and the Las Vegas Comedy Festival.

The Hawaii trip is the first time Romano has joined the group. "I think the Hawaii locale had just a little to do with Ray wanting to come," Rosenthal joked.

The writers will share tales about how they developed story ideas, which, Rosenthal says, was really "pretty simple."

"It's about all these horrible things that happened to us at home, and then we show 'Raymond' clips of the episodes where we used them," he said. "Every time we had a fight at home, we would have a story. We would solve the problem on camera."

One of Rosenthal's favorite clips is about the Fruit of the Month Club gift he sent his parents. "They acted like I sent them a box of plutonium. In certain households a gift can be an imposition, and my parents felt an obligation to eat all the fruit, so it became a thing like, 'What am I going to do with all this damn fruit!'

"Then I had to break the news to them that more boxes would be coming every month."

Ray Romano, star of "Everybody Loves Raymond," will be among the series' writers appearing in Honolulu this weekend.

The "Raymond" concept was developed in the first meeting between Rosenthal and the stand-up comedian. "He talked about his life and family, and I said, 'That's the show!'"

Romano wasn't convinced.

"I said, 'You've never acted before, so I'm not going to make you a gay astronaut from Cleveland,'" Rosenthal said.

"And what I don't know about the character of his family, I filled in with mine."

Rosenthal and Romano's vision was internalized by the writers.

"Why is this story worth telling? What is the emotional underpinning of the show? Why should we care?

"I feel like storytelling in general is leaving TV. These shows exist without real stories or even real characters, so that you're left with just the jokes. And then the show can only be as good as its last joke."

Rosenthal was born in Queens, raised in Rockland, N.Y., and attended Hofstra University on Long Island. He insists he fell in love with comedy at age 4, watching "The Honeymooners."

"I would tell my parents that I wanted to be that Ed Norton character because I'm funny, too," he said.

Rosenthal started out as an actor in New York but also wrote and directed. "Acting is a very hard living," said Rosenthal. "I've been in plays that were so off-Broadway they were in the Hudson River."

At 29 he moved to Los Angeles in search of more acting opportunities. Romano was that same age when he moved out of his parents' house to get married. "Twenty-nine was a turning point for both of us."

Rosenthal was able to pick up writing jobs within months of arriving in L.A. "I was very fortunate."

He says comedy writing is harder than drama because it's "more specific."

"Many things have to line up directly for a joke to work. If you don't pick the right word, (if you're) not standing the right way ... the camera angle is wrong, it can all be screwed up.

"Drama is what it is."

"Raymond" was emblematic of the classic multicamera situation comedy, the kind that requires only a few scenes per episode because, as Rosenthal once told TV critics, "the show is about writing and acting. ... It's interesting enough just to cut from a face to another face.

"It's what I've always liked when I watched 'All in the Family' or 'Mary Tyler Moore' or 'Taxi.' Where are they going? They were there and it was compelling enough."

Rosenthal, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, actress Monica Horan (she played Amy on "Raymond"), is taking it easy these days. The day after the final episode aired, Rosenthal realized there was nothing on his calendar.

"It's like running full speed for nine years without stopping, then crossing the finish line," he said. "You say to yourself, 'Wow, that was a long way to run. I'm tired. I think I'll sit down and have a glass of lemonade and enjoy that we won the race.'"

Does he dream of creating another hit series?

"It's so hard to just get a pilot script that someone will want to invest money in to shoot," he says. "I think it's pretty greedy to think it'll happen again."

Rosenthal laughs.

"What entertainers keep fighting to do is to resurrect that passion we had in high school when we did this for free," he said. "I'm looking to have a good time, and this is how I have fun. Hey, there's an empty barn. Let's put on a show."

The writers become
the stars

These writers from "Everybody Loves Raymond" will appear in the Hawaii shows Saturday and Sunday:

Tom Caltabiano: Met Ray Romano while they were stand-up comedians in New York. They moved to Los Angeles together in 1996 and continue to perform together, recently completing a national tour.

Leslie Caveny: An actress and playwright, her television credits include "Mad About You," "News Radio" and "The Naked Truth." One of her original screenplays has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon.

Tucker Cawley: Won the 2003 Emmy for screenwriting for the episode "Baggage."

Mike Royce: Was a stand-up comedian in New York, appearing on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" as well as assorted cable shows. He's written for "Spin City," MTV and helped Romano write his book, "Everything and a Kite."

Lew Schneider: Was a stand-up comedian and actor before becoming a TV writer. His first TV job was as host of the Nickelodeon game show "Make the Grade." He also starred in sitcoms including "Wish You Were Here" and "Down the Shore." His writing credits include "The George Wendt Show," "The John Larroquette Show" and "The Naked Truth."

Mike Scully: A writer/producer on "The Simpsons" for 10 years, he ran the show for four and won six Emmys. He then co-created "The Pitts" for Fox. He's co-writing the "Simpsons" movie and a pilot for ABC.

Aaron Shure: Besides being a television writer whose credits include "George & Leo," he's a trained circus clown. He has been a karaoke host, public-radio commentator and street performer. He even performed a "Stupid Human Trick" on "Late Night with David Letterman" and worked entertaining in the petting zoo at Knott's Berry Farm.

Steve Skrovan: Began as a stand-up comedian and actor in New York City. His credits include hosting a talk show on MTV, a hidden-camera show on Fox and a dog show on the Family channel. He also wrote for "Seinfeld" and a variety of sketch comedy, animation and cable shows.

Jeremy Stevens: His early television credits include co-creating "The Electric Company," for which he received an Emmy, "Fernwood 2-Nite" and "Saturday Night Live." He was also a writer on "Dear John" and "Coach."

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