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Ray Romano On Fame, And Finding His Bearings After 'Raymond' Wrapped

Apr 12, 2019
Originally published on April 16, 2019 10:43 am

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Comic, actor and writer Ray Romano has been plying his craft for a long time and is still finding new ways to challenge himself. He's most famous as the star of the CBS sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," one of the most successful recent examples of the old-fashioned multi-camera TV sitcom. But he's also challenged himself as an actor, starring in such dramatic roles as a man with a midlife crisis in TNT's "Men Of A Certain Age," a photographer on the autism spectrum in NBC's "Parenthood" and a record promoter in HBO's "Vinyl."

Terry Gross spoke to Ray Romano in 2016, the year "Vinyl" premiered. This year, Ray Romano returned to the format that got him started - stand-up comedy in a Netflix special called "Ray Romano: Right Here, Around the Corner." It was his first stand-up special in 23 years. Here he is on the topic of being a father of a 16-year-old son.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "RAY ROMANO: RIGHT HERE, AROUND THE CORNER")

RAY ROMANO: And now he drives. Why do we give 16-year-olds licenses? My son doesn't care about anything. He called me today like, hey, Dad, I'm in the car. Yeah, I don't know. I guess I'm out of gas right now.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: What do you mean you don't know, Joe? Are you moving?

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: Is the car moving? I'm not moving. I'm not moving. I put my foot on the pedal, I'm not going anywhere right now. All right. Well, all right. Where are you, Joe? And he's very calm, now, he's la-de-da (ph). I'm here. I'm on the 101. The 101 is a five-lane highway.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: Nothing. So I assume, like anybody would, oh, you're on the side of the road, now? No, I'm in the middle lane right now.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: What do you mean, Joe? Where's the urgency? I swear to you, this is the exchange 'cause I'm panicking now. What's the traffic like? Well, behind me, it's bad. But it's moving in front of me.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: I'm going to kick your ass, Joe, 'cause you need fear. You need fear in your life.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: And my wife tries to spin it. You know, whatever he does, she puts the spin on it. Well, he doesn't panic. He's Zen. He's a very Zen-like boy, like astronauts. Maybe he'll be an astronaut one day. Oh, you think so? Really? I don't want to burst your bubble, but if he can't interpret the gas gauge on a Mazda...

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: ...No, he ain't getting in a space shuttle, I'll tell you right now. Give that up.

BIANCULLI: It was 24 years ago, in 1995, when David Letterman gave Ray Romano his big break by inviting him to do stand-up on "The Late Show." A week later, Ray got a call from Letterman's production company, saying they were interested in creating a sitcom around him, which turned out to be the show "Everybody Loves Raymond." Here's that 1995 stand-up routine from Romano's original appearance on "Letterman."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

ROMANO: I have a 3-year-old daughter and twin 2-year-old boys.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: Wow. Thank you. Single people are here.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: Single people are like, yay, twins. Parents - oh, that could have been us. Oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: I'll tell you. You know, it doesn't matter if you laugh or not. I'm just happy to be out of the house right now. I'll be honest with you.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: I will be honest. You know, it's horrible. I make little excuses now just to get out of my house for a few minutes. I'll do anything. Anybody, do you need anything? Anything at all, anything?

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: Anything from the motor vehicle bureau? How about that?

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: Can I register something? It's on my way. I'm going that way. I'm just going to go apply for jury duty, that's all. Let me out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: So when David Letterman had you on the show for the first time in 1995, and he...

ROMANO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Was so taken with your comedy that he wanted to build a sitcom around you, you must have been shocked.

ROMANO: Yeah. They called my house, by the way. I lived in Queens. I was in a small house in Queens. And it was a Saturday. First of all, who's calling your house - what executive producer from the show is calling you at your house, and not your manager or agent, and on a Saturday?

And here's where I was. I was - I had been doing stand-up for 11 years. I did Johnny Carson in 1991. I did Leno a couple times. I did every stand-up show they had, "Evening At The Improv," the MTV - all those shows. I had my own HBO half-hour, and I loved doing it. I loved doing stand-up.

I was happy to be doing what I loved, but I was - I kind of reached a plateau, I guess, of where I was going to go. And if that's all I did for the rest of my career, you know, it's - it doesn't suck to be doing what you love to do. And Letterman, after I'd done my Letterman set, I kind of thought, well, that was a really good set. So let's see if it had - you know, maybe somebody? And it was Letterman. It was Letterman who was watching from 20 feet away.

And they called me. And I remember my wife saying, Rob Burnett's on the phone. I was in the backyard. I don't know what I was doing. I was hosing off the kids. And I picked the phone up. I was kind of surprised. And he said, listen, Dave liked what he saw. And so we just want to - we just want to say, I just want to tell you that we're interested. So let's see what happens.

Just know, don't - before you sign anything else with anybody else, we're interested. And then, right away - I told them right there, nobody's - there is nobody else. You know, if you're interested, I'm interested. And sure enough, we signed a deal. And here I am.

GROSS: (Laughter) You know, in watching back your appearance - your last appearance on the Letterman show, you started to tear up. Your voice cracked on that.

ROMANO: Yeah, I did.

GROSS: You got very emotional because he had, you know, giving you the green light to have a sitcom. I mean, he really changed your life so profoundly. That show was so successful.

ROMANO: Yeah. Yeah, I'm getting emotional now when I think about it. But yeah, it's true. Look; there are many things that happened in my life. There are many milestones. There are many things that got me to where I am but none more so than the five minutes I did on "Letterman" that night. And then I did - you know, for the next 20 years, I was on his show at least once - sometimes twice. And then - so for him - when he was retiring, it was something. I mean, it changed my life. It changed my children's life. I mean, I'd still like to think we'd be the same people. I think I am - but so many more opportunities. So just to see him go away into - yeah. I mean, it all kind of welled up in me.

I'll tell you one little story. I'm kind - I'm a kind of superstitious guy - and sometimes too superstitious. But the night that I did the first "Letterman," he was doing a bit about - it was springtime, so he was doing a bit about cutting your pants - summer-izing (ph) your pants. And he took someone from the audience, and he cut their pants into shorts. And then he took Paul Schaefer, and he cut Paul Schaefer's pants into shorts. And then Mel Gibson was the first guest. And he took Mel Gibson's, and he cut his. And then he said, well, I've got to do mine. And he cut his own pants into shorts.

So I was backstage, and I'm watching this. And you know - so I'm talking with my manager (unintelligible). And we're like - and I'm like, should I - do I cut my pants? Do I go out with my pants? And they're like, you've got to do it (laughter). And one of the one of the writers - producers came over with, like, scissors and says, well, you've got to go out - when they introduce you, you've got to go out with your pants cut. And I - we literally were - I had the scissors in my hand. I'm making a big deal out of this, and I probably shouldn't.

But I had the scissors in my hand, and we were ready to cut my pants into shorts. So when Dave Letterman announces this new comic - Ray Romano, here he is - and I walk out, you're going to see my bare calves and knees and I'm part of the joke. And at the last second, I thought, I'm not going to do it. I'm going to just - I don't want to assume I'm part of the clique. I'm part of - you know, I'm the - they don't even know who I am. And now I'm going to go out and be in on the joke. And I don't know. It's too presumptuous; it's too whatever. So I decided not to.

And I went out, and I had the - what I thought was probably one of my best TV sets. And it turned into this - and I still believe had I cut those pants into shorts, the dynamic - something's different. Maybe I have a good set, but there's something. And who knows whether or not all of this happens if I cut my pants into shorts?

GROSS: Well, that's really interesting.

ROMANO: (Laughter).

GROSS: You know what? I'm - here's part of the - how the dynamic might have been different. It would have not only been that, like, you were in on the joke - you know, a part of the clique or whatever. But the audience's first reaction to you would've been like - oh, he's got bony legs or something like that, or, like, doesn't he look funny in those foolish looking shorts that used to be pants a few minutes ago.

ROMANO: Yes, it's distracting. It's distracting.

GROSS: And it takes away from thinking - oh, it's a new comic. I wonder what he's going to talk about.

ROMANO: I don't know if you're kidding or not, but I think...

GROSS: No, I'm not kidding.

ROMANO: ...You're absolutely right.

GROSS: No, I mean that sincerely. Like, it would've...

ROMANO: Well, good. You're...

GROSS: ...Been so off-topic to distract people into thinking about, like, your bony legs and laughing at that when you had, like, genuine comedy to deliver.

ROMANO: Well, I want to say two things. One, I have - my bottom half of my legs are...

GROSS: I didn't mean to assume about your legs (laughter).

ROMANO: ...Fantastic. But that might have been distracting - that they're too good looking. But...

GROSS: Get a load of those gams.

ROMANO: ...I believe that, you know?

GROSS: Yeah.

ROMANO: I have told this story to other people. And they're like, you would have been fine. Don't worry about it. And then what - a little end to this story is when "Raymond" was going off the air - when the last episode was airing, I appeared on "Letterman" that night. And so to bring it full circle, I cut my pants into shorts on that episode just 'cause, you know, what I didn't do 10 years ago, I did for the last episode, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, that's funny. Yeah.

ROMANO: Yeah. So that was cool.

GROSS: That's great.

ROMANO: But I believe those kind of things. I'm like, who knows what would have happened, the whole trickle-down effect? Who knows?

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Ray Romano speaking to Terry Gross in 2016 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS AND TOMMY FLANAGAN'S "H.S.")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2016 interview with comic actor and writer Ray Romano. His first stand-up comedy special in 23 years, "Ray Romano: Right Here, Around The Corner," is now on Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So when you started on "Everybody Loves Raymond," the show was - it was kind of billed as like very loosely based on your life - you know, a married man, father of three kids - a daughter and two twin boys and whose parents lived very nearby and who are always kind of showing up and visiting a little too long. And (laughter)...

ROMANO: Yes.

GROSS: ...You know, it's kind of interfering with the married life of this couple.

Did you have a long talk with your family before the show started and say - you know, to say - hey, people are going to be making assumptions about who you really are based on the characters in the sitcom. Some of those assumptions will be true; some of them will be false. Some of the portrayals are going to be more negative than the way I really feel about you. Or you know, like, what kind of (laughter) - what kind of heart-to-heart did you have?

ROMANO: Well, I didn't have a talk before. But I had a couple of talks during (laughter). First of all, let me just say that, you know, I - thank God for Phil Rosenthal, who - you know, they hooked me up with Phil Rosenthal, who wrote the pilot script. And we talked about our families together. And Phil took his parents and my parents and kind of melded them together to become those parents. So it wasn't an exact portrayal of every - down to, you know, the nitty-gritty of my family.

But the only real issue was maybe the brother character 'cause my brother is a New York police officer - or was then at that time. And he actually coined the phrase - I don't know how many people know this. But the title "Everybody Loves Raymond," it's - I mean, I guess most people do, but some still don't. It's said sarcastically in the pilot - in the pilot episode.

And this is a quote from my brother, my real-life brother, who was a police officer. And he would come in and - in real life, he would come over. And he'd see - what? - I got an award, or I got something for stand-up comedy. And he would jokingly, kind of tongue-in-cheek he'd say, well, look at Raymond. Raymond gets awards when he goes to work. You know, when I go to work, people shoot at me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROMANO: People spit at me. When Raymond goes, everybody loves Raymond. So I told this story to Phil. And Phil said, oh, that's - we have to use that. We have to use that as the title. And I said, well, please don't. And he said, well, let's just use it as the working title. And then we'll change it when - you know, when it comes time to go to pilot. And of course, Les Moonves, the head of CBS, fell in love with the title. And he would not - I tried desperately to change that title.

GROSS: Why?

ROMANO: Nobody wants (laughter) that. It's just asking for trouble.

GROSS: People taking it at face value, thinking that you think that everybody loves you.

ROMANO: Well, even if they don't take it at face value, to this day - to this day, someone will start an article with, well, not everybody loves Raymond, and this and that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROMANO: And yeah, but as far as my family, my brother, who was this tough street cop and a real good cop and really dedicated - and the way Brad Garrett was being portrayed - was portraying him - was slightly goofy. And my mother used to say to me, why - why do they have to make him so goofy? Why did - and I'm - Ma, it's just - it's fictional. It's nothing, you know.

But my brother then became - first of all, he loved what Brad Garrett, the character that he became. And - and we did a couple episodes to show what a good cop he was and what a good soul he was. And my brother was very into that. And he met Brad. And he told Brad that he's proud that he's portraying him.

And not only that, my brother was single at the - at the time, or some point at the time. And he became a little mini - mini celebrity. So I think he was more than happy to be portrayed in this - you know, in any TV show.

GROSS: So what was it like when you started on "Everybody Loves Raymond"? You're the star of this network sitcom. And I don't think you'd ever really had an acting job before. (Laughter).

ROMANO: No.

GROSS: So everybody's relying on you to be really great in this, and you're, like, not experienced.

ROMANO: No, I had - the one experience I had was getting fired from a sitcom. I got fired from "NewsRadio." I don't know if you remember the show "NewsRadio."

GROSS: I do remember the show.

ROMANO: Yeah, I was - I was in the original cast. I was - I was hired for the original cast. And on day two of rehearsal for the pilot, I got - I got let go (laughter). Or they went in another direction is what - is what they told us. And I - and I deserved to be fired, I think.

And, you know, I can - I can say now - and even then I kind of knew I was out of my league. I was - I wasn't ready. It just - it didn't feel right. I had a great audition. I - the showrunner saw me, saw my HBO special and asked for me to come in and read. And I had a great audition. He was cracking up. And he just wanted to hire me right there. And he did.

And then I performed for the network. And then at the table read, I could feel I wasn't quite getting it. And then during rehearsal I could feel it also. I was just stiff. I just - I just wasn't ready. And I got let go. I got fired. And then five months later, I want to say, is when I did my "Letterman" spot. And the following year is when "Raymond" came.

But I was stiff in the beginning of "Raymond," too. They got an acting coach for me. HBO was also one of the producers, along with Worldwide Pants. And somebody from HBO said, listen, we want to hire an acting coach for you. What do you think? And I said, all right, you know. They said, yeah because, you know, it's a little different than stand-up. When you talk, people talk back to you now. I go, oh, yeah, that's - OK, let's see how I can find out how to do that.

BIANCULLI: Ray Romano speaking to Terry Gross in 2016. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOTT JOPLIN'S "STOPTIME RAG")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2016 interview with comic, actor and writer Ray Romano. His current Netflix special, "Ray Romano: Right Here, Around The Corner," is his first stand-up comedy special in 23 years. Here's a taste.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "RAY ROMANO: RIGHT HERE, AROUND THE CORNER")

ROMANO: You know, the other day, my wife got all of us together, all the men. And she passed a new ordinance in the house, new law. She said, I'm not answering any stupid questions. She goes, from now on, if you ask me a question that you should know the answer, I'm just walking away.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: And I was like, whatever. You know, I don't want to show fear in front of my kids.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: I'm not going to show fear. I have an image for the boys. I didn't think about it. I let her go. And then the next day, I really didn't think about it till I couldn't find my sweatpants. I couldn't find my sweatpants. And I was walking up to ask her, and then I stopped myself. And I go, oh, no, is this one of those?

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: And then I thought, I can't live like this.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: And I just - I, look, I said, whatever happens, happens. I said, I can't find my sweatpants. And she looked. And she didn't say anything for a second. And then I got to admit, my heart started beating a little faster.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: And then finally she just goes, check the dryer. They're probably in the dryer. I go, OK. I walked away and went, I got away. I got away. It worked. She scared me. I got away with it. And then I thought, I can't ask her where the dryer is.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: I got to find that dryer. I got to - we got the boys. You know, we all talked about it. Nobody knew. Nobody really knew. We all went in separate directions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: What was it like for you when you first became famous? It's probably something that you wanted for yourself. But the experience of it might have been very different than what you were expecting.

ROMANO: You know, when you say famous, I guess the first time anyone ever recognized me - I was telling my wife about this the other day that I remember exactly when "Everybody Loves Raymond" started. I remember the first person. I was - we had gone back to Queens. It was during a hiatus weekend. I went to a gas station, and I was pumping my gas. And a woman said, hey, aren't you on that show? And I said, yeah, I am. Thank you, you know. And that was it.

And then, you know, it was still a long ways off before I ever had to worry about being somewhere - and not that I have to worry. I mean, nobody is, you know, I'm not Justin Bieber. My fans can't - I can outrun my fans. Put it that way. But yeah. But it's - I want to say strange, but it's not - it doesn't really affect my life too much really. I mean, yes, it does. I - here's what I say. Before I thought my cab driver hated me, and now I think my limo driver hates me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROMANO: I think it's all the same, yeah. And this is maybe a negative way to look at it, but I'm just as neurotic if I had never gotten famous or rich. I think I would be equally neurotic because I was neurotic before, and I'm neurotic now. And I'm - I think I'm just as happy as I was then.

GROSS: So a question of "Men Of A Certain Age," in which you played 1 of 3 men dealing with middle age, men who'd been friends since college. And you co-created the show. So a lot of people, when they reach middle age, just try to act like they're not. You know, like, people want to seem like they're young forever, whether that means, like, getting surgery or just dressing a certain way or behaving a certain way.

And so I think it's great that you decided to, you know, write a show about men who are middle aged and really examine in both dramatic and comic way the range of some of those experiences of reaching midlife. And I'd be interested in hearing, like, why you decided to do it and to do something that had, you know, at least as much, if not more, drama in it than comedy.

ROMANO: Well, when "Raymond" ended, I was at first very excited - not very excited for it to end, but excited that I was going to, I guess, see what life was like. It was a bit of a cool feeling in the beginning because now you're - all of a sudden, you've got all this time. And you've got this money and this fame now. And - but it was like coming out of a submarine. It was like, what is this now? My kids are teenagers. And I live here. I live in LA.

It was kind of an odd, new feeling. I finally talked with my friend, Mike Royce, who was also a writer on "Raymond." And he said he's got the same feeling. And, you know, it's kind of this this weird, where am I, what am I doing now? What's, you know, where's my next passion and purpose? Am I at a part - a time in my life where I accomplished what I wanted to? And we said, let's write about it we.

That's what "Raymond" was. "Raymond" was writing about what you know. Let's do that. We're not going to do a sitcom, of course. Let's do a single camera and write about it. And that's where "Men Of A Certain Age" came out of. And we won a Peabody Award, and then they canceled us. And I have to give credit to TNT because they put us on the air. So I'm not blaming them, but it ultimately didn't find the right home, I don't think. We still miss it. I still miss that show. It was a passion of both of ours.

GROSS: Ray Romano, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

ROMANO: Well, I appreciate it very much. Thank you, too.

BIANCULLI: Ray Romano speaking to Terry Gross in 2016. His first stand-up comedy special in 23 years, "Ray Romano: Right Here, Around The Corner" is now on Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, journalist and biographer Robert Caro talks about unearthing the seamy details of political deal-making to understand the nature of political power. Caro spent decades researching the careers of President Lyndon Johnson and New York City power broker Robert Moses. His new book is called "Working." Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.