When done poorly, observational comedy can be wincingly bad. Beaten-down, played-out jokes inspired by New York vs. Los Angeles, men vs. women, etc., can leave the audience in a nullified, drooling stupor. However, when delivered by an inventive comic adept at witnessing, and then riffing on, the commonality of life, these otherwise mundane moments are turned into a collective, humorous experience.
Paul Reiser is undoubtedly in the latter camp. The veteran comedian is best known for the ’90s sitcom Mad About You, co-starring Helen Hunt. The multiple-award-winning series, which Reiser also co-created, chronicled the minutiae of two newlyweds and was a hit with audiences and critics alike. Key in part to its success was Reiser’s affable, good-natured, everyman quality, the very same aspects that he first developed on stages in the late ’70s NYC standup scene. Reiser has starred in more than two dozen feature films, ranging from Barry Levinson’s 1982 masterful buddy film Diner to sci-fi flick Aliens (1986) and last year’s smash music-drama Whiplash. In addition, Reiser has published three popular books; in ’03, he made his theatrical debut with Woody Allen’s Writer’s Block.
In some ways, the opportunities afforded Reiser by his increasing success kept him from the very craft that first propelled him into prominence: standup. However, Reiser is returning to the comedy stage with a half-dozen national dates this fall, one of which Northeast Florida is fortunate to host this Saturday, Nov. 7 at The Florida Theatre.
Folio Weekly contacted Reiser at his home in Los Angeles; we spoke about his successful 20-year hiatus from standup, the next wave of comics, and how a good laugh can make all of us feel less alone.
Folio Weekly: I keep seeing these news pieces online that describe a kind of “comeback” of Paul Reiser.I didn’t even know that you’d left.
Paul Reiser: Yeah, I didn’t know either. [Laughs.] I’m not a big fan of those words.
But this is specifically about standup, right? You haven’t really done standup in about 20 years?
Yeah. I hadn’t done standup in about 20 years, and three years ago, I decided it just felt like, “Now it’s time.” Because it’s something I wanted to do and kept postponing it for whatever reasons, and, like most things, you think, “It must’ve been time.” But the irony is, the minute I decided to do that, all of these other nice roles started coming in, which had nothing to do with it, but the timing just looked perfectly coincidental. [Laughs.]
I grew up in the ’80s, so I knew you from cable comedy specials and late-night talk shows. Now that you’ve stepped back into this some 30 years after that era, in your opinion, do you feel the comedy scene has changed all that much?
You know, in the time that I was gone, there were all of these booms and ups and downs. There was a period where clubs were opening up everywhere; probably too many. And then in the process of evolution, the weak ones died out. But the world has changed in the way where there are so many people that can now become known. You now, there wasn’t online. People can have a YouTube following, a Twitter following … so there were a lot of new outlets for people to do comedy. But for me what was striking was to how similar it was and really exactly as to how it was when I was a 19-year-old. Technology changes, but the act of standing up on a stage and also writing material was just as hard and as challenging and joyful and all-consuming as it was when I first started. It was very refreshing for me to see that. Because there are very few things that remained the same — and this remained the same.
What is 2015’s Paul Reiser addressing from the stage?
You know, I was telling my wife, “If my kids leave me, I got no act.” I’d just be standing there. You know, I always say [Laughs], “I’m not smart enough to make anything up, so I just talk about what actually happens.” But when you get older, you have more things that happen. When Mad About You started, it was a show about newlyweds. Well, 25 years down the road, it’s a different story, different comedy, and different tensions, and different material. From having no kids and then suddenly having babies and teenagers. There’s plenty of material there. And there’s no shortage of stuff that every day makes you scratch your head and makes you think, “Well, I hope this is funny to somebody.” And when the audience laughs, it’s this recognition because I’m talking about what’s happening to me but it’s stuff that everybody’s going through, so there’s a relatability. I remember when we did Mad About You that was a favorite reaction when someone would say, “Aw, man, it sounds like you’re talking about my house.” And that means we hit it on the head.
It seems like it’s not always an easy thing to do well; to skillfully bring that truly inclusive aspect to the material.
You know, the truth is, when you talk about personal stuff, it always ends up being universal. Because, well, unless you’re a total freak [laughs], there’s nothing really that you’re going through that someone else isn’t going through in some way. But our job as comics is to make it funny and put people at ease and entertain them. The job definitely is not easy, but there’s also no shortage of stuff to talk about. And it’s a relief for both parties involved. The audiences laugh because they go, “OK, then this is not just me; this guy’s going through the same stuff.” And on my end, when they laugh, I’m realizing, “Thank God it’s not just me.” Everybody loves to have some company.