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October 19, 2006

You’re Lucky You’re Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom

Book excerpt

http://www.jewishjournal.com/arts/article/youre_lucky_youre_funny_how_life_becomes_a_sitcom_20061020

The following excerpt is the prologue to "You're Lucky You're Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom," (Viking, 2006) a memoir by Phil Rosenthal, creator and executive producer of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2006 by Buona Sera Productions, Inc.
My brother, Richard, got married on September 5, 1993. I was the best man, and with that honor comes the giving of the toast. I had been earning a living as a writer on an assortment of television sitcoms for about four years at this point, and so I felt there was an expectation to be humorous whenever forced to speak in public -- a self-imposed pressure, but real nonetheless, as if I deeply needed to communicate to people, "See, I can be funny, it's not my fault the shows are terrible."

And so I racked my brain for material. Material at family functions often focused on the family at hand, and my particular family had served me well in the past -- years earlier I wrote a little poem at my parents' twenty-fifth anniversary party (at their nonstop insistence) that seemed to be hilarious to the relatives and friends. "Better than Broadway!" I had been told. But now, at this wedding, I was thirty-three, and there were people there who didn't know the family, and worse, didn't know me -- but here he is: the Hollywood toastmaster. This could be a bad wedding, meaning I could bomb. And then it hit me, an anecdote that had actually happened, that I had suppressed for several years, that drove me nuts then and thinking about it again now rekindled the nuts, and that illustrated the insanity in our family and would serve as a warning to Richard's bride, Karen, as to why she should perhaps reconsider marrying into this psycho ward. Why she should run screaming into the hills rather than subject herself to a life of unrelenting complaining and unbearable frustration, petty domestic politics and life under maternal rule. The more I thought about this story, I realized it wasn't funny at all, but that didn't matter anymore. I had to tell it as a purely cautionary tale. The fact that the toast would come at the wedding reception and that my brother and his wife would be already married didn't change the urgency of my warning. "Karen," I started. "There is still time to run."

I explained: When I first started to make a little money in Hollywood, I bought my mom, for Hanukkah, a gift of the Fruit-of-the-Month Club.

And then came the phone call from my mother in Rockland County, New York: "Philip, we got the pears."

"Oh, that's good, Ma. You like them?"

"Yes, they're very nice, but please . . . it's an entire box of pears. There must be twelve or fourteen pears here. There're so many pears. Please, Philip, do me a favor. Don't ever send us any more food again, okay?"

I said, "Well, Ma . . . another box is coming next month."

She said, "What? More pears?"

I said, "No, Ma, a different fruit every month."

"EVERY MONTH? My God, Max, he got us in some kind of cult. What am I supposed to do with all this fruit?"

"I don't know," I told her. "Most people like it. You eat it ... You share it with your friends." "Which friends?!"

"I don't know ... Lee and Stan."

"Lee and Stan buy their own fruit!"

"Oh my God, Ma..."

"Why did you do this to me?"

"What is happening?"

"I can't talk anymore, there's too much fruit in the house!"

I went on to describe my father's misery as well at this misfortune that had befallen them. ("You think we're invalids? We can't get our own fruit?") The wedding guests laughed. No one laughed harder than my parents, who really did treat the gift of fruit from their son as if they'd received a box of heads from a murderer. Richard and Karen remain married to this day and have even brought two children into the world.

My warning didn't take. Nobody listens to me. Maybe you will.

I guess if we have to classify this book, it is a memoir of sorts. (That's right, Oprah, and I'll swear it's all true even if you make the mean face at me on the couch.) We'll also, if you're interested, get into how to make a show, specifically the show "Everybody Loves Raymond." We'll see how it came to be, how "writing what you know" is not just a saying but essential, and how almost anyone's life can be turned into fuel for comedy. We'll use, for example, my life -- where I'm from, the other jobs and other shows I toiled on, my relationships with family, with women, with The Writers' Room, with show business, and how all of it found its way into the work, became the work, to the point where it wasn't work anymore. And all of it is here -- in the hope that you'll be entertained, and maybe learn a thing or two that could help you in your own career, your life, your diet. You'll learn a little about how to write, cast, edit, direct, run, cater, and, most of all, enjoy the gift of a hit show.

I was crazy lucky to get such a gift, and for nine years, I savored it; I loved it; I was tremendously thankful for it. It would not have occurred to me to return it or leave it or be unhappy with it, let alone complain about the gift to whoever gave it to me that it was all "too much."

You still there, Ma?

On Oct. 24 from 7-8:30 p.m., Phil Rosenthal will be at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (800) 764-2665 or visit www.booksoup.com/index.asp.

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