“Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal utters numerous “oys” before he even gets to Russia in “Exporting Raymond,” his documentary opening April 29 about how he helped develop the Russian version of his hit CBS sitcom.
Rosenthal was initially thrilled, several years ago, when Sony Pictures gave him the opportunity to bring Russians their first “naturalistic” sitcom — one that was inspired by real family dynamics experienced by Rosenthal and the show’s star, Ray Romano.
“But then a friend said, ‘You’re going to Russia — just make sure you have “K and R” insurance,’ ” Rosenthal recalled in Los Angeles recently.
“I asked, ‘What’s that?’ and he said, ‘Kidnap and Ransom insurance.’ And I said, ‘That’s very interesting — I’m not going.’ ”
Sony executives told Rosenthal he didn’t have to worry; kidnapping never happens in Russia. “It happens enough for there to be an abbreviation,” Rosenthal replied. “But my fear and horror of being kidnapped was soon replaced by my fear and horror of what might happen to my show.”
Rosenthal is both the director and the subject of “Exporting Raymond,” which began when Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton asked him to visit Moscow to research a fictional film about a sitcom creator who goes to Russia to adapt his show. Rosenthal had a better idea — to send a real show-runner and film his efforts — to which Lynton replied, “Why not you?”
And so the camera follows Rosenthal as he arrives at the Moscow airport in 2009, meets his scary-looking bodyguard and braves a series of humiliating meetings with the unimpressed TV folk who had been hired to create “Everybody Loves Kostya” (now titled “The Voronins”). The costume designer wants Raymond’s wife to clean the house in gowns and stilettos; the writers don’t think comedy based on the absurdities of real life is funny; and Rosenthal, in his words, becomes “the butt of the joke: the guy who thinks he’s an expert but goes to a land where nobody cares.”
It’s a long way from the Emmys that were heaped on Rosenthal for “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which ran for nine seasons between 1996 and 2005 and remains one of the most beloved sitcoms ever on American television. The series gleaned critical and ratings success for its wry take on the daily misadventures of Long Island sportswriter Raymond Barone (Romano), his exhausted homemaker wife, jealous cop brother and overbearing parents. While many of the stories were based on the creators’ Italian and Jewish families, the original “Raymond” was universal enough to flourish in syndication in almost 150 countries before Moscow came calling.
Certainly the Russians could also relate to this family Everyman, Rosenthal assumed. But immediately upon arriving in Moscow, he found that “Raymond” had been lost in translation.
“As soon as we had the first writers meeting, the guys said, ‘We don’t like this Raymond, this man who is being told what to do by the women in his life. He’s not a Russian character,’ ” Rosenthal recalled. “There’s a Russian shell, an exterior, of wanting to appear macho — that ‘the wife doesn’t tell us what to do.’ ”
In 2004, “The Nanny” had become the first American sitcom to be adapted for Russian television; Fran Drescher’s over-the-top character wasn’t so different from the comedy-sketch players who had previously appeared there on TV. Rosenthal’s sitcom had a subtler brand of humor, and, as the documentary shows, even the head of comedy for the Russian network didn’t love “Raymond.”
During an excruciating dinner meeting captured on camera, the executive says he laughs out loud while reading scripts of “The Nanny,” but when he reads “Raymond,” “it’s not funny.” Rosenthal holds his tongue.
“But when I later described my feelings to the camera, I said that guy didn’t look like a head of comedy — he looked like someone out of ‘Schindler’s List,’ and not the ‘list’ part,” Rosenthal said. “I did cut that segment from the documentary because it could be taken the wrong way.”
Rosenthal is the son of Holocaust survivors. His father escaped Germany after Kristallnacht, his mother was incarcerated, at 11, in an internment camp in France, and his maternal grandfather survived Auschwitz and a death march to Buchenwald, after which he remained in Germany to work for the Bavarian Reparations Committee.
“I would ask for a bike for my 12th birthday, and the response would be, ‘Do you know what I got for my 12th birthday?’ ” he recalled of his own childhood. “As a kid, you come to resent your past, really because it’s being thrown at you.”
But his parents, he added, were also hilarious, and, “Funny was the language of our home.” The young Rosenthal was practically addicted to television comedies like “The Honeymooners,” to the point that his parents nagged him, “What are you going to do, get a job watching television?” Years later, he sent them a widescreen TV with a note attached: “Ha-ha.”
Rosenthal’s own class-clown antics helped him overcome bullies at public school, where, he said, “I was short and skinny and picked on. But at Hebrew school I was cool, because I was surrounded by shorter and skinnier kids. I was ‘relatable,’ which is crucial for comedy.”
“Everybody Loves Raymond” also proved relatable, although the idea began when Rosenthal and Romano met for lunch one day at Art’s Deli and compared notes on their respective Jewish and Italian-American families. CBS even asked Rosenthal not to cast ‘too ethnic,’ “a code word for Italian or God forbid, Jewish,” Rosenthal said. Hiring Peter Boyle to play Raymond’s father satisfied the network, because Boyle was considered “ ‘non-ethnic ethnic,’ which, I learned, means Irish.”
“For the Barones, all problems are solved with food, and the mother never leaves you alone,” Rosenthal said of how the show feels Jewish. “I think that Marie [Raymond’s mother, played by Doris Roberts] is a Jewish mother, and that Ray could be seen as a Jewish husband. He wants things to be ‘nice,’ and to not make trouble: ‘Yes, dear, whatever you like’ — and then maybe he does things to get away with stuff as a child might. But then again, we see the show succeeding in so many different countries, so these might be universal traits.”
Despite all of Rosenthal’s travails in “Exporting Raymond” — or perhaps because of them — the Russian show ultimately becomes a hit, prompting Poland and Israel to request versions of their own. Rosenthal has already met the Israeli producer Daniel Lappin: “If anyone was going to adapt the show over there, I wanted it to be him,” Rosenthal said. “He’s very funny, very dry, and I know the show will be in good hands because he totally ‘gets’ it.”
It’s too early to determine how “Raymond” might change to appeal to Israeli viewers — or if Rosenthal might visit the set as a consultant. “They’re now worrying what the family’s specific [Israeli] ethnicity will be, because in our show the family is Italian,” Rosenthal said. “I really don’t care; I’ve told them, ‘Whatever you’re most comfortable with, as long as it seems relatable; just pick a specific, and go with it.’
“I do think the series will go over well there because the show certainly had some Jewishness about it. … It’s only because I happen to be culturally Jewish, and that just comes out in the writing.”
“Exporting Raymond” opens in theaters on April 29.