Paul Reiser eyes his agent warily in an upcoming episode of “The Paul Reiser Show,” the writer-actor-comedian’s new half-hour comedy on NBC, which closely resembles his real life. In the scene, it’s been some years since Reiser’s megahit “Mad About You” went off the air, and the agent is gushing that he’s found the actor a great movie role. “Is he a Jew?” Reiser asks, suspiciously. “The nice guy, sweet husband, Jew?... vaguely Semitic – the implied ‘ethnicity?’”
Reiser, of course, is poking fun at himself, and at anyone who might typecast him as the kind of menschy husband he played on “Mad About You.” In that ’90s sitcom, he and Helen Hunt starred as newlyweds in a show that was also based on Reiser’s own experience.
The absurdities of life after superstardom figure prominently in his new series, as does Reiser’s psychotherapist wife (Amy Landecker of “A Serious Man”), his two sons and a circle of buddies thrust upon him either because they are married to his wife’s friends or are fathers of his children’s playmates.
Like Jerry Seinfeld most famously did, but also Matt LeBlanc in “Episodes” and Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Reiser is the latest celebrity to create a comedy-as-self-portrait. David even appears in the pilot on April 14 to suggest that Reiser should be doing his own version of “Curb.”
At 54, Reiser – whose role in the ensemble cast of “Diner” (1982) kickstarted his career, is almost as well known for his autobiographical best-sellers, the latest of which, “Familyhood,” will hit stores in May.
He said any resemblance between “The Paul Reiser Show” and “Curb,” in particular, is incidental. “The impetus for this series was a very nice guy at Warner Brothers saying ‘We think it’s time for you to come back,’” he recalled. “And I very humbly said, ‘That’s so nice, but I don’t really want to. It’s hard – and why?’ But the guy continued to be very persuasive and flattering, and I am a sucker for that. So while I didn’t know if there was a groundswell of demand for me out there, I decided to go write and see what happened. And because I don’t know how to make things up, I kind of wrote my own life again.”
Reiser describes the premise early in the show: “I have everything I have ever dreamed of. The only problem is, I’m not dead yet.”
“If I were 97, my life would have timed-out perfectly,” he explained in a telephone interview. “But, hopefully, I have many more years left, so the question is, what do I do next?’”
While Larry David’s comedy hinges on his antisocial behavior wreaking absurd consequences, Reiser’s stems from good intentions that go horribly wrong. “‘Bad’ is funny,” Reiser said. In one sequence, his character is videotaped selling gift-wrap for a school fundraiser, which later appears on a website titled, celebrityhumiliation.com, in a segment that describes him as a broke and forced to sell goods out of his car for cash.
“There’s [another] joke where I say I’m just famous enough where if I were caught in a motel room with a coyote, it would be on TV,” Reiser said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called a restaurant and thought, ‘Maybe they’ll know my name and we’ll get a good table’ – but, nope, the guy never heard of me. But if I got caught picking my hose at a red light, I’m just famous enough that there would be a shot of me on YouTube: ‘Former Golden Boy picking his nose.’ That’s the crazy reality of my life.”
Another unusual aspect of Reiser’s status emerges in that sequence about the supposedly “great” movie role: “I have such a peculiar relationship with my agents,” he said. “I love my agent, and he’s tickled he’s in the show, by proxy, but I said, ‘Did you notice the guy’s an idiot?’ I marvel at the whole agency; they’ve never found me a job, ever, since ‘Mad About You’s’ been off the air. I know that at this point in my life, I’m not going to be George Clooney, or Leonardo, but I can’t be that universally loathed… Yet to be fair, I have given them mixed messages: ‘Get me work, but I don’t want to to work too hard;’ ‘I don’t want to play my own familiar self, but I don’t want to stretch so much that I look terrible.’”
Reiser knows that observers are wondering why NBC delayed premiering his show; his wry response is that the old regime was in fourth place for a reason, and suggests that the recently appointed new one is smarter. “If you deliver the Jews, I’ll get everyone else,” he tells a reporter of his show. “I’ll go after the Methodists and the Catholics; I just need you to get me every Jew with a TV set in their house.”
The fictional Reisers are Jewish because the real ones are, too. Reiser grew up in the 1960s in Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town, a heavily Jewish and Irish-American housing development on the Lower East Side, where the sound of hippies playing drums would waft in through the windows of his classes at the East Side Hebrew Institute.
He began performing at comedy clubs while majoring in music at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and went on to star in TV shows such as “My Two Dads” before “Mad About You” made him a household name during the sitcom’s seven seasons, from 1992 to 1999.
Like Seinfeld’s TV character, the fictional Paul Buchman on “Mad About You” seemed Jewish but was never explicitly named as a member of the Tribe. That irked some Jewish pundits – along with the assumption that Reiser and Hunt portrayed an interfaith couple. “My goal with ‘Mad About You’ was to have the Jewishness be presumed, but never stated,” Reiser acknowledged. “But I still bristle to this day when people make a big deal of ‘He’s Jewish; she’s Gentile.’ We never mentioned that her character is not Jewish…. Helen, in fact, is part Jewish, and to me her character was always Jewish. Any girl who is smart and funny and can quote a Mel Brooks record is as Jewish as I need them to be.”
As for Reiser’s own religious life, he said, “We’re pretty Jewish; we have our seders, and we have our big Chanukah parties with the kids.” His oldest son, Ezra Samuel, who was born six weeks premature and has used a wheelchair since birth, had his bar mitzvah two years ago in a ceremony so moving that guests told Reiser they were inspired to themselves pursue becoming b’nai mitzvah.
In “Familyhood,” Reiser said, “There is a specific chapter about my eldest son, which was a landmark for me to do. I hadn’t really written about him before, but I was glad once I got to the other side of it.”
Reiser even hired an actor who uses a wheelchair to play one of his sons on his new show. “But we’re not going to make a big deal of it and we’re not going to see either kid too much,” he said.
The boy’s disability does come up, in a more serious manner, in the episode in which Reiser and his wife re-write their wills. “We do make a joke about [that], which was an important joke for me to be able to make, and then we move past it,” Reiser said.
“Not that we’re being flip, but for these characters, this is simply a part of life. Kids have issues, and you deal with those issues every day.”