Phil Rosenthal, the creator of "Everybody Loves Raymond," which will end its nine-year run on CBS on May 16, and I are fressing at Barney Greengrass in Beverly Hills high atop Barney's Department Store. It's not that eating sable is the way I mourn (how is it that a fish can be named after a fur coat my mother owned?) -- or that toasted bagels and cream cheese dulls the imminent loss of my favorite sitcom.
The reason is altogether different: I used to frequent a deli on Manhattan's Upper East Side called P.J. Bernstein's. In high school it had been a favorite haunt of young ladies from the Lenox School to whom I will be forever grateful for teaching me the invaluable phrase "scooped-out bagel." After college, as I began my adult life in New York, I would drop in occasionally for some sustenance. P.J. Bernstein's had a certain grungy charm, excellent brisket, tasty hamburgers and an eccentric staff.
Turns out I should have been nicer to the maitre d'. During 1981-82, Rosenthal was the maitre d', the manager -- he ran the show. The owner, in Rosenthal's words "a very nice alcoholic," would wait for Rosenthal's arrival at 3 p.m. Rosenthal's job was to make him a vodka, then another, then another -- and after three drinks he would leave the restaurant to Rosenthal's care telling him "to eat what he wanted and take what he wanted." It was there, at the deli, that Rosenthal learned everything he would one day need to know to run a successful sitcom.
Rosenthal had graduated from Hofstra University with the ambition of being an actor. Accordingly, he got a job as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He often worked the graveyard shift. With the museum to himself, Rosenthal would turn on the lights and study paintings much closer than any visitor would be allowed. Van Gogh's works touched him and he returned the compliment. But his continuing-ed program in art history ended when Rosenthal was found asleep during his shift in a 300-year-old bed. A friend had recently left his job at P.J. Bernstein's and recommended Rosenthal. Helping himself to the food made him a not-so-starving actor. "I loved it."
Here's what he learned at P.J. Bernstein: "It's not so different from running a show. You're in charge of everything. Every single decision is made by you. First of all, you're financially responsible. Next, you're creatively responsible because of running the thing. Thirdly, everybody is coming to you with their problems: the waitresses hate each other; the countermen hate each other -- they're not talking. The customers are mad about a sandwich. You have to handle all this. You're juggling many things. That's the main comparison."
Also, he learned how to cater to stars (literally and figuratively) as when Howard Cosell would walk in and in one breath say, "Hello Philip, I'll have a vodka on the rocks; join me."
Rosenthal was still trying to be an actor when Alan Kirschenbaum, a friend of his from high school, appeared at his apartment carrying a new-fangled machine, a word processor, and suggested that he and Rosenthal write a script. They wrote a story about their hometown and a suburban detective and sold the script to HBO Films. Although it never got made, Rosenthal got paid $75,000, a sum that both impressed and, Rosenthal suspects, annoyed his mother.
Within a few years Rosenthal found himself and his writing partner, Oliver Goldstick, working on a number of ill-fated TV shows such as the Robert Mitchum sitcom, "A Family for Joe" (1990); the Ray Sharkey sitcom, "The Man in the Family" (1991); the "Look Who's Talking" spinoff, "Baby Talk" (1991-92), and Alan Kirschenbaum's early Fox Channel confection, "Down the Shore" (1992-93). Rosenthal graduated to being a supervising producer on "Coach," but having parted ways amicably with his writing partner, Rosenthal was open to offers.
Rosenthal was sent a tape of a young comic, Ray Romano. As the tape began, Rosenthal realized he had seen this performance by Romano on Letterman and it had made him laugh. Romano was talking about his kids. "His stuff was so relatable," Rosenthal now says, "it reminded me of a young Bill Cosby -- and that's where I live." Based on that six-minute performance, Letterman had said this guy should have a show. Rosenthal was interested.
Romano and Rosenthal met at Art's Deli in Studio City. They hit it off. They were both from Queens, and both had families who were, in Rosenthal's words, "Somewhat intrusive." "For every story about his facacta family," Rosenthal said, "I had one too." Rosenthal got the job.
Romano was a fan of Seinfeld and thought that his show, too, should be Ray and his friends in the coffee shop riffing on current events. "I said I can't do that show," Rosenthal said, "I'm not that guy."
Rosenthal said that he loved Ray's stand-up act and the show should be based on that -- his kids and his wife. Then Rosenthal said the fateful words: "Tell me about the rest of your family."
"He tells me," Rosenthal recalled, "he's got twin boys and an older daughter and his parents live close by and they're always over. And his dad's a little crazy and he has an older brother who's a New York police sergeant who's divorced who lives with his parents and touches every bite of food to his chin and whenever he sees Ray get another accomplishment, he says, 'It never ends for Raymond. ... Everybody loves Raymond.'"
"That's the show!" Rosenthal said.
"That's not a show," Romano said.
"That's a show," Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal knew Romano had never acted before. So it made sense to have him play a character that was close to his stage persona. "Plus," Rosenthal said, "I could relate to it. What I didn't know about his family, I could fill in with the characters in my family."
I asked Rosenthal to tell me about the characters in his family. His answer: "You see them every week on 'Everybody loves Raymond.'"
Both Rosenthal's parents were born in Germany. His father's family left after Kristallnacht. His mother and her mother did not. They were separated from her father and managed to escape to France and from there to a ship bound for the United States. The ship was turned away and Rosenthal's mother and grandmother spent two years in Cuba before arriving in New York. They later learned that Rosenthal's maternal grandfather survived Auschwitz. After the war, he remained in Germany to work for the Bavarian Reparations Committee, but died before Rosenthal was born.
Many writers, including this correspondent, have discussed the Barone family dynamics as being fundamentally Jewish and have pegged the show's extreme dark humor that borders on the cruel as the sine qua non of Holocaust survivor families. The popularity of "Raymond," I once argued, is assimilation in the best sense of the word -- that is of Jewish values and sensibility absorbed into American culture (as opposed to the reverse).
Rosenthal knew he was onto something when he started getting reaction to the pilot where Ray gives his mother a gift from the "Fruit of the Month Club." Would you be surprised to hear that story was true, based on Rosenthal's mother. "She reacted as if I had sent her plutonium."
"I thought people would find it quirky and funny." What Rosenthal didn't expect is that everyone would think it was about their own family. From that he learned an important lesson: "The more specific you are in the writing, the more universal it is."
Today "Raymond" appears in 141 countries and the show gets mail from families over all the world who feel that their own stories are appearing on screen.
To his parents who once chastised Rosenthal for watching too much TV asking, "What are you going to do? Get a job watching TV?" Rosenthal sent a big-screen TV with a note saying, "Ha, Ha."
Perhaps somewhere there is a support group for men whose mothers loved them too much, and whose mother's intensity was only matched by their father's remoteness; for children who loved their parents even though they were annoying, meddling and favored them and their accomplishments over their sibling. I don't know about you but mine met every Monday at 9 p.m. That is the specific.
As for the universal: "Raymond" appeals to people everywhere because it reassured us that all the conflict, ill feeling, cruelty and bad behavior that occurs within a family is nonetheless done in the name of love. Rosenthal's genius, his gift, was to transform these feelings which usually simmer within us unresolved, or break families apart, into humor -- side-splitting humor.
Everyone has favorite episodes: Among Rosenthal's favorites is the show that explains how Ray and Debra met, which Rosenthal and Romano wrote together; also the "Italy" show; the "Baggage" episode where Ray and Debra's fight over who will put away a suitcase; and many, many more. Mine include those as well as the episode where Ray's mother intercedes with the FBI regarding a job Ray's brother has applied for; and the "Container" that notably includes a spoof on Hitchcock.
Soon after the show began, Rosenthal got offers to develop other shows. He decided that doing so would be a mistake. He looked around and observed that in most cases, the original show suffered and the new show failed to be as good. Rosenthal not only decided to stay at "Raymond," he even gave Disney back their development deal money.
He realized how rare it was to have a hit show. And he was writing about his family. When would that happen again? So he decided he would do the show until he couldn't anymore; until he had run out of good ideas. The question then became how long could that go on for? Rosenthal as a student of the sitcom form, conducted his own study. "Mary Tyler Moore," a "near-perfect show" in Rosenthal's estimation, lasted seven seasons. Seven became the number. However, during "Raymond's" seventh season the staff found they had enough stories for an eighth season. And Rosenthal intended that to be their last. But in the middle of season eight, people were clamoring for a ninth. Rosenthal knew everyone was having a ball, no one wanted it to end, but he felt he had to be adult, or as he said: "I have to run the deli."
Although he had said "no way," he asked the writers to meet in January to see if they had any stories that were good enough for a ninth season. Rosenthal found they had six. He figured that meant they could reasonably do 12. He told CBS, they were ecstatic. They said, could you do 18? He said, 13, they said, 17, he said 15, they said 16 -- he said -- sold! And that's how the ninth season came to have 16 episodes ending on Monday, May 16, 2005.
Meanwhile back at Barney Greengrass, Phil Rosenthal was not sure what the future would bring. He was taking a vacation with his family, and then hoped to catch up on his sleep before seeing what he would write next. As for me, I was taking no chances this time. With the maitre d' looking on, I tipped generously.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week. Visit him online at www.tommywood.com.