Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser
Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt in Mad About You
Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt in Mad About You
On September 23, 1992, Mad About You — about a married couple living in New York City's Greenwich Village — premiered on NBC. The series took a sincere, but funny approach to newlywed life: Paul Buchman, a documentarian — played by stand-up comedian Paul Reiser — was indeed "mad" about his new wife Jamie Buchman, a publicist — played by actress Helen Hunt.
Cocreated by Reiser — who was at that time best known to TV audiences for his role on the sitcom My Two Dads — and Danny Jacobson (Roseanne), the series picked up twelve Emmy Awards during its seven-season run — four of which went to Hunt. Of her on-screen rapport with Reiser, Hunt said in this 1994 emmy magazine article, "We like each other and get each other's sense of humor. But it's also acting — a lot of meticulous, subtle, time-consuming work."
The main cast was rounded out by John Pankow as Paul's cousin Ira, Leila Kenzle as the couple's friend Fran, Anne Elizabeth Ramsay as Jamie's sister Lisa and of course Maui as Murray the dog. The guest stars were just as notable, with the production pulling in comedy legends like Carol Burnett, Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar.
During its seven-year run, the NBC series shared crossover episodes with several of the network's other shows, most notably, Seinfeld and Friends. Lisa Kudrow portrayed twin sisters Phoebe and Ursula on Friends, after originating the role of dingy waitress Ursula on Mad About You. And Hunt, in turn, appeared as Jamie on Friends. Michael Richards, who played Kramer on Seinfeld, appeared as his character in an episode where it is revealed that he is subletting Paul's former bachelor pad.
In 1999, the series came to an end, but only for a time. Twenty years later, Mad About You was revived as a twelve-episode limited series on Spectrum. The new episodes followed Paul and Jamie as empty nesters dealing with middle-age life.
"You can be laughing genuinely and two seconds later be having your heart tugged without it seeming formulaic," said Reiser of the hit series. "That's a nice feather in our cap."
In the emmy article, Reiser explains how he mined for comedic gold in his own marriage, and in a sidebar, he explains his feelings about the near constant comparisons to Seinfeld he received during his show's run.
Paul Reiser's turning point came at age twenty-two, alone in a room in Oklahoma — where many a life has probably been contemplated — while on the road as a fledgling standup. ''I'd been doing comedy for a year or so and thought, 'I don't want to be forty-five and see [Jerry] Seinfeld and [actor comedian Larry] Miller and all my friends on TV and go, 'Hey, I could have done that. I used to know them, believe it or not. Now pass me another beer.' I knew I really wasn't going to be happy unless I gave it my best shot. I knew that I wanted to be onstage doing standup. It's the only thing that felt good. And taking that step led to everything else."
That success did not come overnight is okay with Reiser, thirty-seven, who did time in the trenches of New York as a standup and sometime musician, appeared in films like Diner, Beverly Hills Cop, and Aliens, and was seen on television for three seasons in My Two Dads. "It's been sort of a steady, slow increase over the years, which I'm very comfortable with," he says. And now that his NBC sitcom Mad About You has marked its second season with a steady climb in the Nielsens (at press time, number nineteen among eighteen- to forty-nine-year-olds), Reiser is also comfortable with the recognition he receives. "It's more fun to accept because I had more to do with it."
When Tri-Star Television gave Reiser free rein to develop his own project a few years ago, he had a big list of don'ts. "One was avoiding being saccharine," he says. "Another was avoiding being TV conventionally glib or snippy, or cleverly hostile and exchanging barbs. There's this sitcom tradition where couples are digging and throwing insults at each other that bounce right off. If we were going to play it true to life, the fact is that you can insult somebody without them being hurt or fighting back."
At Tri-Star's suggestion, he and writer-producer Danny Jacobson put their heads together. Like Reiser, Jacobson, who was head writer on Roseanne for its first two years and writer-producer for the sitcoms Davis Rules and Shelley Long's Good Advice, had recently married — actually within weeks of the actor-comedian. With much of Reiser's standup material revolving around relationships, particularly being a newlywed, it seemed only natural to follow the dictum WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. "Almost every time we talked, we'd have little stories about what our wives had done or said," explains Jacobson, who, along with Jeffrey Lane, executive produces the series. "We knew that stuff had to be in the show."
While Reiser keeps his thumb in many pies as cocreator, producer, and writer, his main duty is playing Paul Buchman. Creative, sensitive, funny, and believable, Paul is at his best — as are most married men — when he engages in those revealing conversations with his spouse, Jamie (Helen Hunt). Of their much-lauded on-screen rapport, Hunt says, "I think it's a combination of things. We genuinely like each other and get each other's sense of humor, and he likes my work and I like his. But it's also acting — a lot of meticulous, subtle, time-consuming work to make it look like you're accidentally seeing this married couple. We try to put little things in, like the way they touch each other and talk together and the way they stop their lives to have a conversation. You put all of those things together and step back a minute.... When it works, it looks real. It's like, if you're looking at a painting and you're too close, you might not see it. But from far away, it looks real."
That reality base is at the forefront of Reiser's comic mind. "I think we were always aware that there were three things we wanted to do with Mad About You," he says. "We wanted to be funny, very real, and able to be emotional." During the recent Museum of Television and Radio symposium at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art honoring the series, Reiser, along with about 600 connoisseurs, had the opportunity to sit back and watch the show on a big screen. The episode — a flashback to the characters' first meeting — "was a really very sweet and moving show. I watched it and got caught up in it. I was really tickled by how it all worked — that you can be laughing genuinely and two seconds later be having your heart tugged without it seeming formulaic. That's a nice feather in our cap.
"With all of the high-tech stuff going on in the world," Reiser continues, "at the same time there's all this concentration on low tech. What it all comes down to is two people. You can go and acquire all your goods and materials, but you have to be able to come home and stare at yourself in the mirror and across the bed at somebody else. To me, it's such a rich area and in a way, the only area that interests me."
And what is personal is universal. Viewer response tends toward, "Wow — you've been bugging our bedroom!" Says Reiser, "The inspiration for me is at home: You're sitting and talking about the chicken you're eating, and in four sentences you're suddenly talking about your ex-girlfriend and then you wonder, How'd I get into this? Oh, I had this chicken dish in '81.... Oh, that must have been when I was seeing so-and-so and... hello? All of a sudden you're having an argument! And it was so good a minute ago! To me, to stand back, it's really funny watching these two pinheads just bounce around the house together. Everybody has their own neuroses and insecurities and you watch the results of two sets of insecurities bouncing around each other...."
Long before his neuroses got hooked up with psychologist wife Paula's, Reiser was unwittingly cutting his comedic teeth in a reasonably normal Manhattan household consisting of himself, Mom, Dad, and three older sisters. Standup, he insists, was not a boyhood goal. He was simply in his element performing onstage, whether in school plays or with his requisite rock band, The Upper Deck ("What was cool is chat we had free advertising at every stadium").
Early on, he figured out when, where, and how much he could practice his humor. "I didn't want to be the funniest guy in class. I always knew if you were too funny, they'd throw you out and then you'd have no audience. I'd be just short of being thrown out. The trick was to do a joke that would actually get the teacher to laugh. Then you'd be good for another twenty minutes."
At SUNY/Binghamton, Reiser majored in music (piano and composition) and performed in musicals. "I didn't even know when you got there that you were supposed to pick a major. I thought they'd tell you these things. Halfway through the first year people were taking pre-med, pre-law, and I was saying, 'How do you know what to take?'
In high school he had begun hanging out at New York comedy clubs, watching comics like David Steinberg, Robert Klein, and George Carlin do their stuff. During summers in college, Reiser took the plunge into open-mike nights at the clubs. "In my freshman year I went onstage one time, and for the rest of the year people would ask, 'What did you do this summer?' and I'd say, 'I was a comedian.' For actually six minutes, I was a comedian."
By graduation in 1977 he was a regular, performing at clubs like the Comic Strip and the late Catch a Rising Star. His comedy "graduating class" included Jerry Seinfeld, Larry Miller, Jimmy Brogan, Carol Leifer, and Mark Schiff, many of whom have gone on to perform in or write for television. Seven nights a week, sometimes until 4:00 a.m., they'd watch one another take a turn onstage, then gather at a coffee shop to test their wits among those who'd later become some of the best.
"At those late-night coffee nights Paul would say something, and it was so fast and funny," recalls longtime friend Miller, who has been a frequent guest star on Mad as Paul's producer. "There's no one I've ever met who is faster on the draw than Paul. In standup, especially in the early days, I think part of his appeal was being quick and witty. Another is that he is charming and very ingenuously so."
Like many of the comics from his group, Reiser used observational material. "We all work in the exact way we should," says Miller. "We had parents who loved us and we had very solid middle- or upper-middle-class upbringings. So we all ought to be horsewhipped if we started working in a different way. If any one of us suddenly affected a bandanna and three-day growth of beard and became a sullen provocateur — that would be phony."
While doing the standup thing, Reiser and Miller played piano and drums, respectively, in clubs and bars around town. They both began taking acting classes, and when Reiser accompanied another friend to an audition, it was Reiser who got the part. The film was Diner, the first-time director was Barry Levinson, and the part made a nice calling card for Reiser when he decided to test the waters in L.A. Although he was "the one not on the poster," the role left an impression and helped him land subsequent work. Danny Jacobson recalls, "I met Paul [briefly] years ago at a party in Malibu. But in my mind, I really met him in Diner. I don't know if he noticed me, but he really stood out."
Reiser may have been one of the first from "the group" to segue into acting, but the consensus, Miller attests, was '"Gee, how do you like that. That's a good way to move along — get good at something.' We always knew that you make your own hole in this business. The trick here is that there is no trick. Just try to get good at something, and then get really good at something."
With one slight deviation, in the action/drama Aliens, Reiser has chosen work that suits him best — comedy, of course. "I know my strengths," he says. "If somebody sent me something and said, 'Schwarzenegger's dropped out,' I know it wouldn't be my forte. I don't have this burning desire to prove I can do Death of a Salesman."
Mad costar Hunt was enjoying a career in films like The Waterdance and Mr. Saturday Night when Reiser approached her about the role. "I said I'd read it because I didn't want to be rude, then read it and thought, 'Uh, oh. I love this thing."' Hunt recalls watching Reiser in an acting class years ago. "Every rime I'd see him, I'd remember, 'This guy's been studying.' The rare thing is that he's a very funny comedian and he's really an actor. There's a lot of people who have hit shows and are brilliantly funny but aren't actors. It's a different craft than being a standup. But he's brave and willing to try things and is emotionally there."
Like his comedy cohorts, Reiser has been diversifying lately, hosting awards shows, which he likens to doing standup in clubs: "Just keep the show moving and tell a few jokes." His star rose even higher when he was recently tapped to play a leading feature role during the show's hiatus. In a departure from his TV character — a happily standup in clubs: "Just keep the show moving and tell a few jokes." His star rose even higher when he was recently tapped to play a leading feature role during the show's hiatus. In a departure from his TV character — a happily married man — he'll play a divorced man in the romantic comedy Bye Bye Love.
And that music degree has been put to good use, with Reiser cowriting Mad's theme song with musician-producer Don Was after the two met at an airport two weeks before the series premiered. When he has time between scenes, Reiser can be found tinkering at the piano in the bedroom set. "Paul's comedy is very musical," maintains Jacobson, who has a background in musical theater. "He hears and says things a certain way, very rhythmically."
Jacobson cites an example. "The scene is: Paul, at Jamie's beckoning, cries to find out from his mother whether he was a child of passion. His mother ends up giving him more information than he wants. So he's sitting there and says, 'I now know things I never wanted to know.' It's a funny and writable thought, but with Reiser's music in mind, I added, 'I now know things I never wanted to know, and now there's nothing I can do to unknow them."'
Then there's the book — Reiser's musings and observations on relationships — to be published by Bantam in late summer. As for some funny little offspring? "Paula and I have this great shared thing. We both really want kids and we both really don't want them yet."
And he'll keep on pushing — with the series, standup, film, you name it. "My thought is that if I do — five years really hard...like, I'm going to stay up until 1998 and then I'll sleep. I'll call my wife at 9:00 and say, 'Honey, I'm doing a scene where a guy's telling his wife he's going to be home late. What would he say?' And she'd say, 'Why don't you come home and we can talk about it.'
"That's the irony about this show," says Reiser. "You get so caught up in tracing a life, you forget to have a life. And that's what I'm trying to figure out — how to balance everything.''
Mad About You, much like Seinfeld, started out big on character and small on plot. But as the marriage of Manhattanites Paul Buchman (Paul Reiser), a documentary filmmaker, and Jamie Buchman (Helen Hunt), a public-relations executive, has matured, so has the series. More of the supporting cast has been used, and the evolution of the relationship has been examined in a different way than in earlier shows.
"We've found that the stories have gotten a bit more fun and a bit bigger," says Reiser. "The original idea, which we all loved the smallness and intimacy of, we discovered a better way to use, which was to hang those little things onto a bigger story. We got better at writing funnier stories. And while you're telling those stories, those events and behaviors and little negotiations that are the heart of the show happen anyway, but they're not the story itself. We call them the brushing-the-teeth bits — the realities that are secondary in service to the stories."
What does Reiser think of the obvious comparison of Mad to Seinfeld? "Compatible," he says, is the word that comes to mind. "They're similar to the extent that Jerry and I have somewhat similar personalities and he and I are friends. There is a certain New Yorkness to both and hopefully some intelligence. I'm a big fan and certainly would rather be compared to Seinfeld than something on at four in the morning that I've never heard of.
"I think there's a similarity in flavor and there are some smart, fun people," he continues. "There's a naturalness and reality to it. To a certain extent, ours is even more real, because they have four very real characters who get into extraordinary situations. And at the heart of our show is the intimate relationship between two people."
Seinfeld's advice to his buddy? "He told me to get out as fast as you can. Run like the wind."
But the romantic tone of Mad has attracted a sizable audience. In fact, some viewers have requested copies of the show's theme song — cowritten by Reiser and Don Was — so that it can be played at their weddings.
"Another thing that's weird," notes Reiser, "is we've had like three people call who want to come to a taping of the show and propose to their girlfriends. It's very warming, but at the same time, I think, What if she says no? Everybody will be depressed." -L.H.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #3, 1994, under the title, "Mad Man."