Ray Romano (left) and Phil Rosenthal on the set in 2004

Robert Voets/CBS
August 27, 2021
Features

The Perfect Pairing

When Ray Romano first sat down with Phil  Rosenthal, it was like spaghetti meeting the meatball or the pickle saying hi to corned beef on rye. That was 25 years ago — at a deli, of course. The result was a fast, and lasting, friendship as well as Everybody Loves Raymond, a masterful family comedy.

Mara Reinstein

Ray Romano does the math a lot. He knows it's been 25 years since the premiere of Everybody Loves Raymond — the sitcom he starred in and executive-produced — and 16 years since the finale aired on CBS.

At age sixty-three, he's also keenly aware that he's two years older than Peter Boyle — i.e., his onscreen dad — was when the show started in 1996. "It all equals one thing," he says. "Time is moving fast. So enjoy things."

Everybody Loves Raymond, however, isn't going anywhere. Edgy punchlines mixed with rapid-fire pop-culture references be damned, this was a gloriously traditional three-camera comedy set in New York's Long Island suburbs revolving around sportswriter Ray Barone, his put-upon wife Debra (Patricia Heaton) and their three young kids.

The pair couldn't sneeze without meddling from his parents, Marie (Doris Roberts) and Frank (Boyle), and his older brother, Robert (Brad Garrett), who all lived across the street. Their stories were pointedly low stakes with relatable and hilarious payoffs.

"I can honestly say that was all by design," says creator–executive producer Phil Rosenthal. "I always thought if I were lucky enough to have my own TV show, why not make it something with lasting value, because culture is so disposable. It's on CBS, but in the back of my mind, it's for Nick at Nite."

Romano and Rosenthal's own story began at Art's Delicatessen in Studio City, California, in 1995, months after the veteran stand-up had killed on Late Show with David Letterman and subsequently landed a production deal.

Romano had interviewed a dozen potential showrunners, but he felt a kinship with Rosenthal as they commiserated about their home lives. "We both had kids and our wives yelled at us a lot," Romano says. Rosenthal chimes in, "And our parents never left us alone."

The series premiered on a Friday night in September to little fanfare. "On the surface, it looked like Full House," Rosenthal says. "The first ad that CBS placed in TV Guide was of Ray on the floor playing blocks with the babies."

The show soon moved to a coveted Monday slot, where it blossomed into a perennial ratings winner, averaging 20 million viewers a week during its sixth season. Raymond also earned 15 Emmys for its cast and behind-the-scenes talent — including Outstanding Comedy Series in 2003 and 2005.

These days, Romano and Rosenthal live near each other in L.A. and remain connected, even traveling with their families to Cabo over the holidays. They took a break from talking baseball and watching movies to jump on a Zoom call with emmy contributor Mara Reinstein to discuss the show's values and legacy — plus their 10 favorite episodes (well, it's really 11).

What were your first impressions of each other?

Phil Rosenthal: I saw Ray on Letterman when it aired and loved his act. And then when I got a videocassette — because the show was looking for writers — I remember thinking, "He's great. Of course, I'll take that meeting." I liked him right away, and we seemed to have similar backgrounds. It was delightful to hear that Italians and Jews are not so different.

Ray Romano: As a matter of fact, they're very similar.

PR: All our problems are solved with food.

RR: I was trying to figure out the best match. But you know you were my second pick. The first one didn't pan out.

PR: I know my wife would say the same thing.

Ray, this was your sitcom debut. How nervous were you about acting?

RR: I had just gotten fired from acting! I was in the original cast of [the NBC sitcom] NewsRadio. I rehearsed for a day and a half with the original cast and got fired after the first rehearsal. Joe Rogan took my place.

PR: Had I known that story when I met you, that would have colored everything!

RR: I really felt like I deserved to be fired. I wasn't comfortable. But [Raymond] was much more organic to me. It's in my voice. Still, when I look at the first season, I'm stiff. I had an acting coach, Richard Marion, who helped me a lot. It took time for me — as painful as the cliché is — to find my voice.

PR: What was great about Ray was that he was obsessed with making sure everything felt real and natural. It's very inherent to who he is.

What do you remember about the show's salad days?

PR: Nobody had watched anything in that Friday timeslot since Gomer Pyle. We didn't change that. So when we moved to Mondays, the network thought it would be good to have famous sports stars on the show.

As a student of TV, I hated that idea. I want to see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on a basketball court, not in somebody's living room! We cut one-minute teasers with Kareem, Tommy Lasorda, Barry Bonds and Kristi Yamaguchi — but if you watch the show in syndication, I've cut those scenes out.

RR: In the beginning, we had to pay audience members and bus them in from nursing homes and prison rehabs. I'm not kidding! It was a character-driven show, and they didn't know the characters yet. Those first few episodes really were a test.

What was the show trying to say about family?

PR: That they're terrible.

RR: No matter how bad it is, they're always there and they're the people you can rely on the most — even though they may give you the most angst.

PR: When I was nine, I watched The Brady Bunch. It was this beautiful gentile world of niceness. I dreamed of that life. But people have the same kind of affection for our show because in the '90s and early 2000s, you just loved a family that's together.

Watching it is a little bittersweet now, given the deaths of Boyle [in 2006] and Roberts [in 2016]. What did they bring to the show?

RR: Doris was the best. We read a hundred mothers, but there wasn't even a close second. Peter's audition wasn't great, but we learned that was his method: don't expect it at the table read, don't expect it in rehearsal. But when the camera comes on, it's gold. We trusted in that.

PR: We both felt we were nobodies from nowhere. We didn't think we had a chance at getting a movie star to be on the show, and then he did it. We were blessed that Doris and Peter were home-run hitters.

RR: Brad is the funniest guy ever. Patty is amazing. We always felt we were the older-person, family version of Friends. There was no weak link in the cast.

We're currently in a TV revival boom. Obviously you can't continue the series as it was, but would a show like Raymond even work now?

PR: We had trouble getting on then . We were never hip. You could count the magazine covers on one hand.

RR: It could work, but would someone buy it and put it on the air? I don't know. Then again, I love the [Netflix] show Shtisel because it's so small and intimate and specific.

PR: And we learned early on that the more specific you get, the more universal it is.

RR: I just think that funny is funny.

Your opinion on the show's legacy?

PR: My concern is its legacy. I'm not sure at this point if it's as regarded or even watched as much as other popular shows of the time like Friends or Seinfeld or The Office. I don't know if the business values it.

RR: I don't want to put us in a category, because it sounds pompous, but is The Honeymooners a cool show? Is The Dick Van Dyke Show a cool show?

PR: I would be proud to be in that category. I don't want to assume we were as good as that.

RR: But if we hold up like those hold up, then we can hold our heads up high.

PR: To want more — given what we've been given — would be insanely greedy. But like everybody, we just don't want to disappear.

RR: Give us another 10 years, Phil, and then we're cool.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2021


For Romano's and Rosenthal's favorite episodes, click HERE

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