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June 17, 2016

A Taste of Funny

Twenty years after the debut of Everybody Loves Raymond, Phil Rosenthal dishes about his shows — then and now — and his love of laughter, family and fine food.

Bruce Fretts
  • Chef Roy Choi, Martin Short, and Phil Rosenthal

    Rahoul Ghose/WGBH
  • Phil Rosenthal, Chef Roy Choi

    Rahoul Ghose/WGBH

In 1996, a little-known sitcom writer named Phil Rosenthal created a show for an up-and-coming stand-up comic named Ray Romano.

The title ultimately proved prophetic: Everybody Loves Raymond.

Twenty years later, the show — the winner of 15 Emmy Awards, including two for outstanding comedy series — remains one of the biggest hits in syndication.

Meanwhile, Rosenthal has stepped in front of the camera to star in his own PBS food-and-travel series, I'll Have What Phil's Having, in which he journeys to the likes of Barcelona, Tokyo, Paris and Italy to sample local cuisines. The six-episode first season aired last fall. Regarding a second season, Rosenthal quips: "There will be a lot more episodes, whether they film me or not."

Emmy magazine contributor Bruce Fretts recently sat down with Rosenthal — over a lavish Italian spread at L.A.'s Spartina eatery — to talk about Raymond's legacy and the future of television.

The 20th anniversary of Everybody Loves Raymond is coming up this year....

You know, you can't live in the past. Next question. [Laughs]

Does it seem that long ago?

It's like the Beatles sang, "Yesterday came suddenly." I remember almost everything as if it were yesterday. And we're all still friends,

When the show was on the air, you said, "I'm making this for CBS, but in the back of my mind, I'm making it for Nick at Nite." And now it's in near-constant reruns on Nickelodeon's TV Land.

How about that? Here we are. You can't hit it unless you aim for it. Sometimes you're pleasantly surprised. You've got to go in with goals, and that's a goal we were able to achieve with a lot of help from a lot of people — [CBS Corporation chairman] Les Moonves, Ray Romano, all the actors, all the writers.

All the planets have to line up in the sky just to get on the air. So it's not like hitting the jackpot. It's like hitting the jackpot over and over.

TV has changed in many ways over the past 20 years. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I don't know if it's good or bad. It feels like evolution. It just is. So what happens in evolution? We adapt or we die out.

Would you want to run a network sitcom like Raymond again?

It was fun, but it would be greedy to want that kind of success again — and I don't mean money. I mean the joy of working on something you love that gets a big audience — to work and have lunch with your friends every day in that writers'room.

Why did you want to do I'll Have What Phil's Having?

It's another true passion. It may be the culmination of my life's work, because it combines everything I love into one thing. In my 50-odd years of life, I've boiled down the essentials of life to this: family, friends, laughter, food and travel. This is what I want to do with my time. The show is that. It's the same values we had on Raymond.

In what ways does making this show feel different?

I'm now connecting with viewers in a more direct way. For better or worse, you have to look at me. But this show has its roots in Raymond.

At the end of season one on Raymond, I said to Ray, "Where are you going during the hiatus?" He said, "The Jersey shore." I said, "Why don't you go to Europe? You've never been." And he said, "I'm not that interested in other cultures."

A light bulb went off — what if I could get people interested in other cultures by going there and showing them the food?

How did it get to PBS?

They liked my documentary, Exporting Raymond, where I helped develop the Russian version of Everybody Loves Raymond. They called me in for a meeting and said, "We like the idea of you going to other places."

So I pitched them this show. They bought it. It was like a dream come true, I called up my brother Rich and asked him to produce the show. He said, "You get to do this show where you travel around the world and eat? What are you going to call it — 'The Lucky Bastard'?"

You were famous for having great catering on the Raymond set.

It was one of the most important elements of the show. How do you show people you care about them on the set and in life? You try to be nice, you hope the work is good, but if they go to the craft services table and it's just potato chips and crap, they don't feel good.

But if they come to our table and see deli flown in from New York, or stone crab claws from Florida, that creates an enormous amount of goodwill.

When did you realize you'd hit the jackpot with the Raymond cast?

It's like when you're painting a picture: "Oh, that cloud came out well. This tree came out well. This house came out well." Now you have the whole painting. It suddenly comes into focus: "We have a great cast. This could work if we don't screw it up."

Were you surprised that Ray turned out to be such a great actor, given his lack of experience on sitcoms?

Ray had never acted before, so I thought, "Let's surround him with great actors." That's what they did with Roseanne. You look at him now and he's terrific. I didn't see the potential right away. He took a flyer on me, and I took a flyer on him.

How did you keep so many of the writers together for the entire run of the show? With most hits, people start leaving to create their own shows.

Back to the food: they knew they were going to eat well. And this was a fun show to write. We'd go home, have fights with our wives, come back and turn them into episodes. We knew we'd never have that again. We'd have to write about the people from Mars who lived next door.

This was real life we were writing about. That's why we could run for nine years. And a top-10 show doesn't come around that often. Why would we leave? We loved the work, and we loved each other. That's everything.

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