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Everybody says goodbye to ‘Raymond’

Star Romano says ‘this is my legacy’
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Everybody Loves Raymond” wasn’t hip, wasn’t cool and missed out on the magazine covers that usually fawn over flavor-of-the-season TV shows.

Instead, it settled for a nine-season run; consistently high ratings; a total of 12 Emmy Awards, and the rare virtue of leaving before, not after, it ran out of laughs.

CBS’ family comedy finally is getting the attention it deserves, including those elusive cover stories and the manic network marketing push that befits the end of a hit show.

But what counts for creator Phil Rosenthal is what’s symbolized by the photos on his office wall of Jackie Gleason of “The Honeymooners” and Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca of “Your Show of Shows” — humor for the ages.

“We have something far more valuable in every way, something of lasting value, something you might watch with your grandkids,” Rosenthal said during production of one of the final episodes.

Series star Ray Romano, a standup comedian turned actor, echoes the sentiment.

“This is my legacy. This is what I’ll be remembered for,” he told The Associated Press.

The 210th and final episode airs 9-9:30 p.m. ET Monday, May 16. It’s preceded by a one-hour “Raymond” retrospective at 8 ET.

The show’s departure, on the heels of “Friends,” “Frasier” and “Sex and the City,” increases the sitcom shortfall. This year, “Everybody Loves Raymond” is the only top 10 comedy and just one other, “Two and a Half Men,” also on CBS, in the top 20.

The network is saying a reluctant farewell: It was Rosenthal and Romano’s call to end the series and with an abbreviated 16-episode season, which they said reflected how many stories were left to tell.

Show was simpleAs with most enduring sitcoms, “Everybody Loves Raymond” was rooted in simplicity: A husband, wife and kids and the extended family that infringed on their lives, welcome or not.

There was bickering, grudging affection and various family crises, usually minor, for Ray and Debra Barone, played by Romano and Patricia Heaton. He brought to the marriage his meddling parents (Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle) and sadsack brother (Brad Garrett).

The marital push-and-pull between Ray and Debra was at the show’s center.

This season, Ray experimented with rejecting his wife’s bedroom advances after deciding she was nicer to him when he played hard-to-get.

Debra’s furious when she discovers the game.

“You had me convinced I was a fat, ugly old lady,” she tells Ray.

He fires back: “You felt bad ’cause I turned you down, what, three times? Try being rejected 40 or 50 times for the last 10 years. How do you think that feels, huh? You’re talking to the president of the Fat, Ugly Old Ladies Club. Welcome! Have a doughnut!”

For Romano, “stories I can relate to and identify with” are what he values in comedy, whether standup or sitcom.

“That’s what we brought to this show. It’s what I think is the one thing appeals to the audience: They see themselves and then you have to make it funny,” he said.

Celebrity guest stars weren’t key but helped demonstrate the show did have a winner’s cachet. Ray’s sportswriting job provided an excuse for visits by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Barry Bonds, Kristi Yamaguchi and others.

Finale is just a new episodeOther sitcoms have exited with an expanded finale; Rosenthal rejected that approach, eager to remain true to the half-hour format. He’s close-mouthed about details although, as Romano tells it, he and Rosenthal wanted to be faithful to the show’s spirit.

“Every week it’s just a new episode in our life,” Romano said. So there’s nothing to wrap up, no leap in which a character dramatically breaks out of his or her routine.

“But there’s a pressure to have a good episode and for it to have some emotional resonance, a little bit more than normal without going too over the top with life-changing moments, which we’re not going to do,” he said.

Rosenthal acknowledges the need for a satisfying ending.

“I feel a great obligation to not disappoint. ... Even if you’ve had a great run and end badly, there’s a little bit of taint on it. The series is a whole unto itself and has to be treated as a body of work.”

He takes the sitcom genre, as perfected by such classics as “The Honeymooners,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “All in the Family,” very seriously.

“These are shows where the humor and stories came from character,” Rosenthal said. “So many shows are just joke bags, just ‘Make them laugh for now, don’t worry about the future because we may be off tomorrow.’

“I always thought it’s not worth having a tomorrow if that’s going to be what it is.”

His series, based on both Romano and Rosenthal’s family life, was a hard sell in the mid-’90s when networks wanted endless incarnations of NBC’s “Friends,” about pretty young singles looking for love.

“People didn’t jump up and down when we told them the premise of the show, a guy lives across the street from his parents,” Rosenthal said. “They were all saying, ‘Make it hip, make it edgy.”’

Debuted to low ratingsCBS executive Leslie Moonves gambled on the series and stood by it when it debuted Friday, Sept. 13, 1996, to good reviews but low ratings.

A move to Monday in March 1997 pitted the comedy against the popular “Ally McBeal” on Fox and ABC’s “NFL Monday Night Football,” but it thrived. The CBS comedy jumped from 73rd to 13th among prime-time shows and has ranked among the top 10 programs since the 2000-01 season.

The show’s outline was taken from Romano’s life, said Rosenthal: He and his family lived near his parents, and his older brother was a police officer who often muttered darkly that, while he faced criminals and bullets, “everybody loves Raymond.”

“What I didn’t know about the character of his family, I filled in with the character of mine,” Rosenthal said. He and Romano are executive producers on the series.

When actress Monica Horan, Rosenthal’s real-life wife, joined the cast as Robert’s future wife, even her family became grist for the mill. Georgia Engel and Fred Willard played her parents.

Writing what you know was the show’s mantra.

“It’s the happy, or unhappy, marriage of our families. Ninety percent of what you see on the show happened to me or Ray or one of the other writers,” Rosenthal said.

With production over and the publicity drum-beating nearing its end, Rosenthal plans a breather before moving on to something new. Talk of an “Everybody Loves Raymond” spinoff is on hold until after the networks present their fall schedules later this month, he said.

Rosenthal dismisses the conventional wisdom that TV comedy is washed up. “I have to believe that we might be able to write another sitcom. And if not us, someone else. Everything is dead until someone comes up with a hit.”