The TV comedy “Everybody Loves Raymond,” starring Ray Romano, was on the air for nine seasons receiving more than 70 Emmy nominations and taking home two for best comedy. The show's creator and executive producer Phil Rosenthal has written a book about the experience, “You're Lucky You're Funny.” Here's an excerpt:
Here’s a little insight about “the process [of writing a television pilot].” I don’t think worrying is necessarily a bad thing. Maybe shows and movies and the quality of a lot of other things would be better if people worried about them a little more...is what I told myself to stop from worrying about worrying. Here was my biggest worry: What did I have that the other sitcom writers didn’t? I had the very funny Ray [Romano] and his family, but I didn’t really know them. And then I realized what I had: I had my own experience.
I had my wife. I had my parents. I had the Fruit-of-the-Month Club story.
If that story hadn’t gotten some laughs from the guests at my brother’s wedding, I might not have had the confidence to put it into the script. It just happened to be a pretty good, economical illustration of how nuts “Ray’s” parents were, and what Ray and Debra were going to be up against across the street.
But the key was that specificity. I didn’t know it then, but I learned that this was the universal element. If I had tried to hit everybody with a vague example, I would’ve missed everybody. What I stumbled onto was that each of our lives deals in specifics, and we relate to that specificity in other people’s lives. For example, people still tell me that they can’t give a gift to their parents without it blowing up in their faces. And, even crazier, they’ve had that exact experience with their parents and the Fruit-of-the-Month Club. So I’m very happy that so many people are out of their minds, and we can all laugh, or cry, together.
That story served as the second act complication in the script, where Ray comes over to lie to his parents about why they won’t all be celebrating Debra’s birthday together this year. He says that he’s taking Debra and the kids to Bear Mountain (which is close to where I grew up in Rockland), but before he can get to that lie, the fruit tragedy lets us know this isn’t going to be easy for Raymond. Ever.
Other details from our actual lives were also liberally sprinkled around that pilot script—Ray’s father really did change the outgoing message on Ray and his wife, Anna’s, answering machine, causing Anna, in real life, to cry.
Ray’s father also enjoyed sniffing the heads of babies, claiming he could “suck in their youth.” Ray’s brother, Richard, on whom Robert is loosely based, actually has the habit of touching food to his chin before eating it, and really did say in a jealous moment, “It never ends for Raymond. Everybody loves Raymond.”
My wife and I occasionally speak to each other in a manner reminiscent of the way Ray and Debra speak to each other. And so do Ray and Anna, and, happily, so do you and your whoever.
The rest of the story—the situation, dialogue, other character traits, and relationships—were made up, but the point is, I had enough real life in there to make it feel like real life. And in January 1996, when I was about to hand in the pilot script, I thought it might also be funny. But I certainly wasn’t sure, so I sent my first draft to Jeremy Stevens. Jeremy is about twenty years older than I and has a great eye and ear. He was one of the creators of The Electric Company, he worked on Fernwood 2-Night and Saturday Night Live, and we were army buddies. By “army” I mean we had both survived Baby Talk. But I wasn’t sending Jeremy the script because of his impressive credentials; I was sending him the first pilot script I ever wrote on my own because he was the sweetest guy I knew. Whatever he had to say, he’d at least say it nicely. Jeremy didn’t disappoint.
The first words I heard from him when I picked up the phone were: “We’ll be on for ten years!” He was very excited.
It turns out he was wrong, we were only on for nine years, but I’ll never forget his enthusiasm and friendship (he’s not dead, I just appreciate him), which sustained me over some of the rough times to come.
The network liked the script enough to call the pilot a go but of course that implied a casting contingent go, which means it wasn’t a go unless we could find a cast the network would approve. So I was assigned a casting director, Lisa Miller, and she started bringing me people to see as if I was a producer.
Ray’s real brother, Richard the police sergeant, is shorter than Ray, so naturally we started looking for a shorter fellow to play Robert—the older brother who would literally have to look up to Raymond. And then this talking tree came into the casting office. His name was Brad Garrett, and when he walked in I thought, Well...here’s another way to go....When he opened his mouth, and those basso profundo notes came out with brilliant timing, matchless facial expression, and expert delivery, I fell over laughing. This was nothing like Ray’s or my life; it was better. That was easy. We found the brother.
The network approved Brad right away, but we started hearing about how we shouldn’t go too ethnic with the cast. What does that mean? It means that for this show to play in Middle America, we couldn’t have too many overtly swarthy Italian or Jewish types populating this family. Ray and Brad are both, and respectively, swarthy, Italian, and Jewish.
I asked, “It’s an Italian family. What are we supposed to cast?” Network Guy says, “Nonethnic ethnic.”
This was a new concept to me. But I soon realized what they meant because Les Moonves provided the perfect example of the nonethnic ethnic when he suggested Peter Boyle for the role of Frank Barone. Peter Boyle says New York ethnic without saying Italian or Jewish. Peter Boyle is decidedly Irish, which I’ve come to understand means nonethnic ethnic. We’ve come a long way.
Peter Boyle showed up for our meeting an hour late. He got bad directions on the lot and was sent on a wild goose chase on a very hot day trying to find us. When he finally did, he was pissed off. Now, I only know this man from seeing him in Young Frankenstein and, worse, Joe. Joe shot punks like me for fun, and here he comes into the room, angry at me. At that moment, he wasn’t a movie star to me, he was a big, angry movie star. He scared me, and I gave him the part.
He happened to be funny, too, when he calmed down. But we also saw that we could use a little of that anger. The truth is, Peter is a sweetheart, a liberal, and has led one of the more interesting lives on the planet. Here are two things I was stunned to learn: He had been a monk, and John Lennon was the best man at Peter’s wedding. Lucky for us, he also was hilarious at sitting in a chair with his pants open and rifling off one-liners at his wife, his sons, and anyone else in range. We had the father.
I saw more than a hundred women for this role in New York and Los Angeles. It was very tough for me to cast, because I had someone very specific in mind for this mother...my mother. And she was too ethnic.
Doris Roberts came into the room, a fifty-year veteran of stage and screen, read the Fruit-of-the-Month scene, and was perfect. She doesn’t look anything like my mother, but she just totally got what was in my head and in my life. She also has perfect timing, delivery, and facial expression. There was no runner-up. It seemed as if she was born to do this role. I was starting to feel lucky. It was starting to look a lot like a show.
The wife in a sitcom is the hardest part to cast. She can’t just be the straight man or the nice lady who says, “Here’s your lunch, honey.” She has to be all things to all people: funny, tough, sexy, sweet, vulnerable, confident, charming. I’m lucky because I found her in real life, too.
I didn’t marry that girl...
But I know where she is.
Wife joke. Half the jokes on Raymond were wife jokes. The other half were husband jokes.
The week we start casting, I get a call from Network Guy, who asks me, “Who are you casting for the wife?” I say, “Honestly, I’m looking now. I’m looking all over the place.” (I think ultimately I saw two hundred women for that part in New York and LA, flying back and forth.) He says, “Well, Les Moonves wants this one actress [we’ll call her So-and-So]. So you should cast her.” I say, “Oh, but I think she’s completely wrong.” He says, “You didn’t hear me. Les wants her. If you don’t cast her, you don’t have a show.” End of discussion. This is exactly what I had been waiting for—the end of my luck.
I call my agent, and I say, “Can you believe this? They’re making me take this actress....This So-and-So is horrible for the part. She’s won’t be funny in this. They only want her because she’s a blonde. She’s wispy. She’s waspy. She’s totally, completely wrong for the show and will ruin the whole thing. What do I do?” And my agent says, “I would cast her.”
And I say, “No. In fact, I quit. Tell them I quit.” He goes, “Don’t be an idiot. If you don’t take her, you’re not going to have a show.” I say, “I don’t have a show with her. I’m an idiot if I do this because I’m killing the whole thing if I cast So-and-So. And I already have a blonde—Doris Roberts.” He says, “Well, why don’t you let So-and-So read for you?” I say, “You’re right. Yes.” Listen, I would love to be wrong and then have a show, right? I tell my agent to please have her come in. But...she won’t read. Why? Because she’s So-and-So. I say, “Will she meet with me?” My agent calls her people. They say yes. So I meet with So-and-So. It’s the morning I’m going to bring my three actress choices into the network. The way this works is you bring them in one at a time, and they all audition for the same part, and then they leave the room. And what they told me was going to happen was, Les Moonves would then stand up and say, “What about So-and-So?” And if you don’t say, “I’m going to cast her,” you’re dead. Okay?
So I’m very nervous this morning. It’s the morning I have to meet with So-and-So, and that afternoon I have to go to the network with my three actresses. By the way, Patty Heaton is not one of them. I hadn’t found her yet. I didn’t even know she existed yet. But I did have three decent choices, certainly better for the role than So-and-So.
So I meet with So-and-So, and she’s very nice. Lovely, pretty. And during the meeting I kind of talk her into reading. And she reads for me...and she’s ten times worse than I thought she would be for this part. So now I’m crying, because this is the day I lose my show because I cannot do it. I cannot. We go to the CBS offices, I have a bowling ball in my stomach, my three actresses read, they leave, and Les Moonves, right on cue, stands up and goes, “What about So-and-So?”
I say, “I love her. I think she’s great. I’ve loved her in everything she’s done. And I met with her today, and she’s beautiful and charming, and I fell in love with her. I wanted to marry her. But then she read for me, and I have to tell you, it’s just not what I wrote. You know? I don’t really buy them as a couple. Could she do it?...Maybe. But I also think, maybe, we could do better.” And Les Moonves shrugs and says, “It was just an idea.”
I learned a big lesson that day. First of all, what do you think really happened at CBS when the So-and-So idea first came up? Probably what happened was, there was a meeting, and Les Moonves has many, many meetings about many, many things, and the casting of this little sitcom with no stars in it comes up, and he says, “What about So-and-So for the wife?” And Mr. Network Guy thinks, I’ll be the one to get him So-and-So and I’ll tell him I was the one and then I’ll be getting a promotion....Instead, he was fired two weeks later. I learned that just because they tell you, “The boss wants So-and So,” there might be other agendas. And also, I was somewhat diplomatic and deferential to the king, which it’s always good to be. A week later, Patty Heaton walked into our office, was perfect, met every quality I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter and then some, and was cast. That simple. When it’s right, it’s right, and now we could go film a show.
Excerpted from “You’re Lucky You’re Funny” by Phil Rosenthal Copyright © 2006 by Buona Sera Productions, Inc. Excerpted by permission of . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.