Splitsider

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Everybody Hates Raymond – They're Wrong

When I have children, I'll sit them on my lap and explain to them that when I was their age we had an expression about a piece of art that was not to our liking. That expression was, “not my cup of tea.” I'll explain to them that this expression was used when talking about a piece of art that, despite its pedigree and achievement, was simply not to a person’s liking. This phrase will seem very alien to my children since they will have been brought up exclusively in the Internet age. Today, there are two absolute ways to voice your opinion about a piece of art and they are as follows:

“That shit sucks.”

“That shit is amazeballs!”

Of course, once I'm finished with my lecture on olden times civility, they will walk away and whisper to each other, “damn, Dad’s story about old phrases sucked shit!” Then they will plod off to their holographic gaming device and spend several hours killing zombies, an experience they will consider to be “the most amazeballs shit EVR!!!”

Well, I assume that’s what it'll be like. One of the most lamentable facts about the Internet is that it's brought about a society in which moderate thought is simply not considered. Nothing is just “okay.” Either something sucks or it's amazing and it's this dichotomy of thought that has led to an infantile discourse in politics, to be sure, but that has also seeped into our discussions about something as trivial as televised situation comedies. Which leads us to Everybody Loves Raymond.

It is a show that I genuinely enjoy yet never feel as alone in my opinions as when the TV show is brought up in conversation (which doesn’t happen much, granted, but happens more often than you would think for a show that ended its runs more than half a decade ago). The criticism for Everybody Loves Raymond is generally a reductive summation of the show’s set-up: a dopey husband married to an attractive, but demanding wife, and a pair of overbearing parents always butting in. Of course, those things are true about the show and a big reason I avoided it for so long.

But then I did something crazy; I watched it. It’s a good thing the show is a perennial re-run favorite or I would've missed out altogether. Does the show break new ground? No, but like Seinfeld before it, it uses the banality of everyday life to look at subjects that are not traditionally covered on Network television.  Here's an excellent clip of Ray trying to explain the existence of humanity to his daughter:

The scene hits all of the right notes. Ray enters the room with a stack of books about reproduction as he mistakenly presumes his daughter is curious about where babies come from, but the stakes are raised considerably when he learns she really wants to know why we are here at all. This scene is great as it shows the particular helplessness that parents feel when asked an impossible question, but it also serves as diving board for a more in depth conversation the adults engage in later in the episode.

Generally, when a show talks about religion at all, ambiguity goes out the window. Either there is a God or you're a fool for believing in religion at all. However, this episode does a great job of showing the ambivalent nature of faith while providing a healthy dose of comedy to lighten the contemplative mood. What’s most impressive is that the writers are able to tackle the most poisonous of network television subjects and not only wring strong laughs out of it, but to do so without being offensive to anyone’s beliefs.

To some, this desire to not offend may be exactly what they dislike about Everybody Loves RaymondSeinfeld kicked off a new wave of comedy in America with Larry David’s mission statement of “no hugging and no learning.” At the time, this was truly revolutionary and set the show apart from the treacle that infected many of the family oriented sitcoms of the day. And that cynicism is reflected in many of the hit shows of today. Everybody Loves Raymond flew in the face of that motto, but only up to a point. Certainly the show had moments of sweetness, however those moments were earned only after ugly displays of self-centeredness and disregard for others’ feelings were played out to often tragi-comic effect. Often the show took dark, psychological turns that would not be out of place in a Tennessee Williams play. In this scene, the boys are playing hooky from going to a family therapist, however it's while they are devising their alibi they have a breakthrough:

It’s a gut wrenching moment that is both beautiful and sad. We see the cantankerous patriarch of the family, Frank Barone as a sympathetic figure and it is one of the few times on the show that he lets his guard down. Granted, having an actor as talented as Peter Boyle helps in selling this scene and he does a great job at keeping this moment from devolving into schmaltz.

However, throughout the show’s run the writers do their level best to keep the treacle factor to a minimum, providing truly human moments, while also mining those moments for laughs. It is a thin line to walk on a show centered around family and while they certainly faltered at times, it is more a testament to the cast and crew that the those times were pretty rare.

The same could be said about Ray Romano’s standup. There was a surprisingly long run for much of the 90s when comedians were given their own sitcoms based on their standup. Generally, the first season of the show would be culled straight from the comic’s act until the writers settled into a groove and added more depth to the supporting players. This is certainly true of Everybody Loves Raymond. It was this phenomenal set on Letterman that would win Romano his sitcom:

These jokes were the result of years on the standup circuit and because of this, Romano performs with a confidence and self-possession that seems out of place in the context of his more familiar sitcom persona. However, fans of the legendary animated Comedy Central show, Dr. Katz (possibly the most clever approach to showcasing standup comedy — as comics would come to professional therapist Dr. Katz and present their stand-up routines as “therapy sessions”) were more familiar with Ray Romano by this point as he was a frequent guest on the “couch”.

Romano's standup bits are much like the sitcom as they seem pretty mainstream on the surface, but as we listen a bit closer we realize that the jokes revolve around a man who, despite whatever success he has earned feels embattled, stuck in an existence where his wants and needs are constantly hijacked by the ungrateful monsters who have infiltrated his life. In a sense, Romano can be seen as a more audience-friendly version of Louis CK, whose thoughts on fatherhood and marriage are just as disparaging, although CK takes a more scorched earth approach to speaking about it.

And really, there are more parallels in Romano’s and CK’s later work than most comedy nerds would like to admit. While Louie has gained a devoted following and deservedly so, Romano premiered his treatise on middle age a year earlier in a hour-long light drama called Men of A Certain Age. While it never captured the zeitgeist quite the way Louie did, it features the same kind of melancholy and humor about growing older, without the Felliniesque absurdity.

Like Raymond, the show is centered on Ray Romano, but a stellar supporting cast surrounds him. Men of a Certain Age follows the lives of three middle-aged guys who have been friends since college, and takes a peek at the mess they have made of themselves due to hedonistic impulses (Romano’s character is a recovering gambler and Scott Bakula’s an aging womanizer) or just never summoning up the courage to believe in yourself (Andre Braugher, playing against type, is a weak willed car salesman providing the series with some of its most heart wrenching and humorous moments).

While Everybody Loves Raymond plays Romano’s selfish man-child for laughs, Men of a Certain Age shows us the heartbreaking consequences of being trapped in a state of arrested development. The show garnered quite a bit of critical acclaim, but like the recent HBO show Enlightened, it never translated to even a respectable viewership.

Which is too bad, as it showed Romano in a different light and proved that he was capable of more than just what we saw on Raymond. Not only was it a great showcase for his considerable and underrated writing talent, the show proves that Romano had picked up some considerable acting chops as well. It may have been those acting chops that got him a recurring character gig on the NBC show, Parenthood (another critically heralded but under-seen show that may or may not be coming back to television).

Throughout his career, Romano has mined the pathos of the modern day family man and like any great comedian, he's done so with an unflinching eye toward the truth. While he may never gain the kind of respectability that a raucous trailblazer like Louis CK enjoys, Romano has quietly built a solid reputation as a character actor and as a thoughtful chronicler of manhood in middle age. After Everybody Loves Raymond, Romano could have done anything he wanted and while he has indulged in a couple of cash grabs (Ice Age, though I think the at some point, everyone decided that animated movies get a free pass), he has pursued projects that are challenging both creatively as well as intellectually. If that doesn’t earn him some respect, nothing will.

Justin Gray is a standup comic, podcaster, and writer living in NYC, which is a fancy way of saying he is poor.

Sponsored Content
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Mclachlan/747758431 Jeff Mclachlan

    The show's mostly harmless, but I always found it a little depressing to watch because Ray was obviously miserable and his wife obviously couldn't stand him. Quite a few sitcom wives fall into a sort of buzzkill role, but Debra was a total see-you-next-Tuesday most of the time.

    If I had to pick one (and I'd rather not, because decade old three-camera sitcoms are completely not my favorite thing), I'd say King Of Queens was the funnier show, and had the benefit of featuring a married couple who actually seemed to be on the same page some of the time. Plus, Jerry Stiller and Patton Oswalt can make anything watchable.

    • http://twitter.com/Bhess Bhess

      I think the samething. A RL Ray in that situation would go out out for a pack of cigarettes and never be seen again. I agree with your Debra evaluation 100%. Her martyr complex is huge. Plus the parents who know no boundaries and a brother who takes delight in any misfortune you have. French Foreign Legion here I come.

      I thought the marriage was better on KoQ too. Both work, both are kinda equal in being good and bad, neither thinks themselves a saint. Carrie is a way better wife. Like when she worked extra to get Doug a big screen TV. Can you see Debra doing that? Doug is a trooper for putting up with his father in law. It just works out well.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Mclachlan/747758431 Jeff Mclachlan

        Exactly. I'm also remembering a KoQ where they thought Jerry Stiller was moving out and Doug wanted to get a full-size popcorn machine for the basement. Carrie said something like "I'm not hating the idea", whereas Debra would have probably said something like "Grow up, you idiot."

        Also, King Of Queens was just full-on funnier, and wasn't afraid to go for full-on absurdity if the episode called for it. The more I think of it, the more I think that show was really underrated as, in my mind, the last gasp of the creatively viable three-camera sitcom.

  • Lucky

    While I do like the show and Ray Romano, I find the intrusive mother-in-law jokes a little too close to home. Before I was married, I didn't understand how someone could act that way. Now I'm just grateful that my in-laws don't live next door.

  • Stuie299

    Yes, the show had some good writing from time to time, but the main problem was that it never really evolved past its premise. Married couple lives across the street from their annoying in-laws. Ray and Debra were always and I mean always fighting. The other fact is that it could all be solved so easily if they just moved.

    Now compare that to other shows like Seinfeld, The Office, or Scrubs. All of them dealt with their premises much more effectively. Seinfeld the show about nothing meant it was the show about anything. The Office featured great character development and put less emphasis on the premise. And Scrubs…well Scrubs just had so many different characters that it was always able to change things up in order to keep things fresh. To me the whole we hate each other, lets have a big fight every episode shtick got old quickly.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Mclachlan/747758431 Jeff Mclachlan

      I think the show was sort of the last gasp of that Norman Lear-style one-act-play dinner theater type sitcom where you stick a bunch of characters in a room and have them yell at each other for half an hour. I guess the best thing I can say about Raymond is that at least they weren't fighting about women's lib or the generation gap.

  • DennisPerrin

    Nice piece, Justin. I too was a latecomer to "Raymond," and I ended up liking it more than I thought I would. (The solid cast helped.) I also liked "Men of a Certain Age," but that's because I'm their age.

  • GershMershTersh

    I'm 30 years old and my parents are both in their late 60's. I'm only prefacing with that because "Everybody Loves Raymond" was one of the few shows that we could sit down and enjoy together. It's really difficult to find a show like that these days. I realize that the idea of family programming isn't necessarily cool and, personally, I think most of it is overly cutesy or just plain reprehensible, but I do want to be able to bond with my parents on some level while they are still around. So, for that reason, I really appreciate the show – it lets us enjoy something together.

  • Mary Ann

    I'm glad someone else out there appreciates Everybody Loves Raymond as much as I do. I find myself watching the show on Netflix quite often, because it has a calming, yet refreshing nature to it. I enjoyed reading this piece. You brought all of the best parts of the show to light, and did it quite eloquently. Great read!

  • Arthur F.

    I wasn't expecting to agree but the choice of clips was great and the article definitely connects some dots. As that one amazing clip shows, having Peter Boyle, a real actor, could really allow for some great moments. And I love how the writing handled the quick recovery back into the comedy frame with Rays last quip. Maybe if the show had moved more often like that, I would have watched more, but I couldn't take the main house of Ray and family. The occasional view to the in-laws house, seemed more balanced in the end.

    As for comparison to KofQ (now that's a totally tv fantasy wife for that man, even with the father-in-law baggage) I appreciated it when it hit its stride, like figured out to let in Oswalt a bit, had funny, absurd psychology in those psychotherapist sessions (like with Ben Stiller cameos as Jerry) but I felt the series eventually just had an odd, dark tone to it that never seemed clear what they wanted to do with. Like when Doug loses weight and when Carrie gets very heavy, or the use of other apartments for escape from each other, the whole NY apartment, deception with Doug stuck in a sales-hell cubbyhole and the final adopted child premise.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Mclachlan/747758431 Jeff Mclachlan

      Did all that happen? I guess I stopped watching the afternoon reruns at a certain point. Must have found something better to do for a couple of years a decade or so ago.

    • http://twitter.com/Bhess Bhess

      I actually think ELR has a darker streak. Debra is rarely nice, sure the parents are intrusive but then the brother takes such delight in your every misfortune. That seems darker to me. They should have made Debra more likeable. No guy I know would pick Debra over Carrie and that would be just over personality. KoQ isn't perfect by any means but the characters are more likeable.

    • Arthur F.

      (sorry! this got repeated outside of the thread – got sent out by mistake)

      That dark sensibility, for example, how ELR had kids at its center in
      the trad family way (Raymond, Brother, Parents, then Raymond/Debra kids
      etc.) while KofQ introduced at its center extended family themes, like
      best friend ( a rare African American supporting role not to forget)
      Deacon's/Kelly seperation with kids, and how that continues in new
      themes (Deacon lives with Oswalt's character, the kids responsibilities
      are shared with a second ring of characters too etc..) As well, at the
      center Carrie has a miscarriage, and finally there is an adoption – but
      even that isn't played heartwarming, but absurd. And if anything, the
      father, Arthur, is the child who first has to grow up. Not an overall
      sitcom-family pretty picture. Which I think also hurt its chances in
      some ways for the usual recognition.
      It seemed ELR came looking for
      nagging with Debra rather than first comedy, and she was the center,
      overdriving it. While KofQ (again, once it got its stride) was more
      ensemble, went for comedy with a good cast who could play absurd ideas
      well (paying the dog-walker to walk Arthur etc.) and let obsessive
      character quirks have their storyline. Oddly, it was Doug who was
      kinetic (seriously, the guys a spring) energy moving between sets, while
      Raymond more anchored to the living room standard.
      Funny to
      imagine there is a point in the beginning of KofQ that Raymond, bro and
      father overlap in the KofQ world, to Doug's dismay.

  • Arthur F.

    That dark sensibility, for example, how ELR had kids at its center in the trad family way (Raymond, Brother, Parents, then Raymond/Debra kids etc.) while KofQ introduced at its center extended family themes, like best friend ( a rare African American supporting role not to forget) Deacon's/Kelly seperation with kids, and how that continues in new themes (Deacon lives with Oswalt's character, the kids responsibilities are shared with a second ring of characters too etc..) As well, at the center Carrie has a miscarriage, and finally there is an adoption – but even that isn't played heartwarming, but absurd. And if anything, the father, Arthur, is the child who first has to grow up. Not an overall sitcom-family pretty picture. Which I think also hurt its chances in some ways for the usual recognition.
    It seemed ELR came looking for nagging with Debra rather than first comedy, and she was the center, overdriving it. While KofQ (again, once it got its stride) was more ensemble, went for comedy with a good cast who could play absurd ideas well (paying the dog-walker to walk Arthur etc.) and let obsessive character quirks have their storyline. Oddly, it was Doug who was kinetic (seriously, the guys a spring) energy moving between sets, while Raymond more anchored to the living room standard.
    Funny to imagine there is a point in the beginning of KofQ that Raymond, bro and father overlap in the KofQ world, to Doug's dismay.

  • http://sonofawidow.tumblr.com/ Matt N

    You took the words right out of my mouth. I grew up watching ELR but only until much later realized how unique and gifted a comic he truly is. I swear I felt like the only person in my demographic championing Men of a Certain Age, and I still attest that it's one of the finest, truest, and most confident dramas I've ever seen. My friends thought I was nuts when I showed them a few episodes. "Dude, this is just about being old and boring!" "NO GODDAMNIT IT'S ABOUT BEING HUMAN."

    To me it's not that Ray doesn't get much respect; he doesn't seem to attract much attention at all, especially when placed alongside his buffoonish contemporaries in 90s sitcom. He's risen far above and beyond that (as evidenced by MOACA and Parenthood), and I wait for the day when he gets his due reward. Fantastic write-up, Justin.

  • Reality Check

    The show is a pathetic suck up to the target demographic of married women. Every single episode has the exact same story: Mother-in-law bad, wife good.

    It's funny for a bit, but gets boring real fast. Yawn.

  • Logan

    If you're going to call someone's opinions of a TV show wrong, you shouldn't begin a review asking us not to be just as absolute with our judgements of the show.

    That being said, while I find the show funny occasionally, Ray's consistent lack of anything resembling cajones when dealing with his overbearing family and their lack of respect for him made me furious- the worst example (in my opinion) being when Ray tries to make up for ruining Frank's jazz collection by buying him CDs. Frank of course hates them and yells at Ray, then it turns out it was never even Ray's fault to begin with. Ray is always treated as the bad guy by everyone else, even when he's usually stuck between his stubborn busybody parents and his even stubborner wife.

  • interista

    Funny fact is some of you are mentioning how they are arguing for no reason and it is a bit unrealistic since those little problem could actually be solved in a second, but the fact is my family is a lot similar to this one and I find those similarities really funny.