Paul Reiser Wants to Take You Back to the Glory Days of ‘The Tonight Show’
For the longest time Paul Reiser has been best known for co-creating and starring in the sitcom Mad About You. He’s written best selling books, written and recorded music, appeared in films as diverse as Diner, Aliens, and Beverly Hills Cop, and he continues to tour as a comedian, but that show really defined how the public sees Reiser.
In the past few years though, Reiser’s career has had a second act as an actor, which some critics have called the prime of his career (or as one website called it, “the Reiser-ssance”). In films like Whiplash and Joshy and shows like Married and Red Oaks, Reiser manages to be relatable and familiar, never straying too far from the persona he established. But he manages to demonstrate, sometimes subtlety and sometimes in large ways, that these characters are much more complicated and layered than they seem at first glance. He’s not afraid to get angry, to scare or shock the audience, and he’s also able to show off an emotional range that many fans may not have known he had. It’s clear that what interests him most, as an actor and a writer, is character.
This month Amazon releases the second season of Red Oaks, and it was just announced that Reiser is co-writing and co-producing a new series There’s Johnny! for Seeso next year which takes place backstage at The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1972. Reiser’s people reached out to do an interview after Splitsider published “How Mad About You Perfected the Multi-Camera Sitcom.” “I’m here for the rebuttal,” Reiser said after saying thank you for the article. “I’m going to tell you why it wasn’t such a good show, and where do you come off saying that.”
I really want to talk about There’s Johnny, which just got announced. Where did this show come from?
It’s something I’ve been developing for about twelve years with a buddy of mine, David Simon — not the David Simon who wrote The Wire — David Steven Simon. Honestly I don’t remember if he had the idea or we came up with it together. Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show was so important to comics, and so important to all of us even before we knew we wanted to be comics. That was our touchstone. We thought the idea of coming into that world in a back door way was fun and it started with that. From the very beginning we knew we wanted to be able to show clips so we needed to do it in conjunction with the Carson Estate.
We put together this story. I think all we had at the time was it would be behind the scenes and the kid is a Nebraska kid and Johnny takes a shine to him. We sat and pitched it to Jeff Sotzing, who is Johnny’s nephew who now runs the Carson Estate and is in charge of all things Carson. When we pitched it he said “You know that’s my life story, right?” He said that not long after college his Uncle John said “Why don’t you come out and work in the mail room?” essentially. He was this guy with no real direction and no real job but nobody could touch him because he was Johnny’s nephew. We said “No, we didn’t know that, but that’s perfect.”
For various reasons it kept stalling and then finally it came together. I actually have another project that I’m working on that also is now having a second life after twelve years. It was dormant for about ten years, but it’s an interesting thing. In both cases they’re shows I really believed in and thought should have their day. So we wrote a pilot and sold it to Seeso. We had a number of people interested, but Seeso was really hungry for it — because they’re new and they really wanted to put their flag in the ground, and this was really in their sweet spot. They’re specifically comedy. They’re NBC Comcast. Putting new blood into the legacy of The Tonight Show was appealing to them. It’s not about show business. It’s not Larry Sanders. It’s much more in the flavor of Almost Famous or The Wonder Years. It’s about a kid from small town Nebraska and through funny circumstances stumbles his way into working at The Tonight Show. Suddenly he is at the heart of sex, drugs, rock and roll, celebrity show business in 1972.
On Red Oaks I got to work with David Gordon Green and I was very impressed with his chops and his versatility. He’s really smart and scrappy. He comes up with great ideas and he can work under pressure and under tight budgets. After working with him and seeing a film of his I thought he’d be the right guy to direct this. I sent him the script and he responded immediately. He said his grandfather was a comedian in Oklahoma. I didn’t know that. He was on the vaudeville circuit and early TV. He said his fondest memories were sitting at his grandfather’s knee watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. That’s another thing I didn’t know, but it fell into place. He said the script reminded him of when he moved to LA in the 1990s and it was this same feeling of “I don’t know what I’m doing, I hope something is going to fall into place.”
It’s an interesting thing doing period pieces because I’m finding it does give you a vantage point because you’re a little bit at a remove. It gives you a distance and it lets you enjoy a very different time. 1972 seems like a thousand years ago. We were watching Johnny Carson do 90 minute shows and this seems so antiquated, but if you wanted to watch the show, you had to stay up. There was a commitment and a relationship with Johnny that is not something that can be duplicated. Letterman did thirty years, but it wasn’t the same. Johnny was truly in your home in a very unique way. Not to canonize him, but he made everybody comfortable. He had a lot of hip guests, he had a lot of square guests, and he had a lot of America watching him. He made it palpable for everybody. You were watching Vietnam and riots in the news and then you go home and you watch it through Johnny Carson’s monologue and you felt like we were going to be okay. There was a comfort factor that was pretty unique to him.
That’s an interesting point. It was a commitment to watch Carson. You had to be awake in front of a TV at 11:30 at night.
It was part of your life. He used to do jokes about how people would fall asleep to him, people were having sex during him, people were not having sex because he’s on. It was an event but it was every night. It was a tradition. It was comfortable. For me at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, often I would watch because I wanted to see a comedian or a guest, but more and more I found myself watching because it’s Johnny. It’s hard to remember because he became such a distinguished elder statesman in the last leg of his run, but especially when he moved to Burbank there was a cool about him. He was a bad boy but he was Middle America, and he straddled that in a way that he made his own. He was cool. Looking back it’s tempting to think he was really conservative but you watch the interviews and he leans the other way. He enjoyed, in his own gentle way, poking a stick at authority and demagogues.
The show is really a filter. It’s not a documentary and it’s not about Johnny. That’s the world. It’s really about these characters. The lead woman is a 25-year-old child of Beverly Hills who is working as a talent coordinator on the show. The opposite upbringing of the kid. From his point of view there’s a sexual attraction, but she’s taking it upon herself to groom this kid. In the dawning of that age of feminism she’s going to mold him into what she thinks men should be. It’s a really fun dynamic to write.
You could have set the show at any point in time, why did you chose 1972?
That was when the show moved to Burbank. Because of that — or maybe simultaneous with that — the comedy scene burst open. The Comedy Store opened in ‘72. It became a subculture.
I know a lot of people said, oh this is like Larry Sanders, but I thought, this is like My Favorite Year.
Exactly. I love that movie. It’s really not about mocking show business at all. That’s just the backdrop. It’s just a really comfortable and familiar background. The bonus is we get all these great clips that you’re seeing in the course of a show. There’s Albert Brooks when he was 22 or here’s Steve Martin’s second appearance or here’s Sammy Davis doing Sammy Davis. Its fun to see. You might not want to sit and watch a whole show, but to get little doses of it while you’re telling your story is really nice.
You’re using clips from The Tonight Show. Are you going to have an actor play Carson?
No. I did a lot of shows with Johnny and I don’t know what it was like back stage in ’72, but when I was there in the late eighties and nineties, I just remember that when Johnny moved it was sort of like the secret service was on lockdown, you’ve got to get out of makeup because Johnny’s coming. He was nothing but gracious when you interacted with him. He went out of his way to make you comfortable — especially for young comedians — but I just remember he was like a mythical force. You’d see a shoulder behind the security guard and it was like, oh, Johnny’s moving. That was the vibe I envisioned for him in this. You’ll see the broadcast cameras and there’s Johnny in the monitor and then when you pull off to the side there’s a long shot and it’s blurry and we’ll have somebody double with that suit. Once or twice we’ll have his voice.
It’s by design. He’s too well known to try to imitate, but also, he wasn’t palling around with these kids. They’re tripping over themselves to make sure Johnny has the show he wants and Johnny’s happy. He wasn’t hanging around in the halls bullshitting with everybody. He was the king. He has almost a bigger power and effect on the show by not being seen.
You’re writing and producing the show. Are you also acting in it?
No. David and I wrote them all and I’m going to be producing it and David Gordon Green is going to be directing the first bunch. I think it would be confusing to put people who were on the show or are recognizable in there. We’re saying it’s 1972 and you can’t have this celebrity because he was 7 at that time. We’re trying to honor the fictitious world we’re setting up.
In general is that something you want to do more of, writing projects but not necessarily acting in them?
From when Mad About You was over until about 2010, that’s all I was doing. I wrote and shot pilots that I wasn’t in. I either wrote it for an actor that I liked or sometimes it was just the idea. I loved that. I love writing. I didn’t feel the need — and I still don’t — to act. It’s sort of ironic I was getting all these roles because I wasn’t looking for them. Red Oaks came about because I did one day at the last minute on Behind the Candelabra which Steven Soderbergh directed. Greg Jacobs was the producer on that, he’s Steven’s producing partner, and Greg is the guy who created Red Oaks. For some reason they had me in mind and said “Would you read this script?” It was a really interesting role and suddenly I’m doing two seasons of Red Oaks. I didn’t plan on that. There’s never been a plan. When it’s a fun role, acting is fun, but it’s as rewarding or more to create something for other people.
The second season of Red Oaks comes out soon. What did you get to do on the show this season that was really interesting for you as an actor?
Well, at the end of the first season my character got hit with some big news. What they’ve done a nice job of doing with this series is that each character is in flux. At first blush it’s about a kid who’s trying to find himself and he’s working as a tennis coach, but you soon find out that everybody is finding themselves. My character is the most content guy, I’m the king of this small kingdom, I’m the big cheese and throwing my weight around, and then it all starts to crumble. Season 2 is really starting to chart that. He’s seemingly so in charge of his life and has to face the fact that he might not be. He gets a little bit proactive in trying to keep the Craig Roberts character away from his daughter. Maybe he can control this little corner of the universe. Nope, not even that. That’s another big lesson for parents. Phase two is you’ve got to learn to let go.
What I appreciate about it is that it’s a very sweet show. I don’t mean that to make it sound uninteresting. There’s a sweetness at the core of it. It’s not deliberately edgy, it’s not mocking, it’s not goofing on the eighties, it’s not making fun of the characters. Each of the characters is hurting in a different way and each is missing or pining for something. I think that’s what people are relating to. What the show is about, the reason people tune into anything, is you care about these people and you want to see what happens to them.