On the Prevaricating Politesse of Paul Reiser

This year there are two major anniversaries for comedian Paul Reiser (b. 1956): 40 years since his cinematic debut in Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982) and 30 years since the launch of his popular sit-com Mad About You (1992-1999).

My buddies and I were Juniors in high school when Diner came out, and we were fanatics about it, as of course we would be, with its true, hilarious portrait of male camaraderie in Baltimore in the late ’50s. We watched the movie countless times together, and its soundtrack, by way of car cassette players, became part of the soundtrack of our lives, even though the songs were all 20-25 years old at the time. Every key cast member of Diner went on to bigger things, and it should not have been surprising that Reiser, whose part was slightly smaller than those of fellow castmates, would be among those who did. But note who’s missing from this photo:

We have Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon (the only one of the cast I’ve met in person), and Tim Daly. Why no Paul Reiser? Well, if you think about it, the other five guys have character arcs, little stories, mostly related to love, romance, sex, and marriage. Reiser’s character, Modell, is almost like a Greek chorus. He hangs out with them, he’s a constant presence, he makes funny remarks and observations, but we don’t really know what he’s got going on besides the hang-outs.

And yet, WHAT a presence, right? In fact, when I think of the movie nowadays, HE’S what I remember primarily, and I often forget some of the other guys are even in it! For the record, I especially loved Rourke and Stern at the time, but only after Reiser, whose persona was already fully formed at that early date. The guys in the cast largely ad libbed their schtick and Reiser’s personality is so strong, it made such an impression, that after a little exposure to him, even to this day, I find myself falling into his indelible speech patterns. His trademark comic character is wishy-washy, indirect, non-confrontational, indecisive, and considerate to a fault — infuriatingly so for those who have to deal with him. He’s the “are you gonna eat that?” guy who drives his friends up the wall, because he won’t just ask for what he wants. The other side of that is passive aggressiveness. There are times when his character is in conflict with someone else, and his verbal strategies tend to be sarcasm and irony and facetiousness, as opposed to head-on argument. And his rhythms: he often starts one sentence, and then gets diverted into several subsequent directions. And while brainy, he has a very down to earth, working class manner that is also very appealing.

Before Diner, Reiser had been involved in college theatre and worked the stand-up clubs. After it though, he got cast in major movies like Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Aliens (1986), and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) and TV spots on shows like Carson and Letterman. In 1987 he starred in a comedy special called Paul Reiser: Out on a Whim directed by Carl Gottlieb. That same year he landed his first sitcom My Two Dads, with Greg Evigan of B.J. and the Bear. Unlike Heather Has Two Mommies (but LIKE Two and a Half Men), it was somehow NOT about a pair of gay fathers. In the case of the Reiser show, it’s about two men raising a kid because they’re not sure which one is the biological father, which in its own way was pretty racy for the ’80s. The show ran until 1990.

Most actors and comedians would think they were doing pretty well to have been on a sit-com that lasted three whole seasons. But Reiser went on to top that many times over with the critically and popularly acclaimed rom-com sit-com Mad About You (1992-99, with a brief sequel series in 2019). I’ve always loved the subtle wordplay in the title: the young married couple at the center are passionately in love, but they also argue a lot. Hey, they’re New Yorkers! Helen Hunt, whom I first knew about as a child star in the ’70s (e.g., Swiss Family Robinson), gave as good as she got as Reiser’s wife, and the pair had a crackling chemistry that fueled the show through seven seasons, aided by superlative writing on both the comedy and dramatic fronts. Reiser not only co-created the show but he co-wrote the theme song! Of the supporting cast, Richard Kind’s is the most recognizable face, though a pre-Friends Lisa Kudrow plays a hilarious waitress named Ursula in two dozen episodes (who turns out to be the sister of her character on Friends). Other recurring guests included Hank Azaria, Steven Wright, Jerry Adler, Carol Burnett, Jeff Garlin etc.

I spent a lot of time with Mad About You during the pandemic, which along with Seinfeld and some other shows originally aired during a period my TV watching had been kind of sporadic, so I’m only just catching up with a lot of excellence that happened during my own lifetime. The show is a classic. It totally holds up — it ain’t no laughtrack laughing at unfunny jokes, like about 80% of them are. But there’s been plenty of terrific contemporary stuff to watch him in too, from his terrifying part on Stranger Things (2017-2019), to his more characteristic stint as Cy Feuer on Fosse/Verdon (2019), and his part as Kate McKinnon’s dad in The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018). Yes, Paul Reiser is now in the Louis Zorich role. See what happens?

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For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville FamousFor more on classic comedy and early film history, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube