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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

In the mid-1990s, comedy writer Phil Rosenthal scored a huge hit with his sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Everybody Loves Raymond")

Mr. RAY ROMANO (Actor): (As Ray Barone) Hi. I'm Ray. And I live here in Long Island with my wife Deborah.

RAZ: It's very likely you have seen the show. It was about the Barone family and the small annoyances that we all encounter in daily life, leaving clothes on the floor or drinking from the milk carton, that kind of stuff. And 33 million viewers tuned in to watch the finale in 2005.

Now, after the series ended, it found a second life in syndication, but it also got the attention of the Russians. They wanted to turn "Everybody Loves Raymond" into "Everybody Loves Kostya."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Everybody Loves Kostya")

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

RAZ: But would it work? Now, the sitcom format is still relatively new to Russian television, and so American networks have been pushing to bring them to the Russian market. And that's what happened to Phil Rosenthal in 2009.

Mr. PHIL ROSENTHAL (Comedy Writer): The head of Sony called me in his office a few years ago, and he told me that Sony created the sitcom in Russia.

RAZ: There was no "All in the Family" or "Cosby Shows."

Mr. ROSENTHAL: No.

RAZ: Nothing like that?

Mr. ROSENTHAL: Nothing like that. Until...

RAZ: It did not exist in Russia?

Mr. ROSENTHAL: No, until Sony brought "The Nanny," the show "The Nanny" over there and translated their episodes into Russian, cast Russian actors and put it on Russian TV, and it became a huge hit.

RAZ: So "The Nanny" was groundbreaking, historic television in Russia?

Mr. ROSENTHAL: Yes. Yes. The first ever sitcom.

RAZ: So the head of Sony said to you: We think this can work with "Everybody Loves Raymond." Let's give it a shot. That's basically what he said?

Mr. ROSENTHAL: Actually, what he said was: How would you like to go over there and observe how we work with the Russians, come back and write a fictional feature film about a showrunner who goes over there to have his show translated?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSENTHAL: And I said: Oh, well, that sounds good. But if the situation exists and the people you're telling me about really exist, not bring a camera crew over and film what would really happen? And he said: I love that idea. Would you be the guy? And I said: Yeah, I want to make that movie. And he goes: No, make your movie, but be the guy in the movie. Go do your show over there.

RAZ: So you go to Russia...

Mr. ROSENTHAL: Yeah.

RAZ: ...and you're thinking: This is a no-brainer, simple premise. It's a family comedy. This is universal stuff, right? And you could actually make this happen. You could make "Everybody Loves Raymond" in Russia.

But then, you get to Russia, and what do you find out?

Mr. ROSENTHAL: They have other plans. I mean, I didn't think it would be a slam dunk, but I was led to believe that we could have something universal in the premise of our show because it is so simple. It's just about a family. It's just about...

RAZ: And it takes place in a house.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: It takes place in a house. The wife and the husband, the parents bother you, the kids sometimes. So why wouldn't it be? I mean, we're in 148 countries, our version, dubbed or subtitled. We still get letters from Sri Lanka: That's my mother.

When I got to Russia, they said to me: Real life is terrible. Why would we put that on television?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: They said no one thinks that real life is funny.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: That's right.

RAZ: So what - I mean, was "The Nanny," wasn't that rooted in some reality at all?

Mr. ROSENTHAL: Have you seen it?

RAZ: No. I had the Russian version. No.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: Have you seen the American version?

RAZ: A couple times, yeah.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: Okay. So that's not, by definition, rooted in reality. It was a fantasy show. It was a broad, cartoony type of show on purpose. Nothing wrong with it, it's just that our show was about the minutia of daily life and the petty family squabbles that we all have and how we take the little things in life and blow them up to become big things. They didn't think that this would play with their audience.

RAZ: Not only that, they didn't think it was funny.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: Well, yeah. When I would see them rehearsing their way of doing it, which was to make it much broader, I didn't see them laughing, either, which gave me reason to say: Why don't you try it, you know, in a realistic, naturalistic way, which, by the way, is the tradition of the Russians.

If you look at theater, which comes from there, Stanislavski, Chekov, right, it's their tradition. But when it comes to sitcoms and what the executives think the audience out there will like, the rules are different somehow.

RAZ: For example, one of the staffers, the costume designer, she wanted to dress these characters - ostensibly a middle-class family, she wanted to dress them in designer clothing at home.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: You were trying to explain to her that this was simply unrealistic. But she pushed back. She said: No, the show should have some flair, a sense of style.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: Yes. And I'm saying: Look at this character right now in front of us. She's wearing a cashmere sweater, fancy pants, high heels, jewelry. I said: You understand she's cleaning the house, right? And she says: Yes, but she's on television. And I said: Yes, but she doesn't know she's on television. She thinks she's cleaning.

RAZ: So what makes Raymond appealing and funny to American audiences, at least, is that he's kind of this bumbling guy, kind of a pushover, at times. But that was actually a big challenge in Russia because they thought he was this loser who wasn't funny at all.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: I was told that the Russian men are way more macho than American men.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: And no way does the wife rule the house. And I thought, just listening to this, that this was baloney, that you can have this outer shell of macho, and this is what you want to present to the world, and this is what you want to present even to, you know, yourselves.

But I just don't believe it. I think you could be the most macho guy in the world, and as soon as you get in the house, the wife is telling you to pick up your socks.

RAZ: When you started casting for the roles, you had the Russian actors adapt a particular scene. I'm going to play it in the original English. So this is from "Everybody Loves Raymond." This is the scene about the Fruit of the Month Club.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Everybody Loves Raymond")

Ms. DORIS ROBERTS (Actress): (As Marie Barone) Your birthday gift to me finally came this morning. Did you know you sent me a box of pears from a place called Fruit of the Month?

Mr. ROMANO: (As Ray) Yeah, yeah. That's right. That's right. How are they?

Ms. ROBERTS: (As Marie) Oh, they're very nice pears. But there's so many of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBERTS: (As Marie) There are over a dozen pears. What am I supposed to do with all those pears?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROMANO: (As Ray) I think you're supposed to eat them, Ma.

Ms. ROBERTS: (As Marie) Myself?

Mr. ROMANO: (As Ray) You. You and dad and Robert.

Ms. ROBERTS: (As Marie) How many pears can Robert eat?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBERTS: (As Marie) I appreciate the thought, Raymond, but please don't ever send us any more food again, okay? Thanks.

Mr. ROMANO: (As Ray) Well, another box is coming next month.

Ms. ROBERTS: (As Marie) What, more pears?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROMANO: (As Ray) No. No. It's a different fruit every month.

Ms. ROBERTS: (As Marie) Every month?

Mr. ROMANO: (As Ray) Yes, yes. That's why they call it Fruit of the Month Club.

Ms. ROBERTS: (As Marie) It's a club? Oh, what am I going to do with all these fruits?

RAZ: Okay. Now, there is no Fruit of the Month Club in Russia. So what do the Russians do with this scene?

Mr. ROSENTHAL: They changed it to Water of the Week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: And does that exist in Russia, Water of the Week?

Mr. ROSENTHAL: No. That doesn't exist, either. But for some reason, that was going to be more relatable to them, which is fine with me. I just happen to think - this is a personal, subjective opinion - that fruit is funnier than water.

RAZ: So do they consult with you, the writers who are working on "Everybody Loves Kostya," do they contact you?

Mr. ROSENTHAL: No.

RAZ: No. That's it. It's - you're done.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: I like to think I had a great influence on them and that they saw things my way. What I think happened was they said: Oh, you're very smart, thank you for coming, goodbye, and then did whatever the hell they wanted.

RAZ: I know the show is in countries around the world. And I've heard that you may be bringing it to Israel and Poland next. Is that true?

Mr. ROSENTHAL: Poland did call.

RAZ: Okay.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: They do want the show. I'm not going.

RAZ: You're not going to get involved?

Mr. ROSENTHAL: I get the whole Eastern European thing now. I've done it. That's it. Israel, I visited Israel once, I found it to be a lot like Hebrew school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: So you're not getting involved, either.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: No. There's a terrific guy over there who's going to adapt the show, who's a big sitcom hero over there in Israel, where they do have sitcoms, so he has my blessing. Go ahead.

By the way, I'm here if they want to call me and ask for anything. But I don't think they need to, and I don't think I should expect them to. I learned that it's for them. They have to do it their way, and I have to let go. I have to be a big boy.

RAZ: That's writer-director Phil Rosenthal. His documentary is called "Exporting Raymond." It's out in theaters now, and it's about his journey to adapt his hit TV show "Everybody Loves Raymond" for a Russian audience.

Phil Rosenthal, thank you so much.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: A great pleasure, thank you.

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