Ray Romano: The Fresh Air Interview — 'Men Of A Certain Age, Everybody Loves Raymond' Romano recently picked up a Peabody Award for his TNT show Men of a Certain Age, which co-stars Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher. Romano explains why he returned to TV after taking a few years off when his hit sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond ended in 2005.
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Ray Romano: Standup, Sitcoms And Real-Life Humor

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Ray Romano: Standup, Sitcoms And Real-Life Humor

Ray Romano: Standup, Sitcoms And Real-Life Humor

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TERRY GROSS, Host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Ray Romano has made career of exploring the humor and the neuroses of his personal life. His latest series, TNT's "Men of a Certain Age," which presents its second season finale tonight, is a drama with lots of comedy about a divorced man and his friends who are working their way through various sorts of middle-aged crises. Romano's previous TV series, "Everybody Loves Raymond," was a hit sitcom about a married man with his own small but endless problems. Ray Romano won an Emmy for starring in "Raymond," and this year won a Peabody Award as the co- creator with Mike Royce of "Men of a Certain Age."

FRESH AIR contributor and TV critic David Bianculli spoke with Ray Romano. They started with a scene from "Men of a Certain Age."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE")

RAY ROMANO: (as Joe Tranelli) Yeah, all right. I'm in. I'm in for your little weirdo weekend.

SCOTT BAKULA: (as Terry Elliott) Great.

ROMANO: (as Joe Tranelli) Good. You know what we should do? We should play golf out there. They've got great courses out there.

BAKULA: (as Terry Elliott) Definitely. Yes. Yes.

ANDRE BRAUGHER: (as Owen Thoreau Jr.) Nope.

BAKULA: (as Terry Elliott) Oh, come on. After the procedures we can go to that steakhouse in Palm Springs that you're always emailing us about. You know, the one that brings the skewers of meat right to your table.

BRAUGHER: (as Owen Thoreau Jr.) Renaldo's.

BAKULA: (as Terry Elliott) Yes. Think about it. You can't eat anything for a whole day, right? Just imagine all that meat waiting for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRAUGHER: (as Owen Thoreau, Jr.) All right, I'll go.

BAKULA: (as Terry Elliott) Of course you're going.

ROMANO: (as Joe Tranelli) All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: (as Joe Tranelli) We'll be the Three Muskerears(ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRAUGHER: (as Owen Thoreau, Jr.) I'm not going if you're going to be making all these stupid ass jokes, okay? No puns. None of that nonsense.

ROMANO: (as Joe Tranelli) There's going to be a lot of those.

BAKULA: (as Terry Elliott) Half the reason to go.

ROMANO: (as Joe Tranelli) I'm excited.

DAVID BIANCULLI: That was Scott Bakula, Andre Braugher and our guest, Ray Romano, in a scene from last season's "Men of a Certain Age." Ray Romano, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ROMANO: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

BIANCULLI: It must be fun playing these scenes. But it's so different than what you did on "Raymond." So what do you lose and what do you gain by switching to drama rather than for camera so there's no audience, there's multiple takes?

ROMANO: The only thing I miss from the sitcom format is that immediate gratification of when you're, if we're talking about comedy, of the live audience. And as a former - as a standup, I don't want to say former standup because I'm still a standup...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: Yeah. You know, I live off of that. It's my energy source, so to speak, and there is none of that when you're doing a single camera.

BIANCULLI: You talk about the surprises and the energy that the audience gave you in a sitcom.

ROMANO: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: How many surprises and how much energy do your co-stars give you in the filming this way? I mean Andre Braugher, for example, as far as I'm concerned, is an amazing dramatic actor. And I was stunned...

ROMANO: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ...by how funny he can be in this.

ROMANO: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: And the flip of that, which is a compliment to you, is how good you are as a dramatic actor acting opposite these guys. So what's that like from your perspective?

ROMANO: Well, as far as Andre being funny, that's an interesting thing because when we wrote it, we wrote the part for Wendell Pierce. And the character was this guy who had a little bit of the weight of the world on his shoulders and was overweight, a little bit overweight, had let himself go a little. He was a diabetic and he was under his father's shadow and he was kind of lost a little. And of course we knew there was going to be comedy in it and there were many times when Wendell Pierce, where there was some light, funny moments in "The Wire." And Wendell met with us, by the way, and loved it and was really almost ready to commit when the show "Treme" came up. And you know, we totally understood when he said he had to go do that, he's from New Orleans and...

BIANCULLI: And that's another David Simon show, who did "The Wire."

ROMANO: Right. Right. Right. But he was very nice and he had to politely decline. But somebody pitched Andre Braugher and, you know, our immediate reaction - I'm being totally honest - was no - well, thanks but no. It's not Andre Braugher because we pictured "Homicide."

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

ROMANO: We pictured the guy coming in the room and just owning the room and his power and we definitely didn't think he was overweight or anything or let himself go a little. And then it's funny because the agent being the agent said, well, you know, you know, I don't know if you've seen Andre lately, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

ROMANO: But so we agreed to meet with him for sure because he's Andre Braugher, and he came. He flew across. He lives in Jersey. He flew to LA and we sat down. We had a meeting and we talked and he loved the script and he loved the idea of playing a character like this, so he left and we were very oppressed. And all we had to think of was what about the comedy, because there really was no comedy in that scene we did together. But - and we searched the Internet...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: ...for Andre Braugher being funny, and let me, he...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: If you try to Google that, he - that's the only time Google has failed. He beat Google. Put in Andre Braugher comedy and Google has to shut down.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: But we just said, you know what? Let's just go with the best actor in the room and, you know, I'm sure he could take a note. If he does, if he pushes too hard, we'll talk to him, and we never had to say anything. You know, we briefly had a little comment because he was concerned about it. He was concerned about doing the comedy part of our show.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

ROMANO: And we just, you know, basically said something like real, 'cause, you know, it's just all real. And he amazes me because we write it, we write it in the room and we have our, we know, you know, the comedy rhythms that - where how something is funny and what, and how it isn't, and we write it with this rhythm in mind. And you know, there are a couple other former comedy writers in our room also, and we all say it out loud and we know exactly how this is going to be funny, and he says it just the opposite, and it's still funny. It's just, it's even funnier. He, you know, he does it like an actor and he comes with a built-in Emmy nomination. That's good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: You know, Andre, you got nominated for the Emmy the first year. Thank God or we would've got shut out.

BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, our guest is Ray Romano, co-star and co-creator of "Men of a Certain Age." Its season finale is tonight on TNT. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: Our guest is Ray Romano co-star and co-creator of "Men of a Certain Age," which concludes its latest season tonight on TNT.

In looking up your bio stuff for this interview, one thing that I didn't know about you is that you initially studied to be an accountant. And I thought immediately of Bob Newhart, who was an accountant and then out of nowhere did standup and got this huge career out of just having the nerve to go onstage for the first time when he made people laugh privately. So was Bob Newhart an influence on you?

ROMANO: Well, yes, not for the reason that he was an accountant and became a comedian. But - and by the way, when - studied accounting is kind of stretching it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: I often wonder about the things that I read. Okay. Let's clear this up...

ROMANO: No, I took, I took, I was always good in math, so when I was flailing around and not knowing what to do, I figured, well, I guess accounting is math. And I took maybe two semesters of accounting - like Accounting 101 and Accounting 102, and then I just dropped out of - I almost, I mean I practically dropped out of school, really. So I have some classes in accounting but I don't know anything about accounting. I, you know, when my accountant tells me all the things he does, it's a foreign language to me.

But my mother used to tell me exactly what you just said - you know, Bob Newhart was an accountant.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: She kept pushing that to try to keep me going. But Bob Newhart...

BIANCULLI: In which direction? In accountancy or in...

ROMANO: No, no. In accounting. In school. Yes, in school.

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

ROMANO: And she would, you know, in my early days of standup, instead of saying standup, she would make sure she brought up that I was studying accounting instead of standup. But Bob Newhart was just an influence on me on his - I mean I just loved to style, his subtlety. Him and Bill Cosby was a big influence on me.

BIANCULLI: Growing up, was it the comedy albums or the TV shows? What were your comedy influences?

ROMANO: Well, I will say my first comedy album and probably - I guess I knew about standup but I think it was my first big introduction to standup was a comedy album that a buddy of mine got and he gave it to me, and it was an album. It was back in the days when it was a, you know, it was a record that spun around. It was called, it was called - it was Bill Cosby. It was "To Russell, My Brother Whom I Slept With."

BIANCULLI: Yes.

ROMANO: That was the name of the album. Yeah. And I was blown away by it. And then I ran to his house and we listened to it together. And I'm not saying I tried to emulate him, but that's what appealed to me. This guy just talking - you know, it wasn't setup and punch line, it wasn't jokes, it wasn't, you know, and that's, those are fine. Rodney Dangerfield style was hysterical also, but this seemed more organic to me, this guy just talking about his brother and then the father and this and that.

BIANCULLI: How did you get the nerve to get into standup in the first place?

ROMANO: "Saturday Night Live" was starting. It was 1975 was "Saturday Night Live"? Is that right?

BIANCULLI: Yup, yup. That's when it started.

ROMANO: Yeah. And it's like nothing we've ever seen. "Saturday Night," 18-year-olds, we'd stay in to watch it, and a group of us started our own little sketch troupe. These are like five 17-year-olds and we just joined together and we did it and the kids all came in and it was kind of my first taste of what standup was like. So that was kind of where maybe the bug of performing standup came. But it was until I heard about the improv having audition nights and I called up and they told me, well, it's every once a month we have audition night where you come down on Sunday afternoon and you pick a number out of a hat, like there's usually like 50, 60 people there trying to get a number out of a hat, and they have 25 spots. So if you get a blank, you get nothing. If you have one of the numbers you go on that night. And I went down and I took somebody with me, a girl with me, a friend of mine, to pick a number also so I'd have a better chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: And I told her if you get the number and I don't, just tell them your name is Jackie Roberts. I made up a name that would be a - what's the word?

BIANCULLI: Androgynous.

ROMANO: Yeah. Thank you. Androgynous. So she, of course, she got the number. I didn't. She tells them Jackie Roberts, so that night I go on as Jackie Roberts. I'm number 23 of the night, and I do well. And if you do well they - she calls you back for the next month and I got a call back, but I had to go on as Jackie Roberts, I wasn't about to tell her. So - and I got a call back again. So for the first three months of standup I was Jackie Roberts.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: Until I gave it up then, because I - once you experience bombing, you realize how hard the business is and it scared the hell out of me and I gave it up for like two years. And when I went back two years later, I was, I just - I was Ray Romano. They didn't remember Jackie Roberts.

BIANCULLI: I'd like to go back to your post-standup sitcom career. You know, we've played something from your drama. Now to play something from the sitcom for which you're acclaimed and famous and made a bunch of money. "Everybody Loves Raymond." It ran for nine years.

ROMANO: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: 1996 to 2005. And the clip that I'm going to play has you with your mom and dad, played by Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle. And I don't think I need to set up anything more than that. We can just run it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND")

ROMANO: (as Ray Barone) Dad told Ally that I am going to hell.

DORIS ROBERTS: (as Marie Barone) Frank.

PETER BOYLE: (as Frank Barone) He never goes to mass, Marie. It's an open and shut case.

ROMANO: (as Ray Barone) You see? You see, Ma?

ROBERTS: (as Marie Barone) No, you should go to mass, Raymond.

ROMANO: (as Ray Barone) I don't want to go.

ROBERTS: (as Marie Barone) Why do you hurt me?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: (as Ray Barone) Look, I don't mean to hurt you, Ma.

BOYLE: (as Frank Barone) Stop hurting your mother. Go to church.

ROMANO: (as Ray Barone) No.

ROBERTS: (as Marie Barone) Ooh. Ooh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOYLE: (as Frank Barone) Look what you're doing to her. Go to church.

ROMANO: (as Ray Barone) No. No. I don't feel like.

BOYLE: (as Frank Barone) I don't feel like it. That's the problem with you kids today. Everything has to feel good. You think World War II felt good?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOYLE: (as Frank Barone) You think Korea felt good? In my day nothing felt good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: (as Ray Barone) Why don't you go back to your day and stop ruining mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOYLE: (as Frank Barone) Twelve years of Catholic school down the toilet. Go to church.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: (as Marie Barone) Frank, you can't just scream at someone to go to church.

BOYLE: (as Frank Barone) Well, 40 years of your guilt hasn't worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: (as Marie Barone) I need more time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: That's Peter Doyle, Doris Roberts and our guest, Ray Romano, in a scene from "Everybody Loves Raymond."

ROMANO: I know the title of that show was the "Prodigal Son," if I remember correctly.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

ROMANO: Yeah. And I know how it ends up and all that. I mean I remember the actual lines of the scene. It was just making me laugh.

BIANCULLI: What was it like bouncing off of them? I imagine you go from standup, you go into the sitcom that you are learning in a university in pretty high stakes week by week with these guys.

ROMANO: I was scared and I was coming off a not good experience of being fired from another sitcom, "News Radio." I was wracked with insecurity. And then I remember when we were rehearsing our first episode, the pilot episode, and this is my show now, and this is a show built around me, and there's Peter Boyle, and I hadn't really talked to him that much and I was - his reputation just scared me. Who he was, you know this, he was this hulking, strong presence.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

ROMANO: And he was an actor. And during day one of rehearsal in between one of the scenes, we - our paths crossed backstage and he just stopped me, and to this day I remember him saying it and I remember it because it was - I don't even know what it meant but it was such a gesture of his. He just stopped me and he goes, it's just like water, just let it flow. And that was it. And I, you know, of course it's a, I know what he meant. At that moment I was just blown away that he would, you know, be - this kind gesture of trying to make me feel comfortable. And then we became great friends after that. So we used to hang out. He used to take me out to dinner and he would say let's go to this place. There's a lot of celebrities there. You'll have fun, to dinner. And we'd go to dinner and he would be like the celebrity that everybody would be coming around.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: Yeah. But he was a great guy. He was so, he was a renaissance guy. He was - he knew everything. He could have a conversation about anything - politics, government, this, you know, art. Then with me - that was the great thing about him, he would dumb it down with me. He'd talk about sports and Hooters, you know, with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: He was just a great guy. And just the opposite, you know, I'm only saying this because he's the opposite of the character he portrayed on the TV as far as that goes. Yeah.

BIANCULLI: We're discussing Peter Boyle, who played your dad on "Everybody Loves Raymond." If this isn't too personal a question, your real dad died last year and...

ROMANO: Yeah, yeah. A year-and-a-half ago...

BIANCULLI: And if it's okay for me to ask this, how your relationship with him changed over the years and was at the end. And I ask it mostly because you mined so much humor out of the father-son relationship on the sitcom as exaggeratedly played for comedy.

ROMANO: Yeah. Well, my joke used to be about my father and Peter Boyle that anything you see Peter Boyle do on TV, my father has done in real life without pants on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: So, yeah. We would take what my father did and censor it down for the sitcom. And that's not to say - you know, our relationship was actually really good at the end. But growing up he was, he came from a family, his father left him when he was two or three and came back into his life much - when I was an adult. I remember visiting his father when he came back into the picture. So he grew up - you know, it wasn't the best of situations for him emotionally and he was very undemonstrative - that's just the way he was. I knew he loved me but we never heard it. He had a hard time saying it. He had a hard time - I never heard him say my mother's first name. Lucy is my mother's name and I've never heard him say that because that was too intimate for him. And this is how we grew up.

And as a kid I don't know. Look, I'm not going to make a big deal out of it, but you know, when you go to standup, there seems to be a common denominator of some form of need or want for validation from the audience that maybe you were lacking as a kid or whatever.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

ROMANO: As I got older, he had a very dry sense of humor, though. I realize that this kind of is where I got it from - a super dry. And I've told this story before, but he - and we did it on the show. We did it on the pilot episode. He...

BIANCULLI: Of "Raymond." Of "Raymond."

ROMANO: The pilot episode of "Raymond" - he in real life, he would drive my wife crazy in the smallest, subtlest way. He - the one thing they did was he learned to play back our messages, you know, when we had answering machines that actually recorded and you had to push a button and play them back. He learned the code that you could call in and push, you know, beep, beep, and it would play back your messages. He learned our...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: I don't know how he - so he would listen to our messages and then leave a message after saying, you know, hey Anna, your friend Linda went to the gynecologist today, you know, you should check up on her, and hang up, you know. And this was his little dry way and he thought it was funny and I thought it was funny. And my wife would go nuts and say that's like reading our mail. What's he doing? And she's like you have to talk to him. You have to talk to him. And I'd say, dad, please, don't, don't do it. She's - and he'd go, ah, what. Whatever. I'm joking, you know. And I go, I know, it's not funny to her though. And then he trumped himself. It was about a week later, where he found out from an outside phone how to change the outgoing message.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: You can change your outgoing message when your outside (unintelligible) beep, beep, beep.

BIANCULLI: That's wrong. Yeah.

ROMANO: Yes. And then we call up, my wife and I call up from somewhere outside to listen to our machine and instead of hearing me saying hey, you've reached Ray and Anna, you hear my father's voice. You've reached Ray and Anna. Yeah, they're not here now. You can leave a message. If you want me, Al Romano, I'm at 718-268, whatever. And, you know, it's...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: ...funny on paper. On paper it's funny. And my wife, she, I really think she started to cry. She almost started crying.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: And that was, this is who he was. He was like - kind of his way of connecting. It was his way when he wasn't, you know, bothered by something or angry, of showing any kind of affection, was just to do it through these - through comedy, this silliness that we all got a kick out of the women didn't. And then as we got...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: Yeah. And then as we got to, you know, as I started doing standup and everything and he got a big kick out of it, and then there's this bond we had through, just through comedy, through comedy. You know, he, I would kind of make him laugh and he would always make me laugh. And so we did connect. As an adult I had this connection with him that I never thought I would have as a kid.

BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, our guest is Ray Romano, co-star and co-creator of "Men of a Certain Age." Its season finale is tonight on TNT. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Ray Romano, co-creator and co-star of "Men of a Certain Age," the TNT drama that present its season finale tonight on the TNT cable network.

Your character in "Men of a Certain Age" is a golfer with senior tour aspirations and gambling problems. And you in real life are a very good golfer. And for the last four years, I guess, unless it's five, you've competed in the World Series of Poker. How good are you at these sports?

ROMANO: Very not.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: That's what's great about acting. That's the most acting I'm doing out there, is when I pretend to be a scratch golfer or a golfer who could make it on the senior tour. I am, I don't know if you golf or not, but I'm a...

BIANCULLI: I have golfed. I'm not a golfer.

ROMANO: Right. Okay. Well, I'm a 14 handicap. Anyone who golfs knows what that means. I shoot 90 to a hundred or once in a while 85. And as poker, I, you know, we have a monthly game we play but I don't play a lot. I'm acting and CGI-ing a lot on the show. But it's fun. I mean that's what's - it's fun to pretend, you know? It's a fantasy of mine. It's always been a fantasy of mine.

BIANCULLI: So in the season finale, which I have seen, and I'm not spoiling anything. But there are many shots that are photographed at a long shot where you make some really nice chips and some really nice putts. And I was thinking either that was CGI or it's a different kind of money pressure putt, because the money's on the line with production stuff, so did you sink those shots or did you...

ROMANO: Well, here's what it is, here's what it is. It's - for the putts, it's not that there's a different kind of money pressure. It's there's many opportunities to make it. It's putt. Miss. Do it again. Putt. Miss. Do it again. Cut. Cut. Cut. I will say this, though, if anyone watches. There is a chip in the - there's a montage of me making shots.

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

ROMANO: And there is a chip from off the green and then it rolls about - I got to say 30, 40 feet maybe into the cup. First take, first shot actually happened.

BIANCULLI: Wow.

ROMANO: And yeah, we...

BIANCULLI: That and the Peabody the same year.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: Yeah. But otherwise, most of the time I'm swinging the club without the ball there because my swing without a ball there is much better than when you put the ball there. Golfers will know that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMANO: Once you put the ball down, yeah. And then we CGI the ball. We CGI the ball going in the - this is for the long shots where we need it to go. I mean I couldn't make a good shot but we don't have that much film or money to waste that time. Yeah.

BIANCULLI: I think all my illusions have just been destroyed.

BIANCULLI: Oh no, don't say that.

BIANCULLI: Okay. All right, I won't say that.

ROMANO: It's not that I'm not a golfer. I could - I'll still beat you in golf.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Yeah. Yeah. There's no doubt of that. I could score 100 maybe then have to play the second nine.

ROMANO: Yeah. Exactly.

BIANCULLI: Well, you're season finale is tonight and good luck to you. Ray Romano, thanks for being on FRESH AIR.

ROMANO: Is that it?

BIANCULLI: It's pretty much it.

ROMANO: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.

GROSS: Ray Romano spoke with FRESH AIR TV critic David Bianculli. The season finale of Romano's series "Men of a Certain Age" is tonight on TNT.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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