After ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘The Boys,’ Paul Reiser Is Back to Killing It in a Straight-Up Comedy, ‘Reboot’
Paul Reiser came up as a New York-y observational standup comic, a browse through his 40-year-spanning IMDb page reveals a wildly varied set of roles. There’s Modell, the roast-beef-mooching hangout pal from 1982’s Diner. And Carter Burke, the villainous corporate weasel in 1986’s Aliens. And then there’s the role closest to his standup persona, Mad About You’s Paul Buchman, one of the few married New Yorkers in NBC’s unbeatable ’90s comedy lineup.
After a post-Mad About You step back from workaholism, Reiser has shown up in dozens of prestige titles over the past decade, such as the Oscar-winning Whiplash,, the Emmy-winning Fosse/Verdon, and the crowd-pleasing Stranger Things and The Boys plus a forthcoming returnto the Beverly Hills Cop franchise for the currently-filming fourth installment.
This fall, Reiser has been starring in Hulu’s critically-acclaimed Reboot, from Modern Family creator Steven Levitan. An affection satire of the recent TV drive to resuscitate any old IP it can find in a closet, Reboot has an up-and-coming writer Hannah Korman (Rachel Bloom) getting a deal to revive and edgily update a corny ’00s multi-cam called Step Right Up as a 2020-ish sitcom—meaning, arming the original cast (played by heavyweights Keegan-Michael Key, Judy Greer, and Johnny Knoxville) with relatable, real-world topics and removing any “laugh-out-loud” jokes. Unfortunately, its original creator (Reiser)—who is also Hannah’s estranged father—is contractually obligated to be part of the package. An old-school pratfall-loving comedy writer to his core, he sees no point in edginess.
Hannah’s may not prioritize jokes, but in just three weeks of airtime, Reboot has already established itself as a hilarious new comedy worthy of adding to the queue. GQ recently spoke to Reiser over Zoom about his own past reboot experience on Mad About You a few years back, how accurate Reboot’s writers’ room scenes are, and what actually is, objectively, the funniest food.
GQ: You’ve talked about your son being the one who pushed you to do Stranger Things and The Boys. Was he part of your decision-making process for Reboot as well?
Paul Reiser: No, he wasn’t. This one, I actually put on my big boy pants and made the decision myself, but I’ve been very tickled to see that he likes the show and he reported to me yesterday that his friends were watching it and didn’t know I was in it. From a creative standpoint, I was really encouraged by the fact that each Reboot episode got better and better, I thought, and it does have a broad-based appeal.
Hannah and Gordon initially clash over their comedic sensibilities. She wants to reflect reality, and he thinks that falling over is and will always be hilarious. Do you agree with Gordon?
No, no. He’s a bit more of a caricature than I like to think I am. One of the things Hannah says is, “Life doesn’t work like a TV show.” That was really sort of the motto and our mission statement on Mad About You: “Yeah, but real people wouldn’t say that.” Even though we were a television show, our standard was, it’s got to look more “real people” than “people on a television show.” And there were a lot of times where somebody would pitch a great joke—or even when I would—and I’d go, “It’s not that it’s too funny, it just sounds like it was written, and these people should not sound written.” Which ultimately was, I think, the mark of our success—that people recognized themselves: “Oh they sound like people.”
As a viewer, do you also enjoy comedies that mostly just make you, as Gordon puts it, “nod in quiet amusement” as opposed to laugh out loud?
I enjoy both. Part of what’s really great about Reboot is that it does straddle a bunch of worlds—really silly-ass laughs and physical stuff and digs. But you would get pulled in because you cared about these people. So I love laughing at just really silly stuff, and I also appreciate an, “Ah, that’s sweet.” I don’t need to laugh to enjoy something.
But I’ve also been going back and looking at some old Key & Peele stuff and some of it was so freaking funny. And I’m embarrassed at how unabashedly I’m laughing. There’s one about football players with funny names—I mean, it’s brilliant, but there’s nothing cerebral. So yeah, I’m an equal opportunity laugher and enjoyer.
Lately you have described looking around a set and realizing you’re the oldest person there. One of the story arcs in Reboot is about older writers coming to work on the show with a huge amount of important institutional knowledge. Did you know when you signed on that there would be this stealth anti-ageist plot?
I knew the premise that I’m the older guy, the keeper of the gate, and the character, not me, was “Hey, let’s keep it simple and light and jokey and a traditional sitcom,” and I was going to be butting heads with Hannah. [Show creator] Steven Levitan already had the idea for a great way to illustrate the divide between Gordon and Hannah. Hannah has this really diverse young, hip, inexperienced team of writers, and I bring in these really old sitcom writers]. Everybody’s been talking about those writers’ room scenes because they really are vibrant and funny, and not a lot of shows can get a joke in about Tony Danza’s cock. I wonder if Tony’s seen it.
But one of the nice things about this show is it does get to straddle the fence and play both sides. When you’re writing a show at this moment in history, you do have conversations like, “It’s funny but we can’t say it,” or “We know our heart’s in the right place, but it might be perceived as such and such.” Well, in this show we get to hear that conversation, where somebody throws a joke out, somebody else goes, “You can’t say that,” and somebody else goes, “Why not?”
So to me the conversations are what’s funny and fruitful. Yes, the joke is that Gordon brings in these old hacks who are talking about their medicines and their failing bodily functions, but guess what? They also had some great jokes, and guess what, they merged with the younger writers.
Speaking of those scenes: you’ve worked in writers’ rooms, both when you were Hannah’s age and at Gordon’s age; so has Steven Levitan. It feels like those philosophical disagreements alone could have been the show.
For sure, you could do a show about that room, but what’s really fun for me about doing the show is it’s a world that feels so familiar. That walk back from a rehearsal where jokes don’t work and you have to go back to the writers’ room and maybe you have to tear up the script: that’s a real painful thing. In this show, I just get to pretend that I have those problems. It’s actually Steve Levitan’s problem.
But those walks are where the comedy plays. On Mad About You, I was in the writers’ room and I was on stage, and also I created the show, so there was a little bit of a difference, but I know damn well when I walked out, there was a lot of rolling their eyes, like, “Fricking actors.” The politics, the behind-the-scenes, the actors rolling their eyes at the writers, the writers rolling their eyes at the actors, the old people making fun of the young people: all that stuff is true. And at the end of the day, it’s, “Yeah, but we’ve got to make a show and we all have to get on the same page” and you don’t know where the good idea’s going to come from.
It’s funny, when we did the Mad About You revisit three years ago [for Spectrum], Helen [Hunt] and I were very clear: we wanted a very small room. I’m not a fan of writers’ rooms being big. That’s just wasted energy. We had this great executive producer in Peter Tolan [The Larry Sanders Show], and then we had, I think, just three writers, maybe four—as opposed to 12—and they were younger. Helen and I were very clear: “Okay, we will be the old guard, we know what the show was and we know how to do it, but we need you guys to be the younger guard.” Especially since we were writing for our 18-year-old-daughter character. So I would pitch something, Helen would pitch something, and then the 22-year-old would go, “Yeah, we don’t say that anymore.” “Okay, put that in the script, that Dad doesn’t know what is the proper term anymore. That’s what’s funny.”
You’ve been working in the streaming world for a while both as an actor and a creator, going back to Red Oaks and then There’s…Johnny a few years later. Other than season length, what were the biggest differences going from a network sitcom environment to the new world of digital platforms?
To me a big difference is things can live in perpetuity. There’s…Johnny was a show that I worked on for so long and was such a labor of love and it sort of fell between the cracks and never got its real day in court. It got bumped from Seeso to Comcast to Hulu, who didn’t promote it because it wasn’t their original show. And then I had to really force my foot in the door to get it onto Peacock. Peacock is not the biggest platform, and even for Peacock, this is not something they’re going to promote. There’s no budget for, “Hey, watch this show that was made five years ago.”
But having said that, with interviews like this or word of mouth, people can say, “Oh I’ll have to check it out.” So you don’t have the pressure of needing to be a hit in the first week or the first month or you’re going to get canceled. I don’t know, and no one knows, what the numbers are on Reboot. I think it’s feeling like Reboot is a hit.
And just in terms of doing them, doing eight episodes is like swinging with one bat now. Eight is nothing. On Mad About You, you would be working for three months and you’re at Episode 8. And you’d look at the board and you’d go, “We haven’t made a dent.” Now it’s eight and we’re done. It’s better to do eight great ones than 24 where six of them were rushed and didn’t turn out great.
I remember when I was just in the first year of Mad About You, I was about six months into it, and I was just overwhelmed with the amount of work and the speed of it and the demands of being in it and writing it. And I was at some event and met Larry Gelbart, the legendary Larry Gelbart: Wrote for everything, Your Show Of Shows, created M*A*S*H for TV. And I kind of just rhetorically said, “How do you do this?” And he said, “You’ve got to remember, every year you’re making 24 babies, and they’re not all going to be beautiful babies. You’re going to have four that you’re so proud of you want to put them in a museum, and you’re going to have four where you go, ‘Boy, I hope nobody sees those,’ and the rest are going to be solid singles up the middle.” And I laughed. Turned out he’s right.
A great baseball player, if he hits .300, it means he’s only getting on base one out of three times at most. Our average was, yeah, there were two or three every year that we barely got through. Three or five that I’m really proud of. And the rest, like, yeah they’re fine. We all tried our best and that’s where we got to. When you’re doing eight, there’s less chance that there’s going to be one rough one that sneaks through.
The Kominsky Method was one recent project that found you in more of a dramatic mode. Do you prefer doing comedy because it fits you better, or drama because it gives you new areas to explore?
I’m drawn to the actors and the pieces that straddle both those worlds. Because yes, I love silly-ass comedy, and yes, I could love a really heartfelt drama, but the actors that I was always drawn to were the guys who could go either way on a dime. Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, Tom Hanks. George Clooney, too, is really funny.
And I like to think I write things that are on that teetering edge too. Some of my favorite stuff that we did on Mad About You was we had these therapy scenes. You’re talking about real stuff. But then you look at each other and you’re just like, “Did you pick up my dry cleaning?” “Really, that’s what you’re going to ask about now?” That’s what life is. In the middle of something really funny and light, you get a bad piece of news or somebody gets hurt, or you’re at a funeral and you’re mourning and then something funny happens.
So I love doing anything. The Kominsky Method was that in spades. It was really about serious stuff, but it wasn’t jokey. My character was certainly kind of—I don’t want to say dopey, but he was not ambitious, he had this backstory, and underneath his buffoonery, there was a regretted life. So that stuff is really fun to play.
The truth is, I like doing both. And I haven’t really done too many things where comedy would be unwelcome. Stranger Things, you can’t suddenly make faces, but The Boys is really funny.
You’ve created so many of your own projects, and as a comic, I imagine you can go work whenever you want on your own terms. How do you decide when someone else’s project is worth doing?
Either the material is so compelling that you go, “Well, that would be really fun to do.” Or the material isn’t great, but you go, “Wow, I’d love to work with that actor or that director or that writer.” And also, what is the commitment? So when I got the script for Reboot, I knew the pedigree of Steve Levitan and all the actors who were involved, and I thought, “Well, that’s a really a no-brainer.” Beverly Hills Cop [IV] was like, “Okay, I know what that is. I’ll go play for a few days with Eddie and see what happens.”
Certain things will make me pass immediately. I once read a script that said, “Fade in: Ganges River, night, mud, swamp, human waste, a head emerges.” Yeah, not going to do that. You lost me on “Fade in.”
You grew up in New York, but you’ve lived in Los Angeles for a while. After all this time, is there anything that you still regularly find yourself missing about New York?
Oh yeah. I mean, first of all, I don’t know how to write Los Angeles. I can only write things that take place in New York. And when I’m watching a show, I’m always excited and impressed when I see somebody find a new way to shoot New York. The Morning Show opening credits: just beautiful exteriors. Or High Maintenance: they did a great job of finding neighborhoods and shots. Do you know how many shows have been shot in New York? Never seen that neighborhood, never seen that shot, never seen those characters. But it moves me and I connect.
Is there anything about L.A. that you don’t think you’ll ever get used to?
I can’t badmouth L.A. It’s pretty beautiful. Sometimes the industry-ness and the intensity of industry focus is comical and absurd. I remember I was working on a show years ago with a writing partner who was a really talented playwright from New York. He’d never worked in L.A. We had a meeting with a network exec. Afterward my partner said, “I think I’m having dinner with that executive tonight.” I said, “What do you mean you think?” He said, “Oh, because he said we should have dinner sometime.” I’m like, “Oh my darling, no, no, that just means goodbye. We’re not having dinner.” I was just so used to people saying things that mean nothing, and being new to town, he took it as “I think I have committed.”
So I have been here long enough that none of that surprises me or upsets me anymore, I think in a good way. But I’m often surprised by how New York-centric my DNA is. I was in Iowa last weekend. I did two shows in two different towns. And on the drive between Mason City and Cedar Falls, the hour drive is just Field Of Dreams. It’s just corn, more corn, soybeans, flat and all these open spaces. And I said to the driver, I wasn’t even joking: “Wow, look at all this parking.” Having grown up in New York, all I could see was, “Oh man, you could park anywhere here. It’s not alternate side of the street!”. I cannot see an open space without thinking, “Grab the spot.”
One last Reboot question. Hannah says the funniest food is oatmeal. Gordon says it’s pickles. What actually is the funniest food?
Pickles feels a little bit overdone. “Milk” is a word that always will make me laugh. Milk should do it. I often will go to veal parmesan just because it’s much longer than you think it’s going to be. And in a pinch, chicken piccata will work. You got a whole bunch of “K” sounds in there, and the word “chicken” is a great default. So from that comedy menu, veal parmesan, chicken piccata, milk: something should work.
And more from the week in celebrity grooming. By The Editors of GQ December 4, 2022 PATRICK T. FALLON/Getty Images…