Raymond Loved Phil, and Phil Loved Raymond

The bond between two ordinary men made the CBS sitcom an Ame`rican favorite

Phil Rosenthal is allowed bragging rights for one of his favorite memories: Five years ago, the creator and executive producer of CBS' mega-hit sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond was called in by President Clinton's speechwriting team to write and direct a six-minute, roast-worthy goodbye film for the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. “I was awestruck at first,” he says. “I told my wife, 'If you tell the most important, powerful person in the world what to do and he does it, doesn't that make you the most important, powerful person in the world?

“And my wife said, 'Pick up your socks.'”

Ray Romano's Top 10 List of Things He Will Do After 'Everybody Loves Raymond'
10Meet my 7-year-old. I hear he's cute.
9Yo-yo camp.
8Not shave.
7Try out for Slam Ball.
6Mooseport on Ice”
5One word: perm.
4Call up the Mirage and pitch “Siegfried and Ray.”
3Buy a monkey.
2Write down the first 22 things my wife yells at me about, then call CBS and tell them we have another season.

That, in a nutshell, is the kind of charming, simple, honest humor—real people hashing out the minutia of a marriage—that has fueled Raymond for nine seasons. The show ends its run on May 16. Nobody expected the show to become a television mainstay, to say nothing of its spectacular afterlife as No. 1 in syndication, where it outdistances such modern classics as Friends and Seinfeld.

When it started, Raymond was just another standup-driven sitcom, not even guaranteed a slot on the 1996 fall lineup and relegated to the dead zone of Friday nights. “To be perfectly honest,” says Kelly Kahl, CBS senior executive VP of program operations, “the show was essentially an afterthought.”

That may sound preposterous now, but in 1996, CBS was all about big comedy guns Bill Cosby (Cosby) and Rhea Perlman (Pearl), stars with well-known names. Ray Romano, for all his everyman appeal, was not supposed to be the Next Big Thing.

“From a scheduling point of view,” says Kahl, “it was a nice little show that we weren't expecting an awful lot out of. So we put it behind Dave's World because we thought there would be some compatibility between the two.”

Romano was happy just to get on the air. “Was I offended that they put me on Friday night?” he asks. “Are you kidding? They could've put me on at six in the morning; I wasn't about to complain. We thought there was a chance we wouldn't get on until midseason, so it wasn't like I was sitting around going, 'Do we have to be on Friday night?' I was just worried that we were going to get cancelled without people getting a chance to see it.”

They saw it, all right. And even though it wasn't pulling in big numbers, in the spring, CBS shifted it to Monday nights at 8:30, right after Cosby. Great time slot, right? Not necessarily. “It could've been a curse as much as a blessing,” says Kahl, “because with a better lead-in and increased visibility also come increased pressure.”

CBS was keeping its corporate fingers crossed that Raymond would follow the pattern of most new shows given a cushy time slot following a hit. “You hope to see it retain 80% of the audience,” says Kahl. “If you can hold four out of five viewers, that's pretty good. With this show, the thing that was encouraging was that it started building on its lead-in, especially with younger viewers. And don't forget, we were the oldest-skewing network.”

It's easy now to see why the show clicked: loveable, recognizable, relatable characters. Everybody knows somebody like Marie Barone (played by Doris Roberts), the overbearing, intrusive mother. Or Frank (Peter Boyle), the curmudgeon retiree. Or Debra (Patricia Heaton), the over-burdened, under-appreciated wife. Or Ray (Romano), the henpecked, workaday husband.

“This show was remarkably consistent,” Kahl says. “It had amazingly rich and well-defined characters that people very quickly glommed onto.”

Where did those characters come from? “Marie is my mother,” says Rosenthal. “I was writing about my actual family. What I found out was that the specificity of the writing is really the key to its universality—and not the other way around. So even if my life isn't yours, you get it.”

Romano says one of the reasons he and Rosenthal clicked was that his Italian sensibility was simpatico with Rosenthal's Jewish roots. “Basically, we have the same mother,” says Romano. “Overprotective and intrusive. Food is a big part of life. There's a lot of being a mama's boy. And a lot of guilt.”

They Clicked

Rosenthal and Romano, also an executive producer, first met in an unpretentious diner in North Hollywood. Rosenthal was one of a dozen up-and-coming comedy writers brought in to meet with Romano, who had his pick of the lot to create his first sitcom.

Instead of feeling like a power broker, Romano felt like the shy boy at a high school dance. Rosenthal quickly put him at ease.

“He was not imposing,” says Romano, “which was good because I didn't need to feel intimidated, which I do with a lot of people at these meetings. Even now, when I go to meet with a [movie] director, I'm way intimidated. I know that I'm gonna sound stupid, that I'm not artsy enough for him. And Phil was just a regular kind of guy. He had kids, and I had kids. And every story I had about my family and my parents, he had one about his.”

Still, for Romano, Rosenthal wasn't an instant sell. One of the other auditioning writers was Michael Borkow, then supervising producer on the super-hot Friends. Romano was impressed with that credential. “I actually chose him,” Romano says, “but he wasn't available. He got another offer. But in hindsight, of course, the smarter choice was Phil. He had this schleppy Jewish thing going, and I had this schleppy Italian thing going.”

The two schlepped along so nicely that, by season three, the show was moved into CBS' best comedy spot, Monday night at 9. Was the network now confident and relaxed that it had a major hit on its hands? No way. Says Kahl, “There was still a lingering question: Can this show play the big room?”

Tense Times

The answer was a resounding yes. So much so that, by 2003, for season eight, Romano became the highest-paid actor on television (a $50 million deal paying $1.8 million per episode).

The repercussions weren't pretty: CBS encountered some major financial haggling with the supporting players who felt slighted. Brad Garrett garnered headlines for two weeks for refusing to report to work without a significant pay raise.

“Brad wasn't the biggest problem,” says Rosenthal. “But I can't tell you what was because it's personal. It's nobody's business. But I can tell you one thing: I didn't like being caught in the middle. It was ugly. Some [cast members] thought they could come to me and that I had money to give. Well, I'm an employee, too. So I was getting it from both ends. From CBS, it was: Write them out of the show. And from the actors it was: Stick up for me with them. That's the ugly part, and I hated it. I thought: I have something nice here, and you're fouling my garden.”

Romano is more forthcoming about the money problems. “At one point, Phil and I and HBO [the Raymond production company] dished out some backend points for them [to share the syndication profits]. That was year eight, for all the cast members, so they all got a piece of the backend.”

His salary was the subject of much on-set teasing. “At one point, I screwed something up in a bedroom scene. And I have this rapport with Patty where she can trash me and I can trash her. So she turned to the audience, pointed to herself and said, 'Professional.' Then she pointed at me and said, 'Millionaire.'”

But the head-turning salaries weren't always so funny. “It can only breed contempt once you're the highest anything,” says Romano. “They can only take shots at you.”

Or beg you to produce more episodes.“Believe me,” says Kahl, “if we could wave a magic wand to bring it back, we would.” For this swan-song season, though, it's a short run of only 16 episodes. Privately, Viacom Co-President Les Moonves thought Raymond had lots of material for another season.

Romano disagrees, agreeably enough. “Les Moonves said, 'At least, give us 18,'” says Romano. “We tried to come up with two more ideas that seemed fresh and not a variation of things we had done before—and we couldn't find them. So forget doing 22 episodes and really forget another year.”

Rosenthal picks up from there. “You want to get off the stage before people say, 'Hey, you should get off the stage.' That's part of being a good performer in any medium. We did 210 episodes. We're done. We're out of gas.”

Which may seem hard for an outsider to understand. “You can't squeeze blood from a stone,” says Rosenthal, who even refused to expand the final episode to one hour because he believes most hour-long sitcom finales are, in a word, bloated.

“I think we've earned the right, after nine years, to say, this is what we'd like to do. You can do an hour documentary before the show, that's great. But the show? That's ours.” It also doesn't hurt that the show sold for a staggering $3.5 million per episode in first-run syndication; the second cycle—beginning in 2008—just sold for even more: $3.8 million.

What does Rosenthal want to do next? “Lie down,” he says, flatly.

Get A Life

Rosenthal is one of those rare Hollywood showrunners who inspire admiration and fierce loyalty by keeping the trains running on time. His writing staff started at 10 in the morning and was home every night for dinner, unheard of in most comedy factories.

“I believe that, if you're going to write about real life, you should have one,” says Rosenthal, who in real life is married to Monica Horan, who plays Robert Barone's wife, Amy, on the show. “I worked on a lot of shows before this one [Coach, Baby Talk], and I learned what to do and what not to do. I didn't want to be there at three in the morning. No joke ever got funnier at three in the morning. You just think it did.”

So Rosenthal, who admits being “motivated by fear,” instituted some hard and fast rules. First, they would do shows only about things that could really happen in real life. Second, the series would always be character-driven. Third, they would not do topical humor: no political jokes or gags about steroids. And fourth, they would involve Romano every step of the way.

“It really helped that we didn't have a crazy star who threw the script out when he saw it on table-read day,” says Rosenthal. “You get him in the room before that. You get him on board. Politically, that's smart to do, and creatively, it's smart to do because he's a brilliant comedian and a great writer. When we had a story, I would run it by him before we wrote it. If he doesn't like the story, why bother?”

But that begs the question: With all that money and the huge ratings, why didn't Romano become a prima donna? “I'm too insecure to do that,” he says. “As a comic, you have very low self-esteem. Billy Crystal once said that you're waiting for the funny police to come and tell you the gig's up. You're constantly afraid of being discovered as some sort of imposter. When you feel that, you don't want to make waves. You need people to like you. So a lot of it is insecurity that I didn't become an asshole.”

Do Sitcoms Have A Future?

Rosenthal, who has an overall deal for film and television projects at Paramount, does his share of hand-wringing about the state of prime time TV. “People say the sitcom is dead, the form is dead. It's not the form. There's nothing wrong with the form. They always say it's over when there's been a dearth of great ones.”

He loves Arrested Development, even though he says he couldn't write it: “That's just not my sensibility. I'm not Mr. Hip and Edgy.”

He's also not Mr. Devil May Care. “I'm afraid for my kids growing up in a world where Paris Hilton is put on a pedestal. What the hell happened? It is the end of civilization.” In fact, Rosenthal's children (ages 7 and 10) aren't allowed to watch TV on weekdays.

Except maybe on May 16, when the family, cast and crew will sit down to finally see the finale. The January taping was delayed eight days when three cast members—Heaton, Roberts and Boyle—got sick.

Even Romano was having trouble. “I would drive to work, that last week, and if sad songs came on the radio, I would get emotional in my car. I don't let anybody see me get emotional. But I could tell I was emotionally fragile that week,” he recalls.

“Some people would say it was psychosomatic,” Rosenthal says, “because people didn't want it to end.”