Paul Reiser On His Return to Stand-Up: "After 30 Years, Nothing Really Has Changed"


Though Paul Reiser enjoyed mainstream success with sitcoms My Two Dads and Mad About You and films Diner, Aliens and Beverly Hills Cop I and II, the native New Yorker never forgot his stand-up roots.

This fall Reiser appears in Sundance's Audience Award-winning drama Whiplash with J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, and zombie romantic-comedy (or "Rom-Com-Zom-Dram," as he puts it) Life After Beth, also starring Aubrey Plaza, Cheryl Hines, Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly. He performs May 10 at the Center of the Arts in Staten Island and May 22 at Harrah's in Atlantic City.

A month ago I was reading Carol Leifer's fantastic second book, in which you pop up all over the place, and I'm now reading an advance of Todd Glass's book, which you're in, too.

Is that right? Todd Glass wrote a book? I'll have to look at that. Well God bless 'im! I'm glad he's doing all right.

It's so funny, because Carol sent me a copy of her book, and I just started reading it yesterday. It was such a ride down memory lane. I see pictures of me that are startling in their youthfulness. And remembering stories -- I don't know how she remembers all these things I have not remembered. It was a very fun read, but what was interesting is she talked about something that I am being reminded of all the time: the camaraderie of comics. She talks about how there's a bond with comics, but also specifically with comics that came up together in the same class. It's hard for people to understand that bond, but you went through the same dives and the same clubs and the same insecurities and the same nightmares, and it all becomes sort of funny in the end. But it's not easy. It's not easy in the beginning.

You're in those same comedy trenches together.

Yeah, absolutely. And you all sort of flock to the same places. In each class or each school there's a couple of funny people, and they'll all end's like all the smart, techy guys will all end up at MIT. So when you look at MIT, you go, "Oh, the top two kids in every class from all over the world." Well, it's the same at comedy clubs. The ones who are going to flock there are the ones drawn to it already. And it's funny, I have been having a surprisingly great time doing stand-up again. I hadn't done it; I hadn't performed in 20 years, from the time Mad About You started until really about two years ago. Once in a while I would do a couple of minutes at a charity event if I was emceeing or something, but nothing like really performing. It wasn't by design; I just kept thinking, "Oh, I'll get back to it when I get back to it."

And eventually I did, but it was surprising to me to see how much more I missed it than I knew. It's been a very nostalgic journey, because it's exactly the same as it was when I was 18. The world has changed, but the stand-up hasn't changed, and the act of doing it, and the excitement of a joke that doesn't work well then you get it to work, and the excitement of a new crowd, the excitement of walking on stage or getting ready for a show, I hadn't felt those things. They are youthful things: "Oh, that's what excited me when I was 18 and still excites me now at 58." That's a long time, but there are certain throughlines, and comedy is the throughline for a lot of us.

What got you back on stage?

I wasn't really fighting it; I was just saying, "Yeah, I will, I will, I will..." I'd see Jerry [Seinfeld] and [Jay] Leno: [imitating Leno] "Why don't you do it? Just get back!" I wasn't actively resisting it, but what I think happened was sometimes you just way, "Well I'm not getting any younger. So if you want to do it, do it." Like most things, you can't wait for any clear sign. But what happened was I think I did one charity event that was a particularly fun night. I was the emcee; I think we were Roasting the honoree, who was a friend of mine. It was just a great night with a lot of friends in the audience, and it was really fun. And big laughs. I suddenly remembered that feeling and went, "Oh, man. Why don't I do this more often? I love this!" And not long after that, I called up the Comedy & Magic Club and asked if I could come down, and I just started.

Kids, younger comics, would see me and go, "Wow, what are you doing here? Are you getting ready for a tour or a HBO special, or...?" I said, "No, I'm just doing this." And they said, "Why?" "Just to get better." At that time, I wasn't even planning on getting to where I am now. I wasn't even thinking, "Gee, I'm going to get out and tour." I was like, "Eh, I'm just doing this because it's Tuesday...and it's like whittling or, you know, making model trains or something. I'm going to put my time in and get better at this particular thing."

But it's been a really fun journey, I've got to say. First of all, I had barely traveled, so it's just been fun to be in new places and the different locales, but going into a town and going to a venue where people are coming to a venue and paying money just to see you make them laugh--and then hopefully doing that--and then leaving, it's very pure. There's something very simple about it, you know? I showed up, I talked, they laughed--everybody wins. As opposed to everything else in show business, which is never that direct or simple compared to movies or TV, where you have to come up with an idea and pitch the idea and get studios and take people and raise money and you get other partners along the way.

I have an idea for a TV show that I sort of sold to a studio, but it's been eight months before we can even begin to go write it, because there's so many moving parts. And it's really frustrating, and in the interim you start losing your enthusiasm and go, "You know what? I don't even remember why I loved this idea eight months ago." Where stand-up, something strikes you as funny at 2 o'clock, you write it down, you shape it, and then you tell it at 8 o'clock. I like that. That's a nice job.

The feedback is immediate.

Yeah, it's immediate and it's ever-changing. It's never the same. The little, tiny improvements and the little, tiny growths are an exciting part of it.

When you started putting new material together, did you find the process easier or more challenging? Are you writing from a whole new perspective nowadays?

Oh yeah. You're more informed in your fifties than you are in your twenties, for sure. There's a quicker trigger, and the instinct is sharper: "Well that may be funny, but that's not you. You don't want to go there." Or "That's not funny enough," or "That's funny, but it's a little harsh," or "It's not the message that I want to leave." So yeah, there's more editing. And what happens is I write more easily and more prolifically, but I edit more, so the net result is about the same. It's still a thrill to come up with one new minute or two minutes. If you come up with a five-minute chunk, it's like the goldmine: "Wow!" That's really great.

And those are the little minutia of stand-up I had forgotten that I'm so enjoying, the excitement of a new chunk that you play with. It's like a hobby. You get a mound of clay and you're sculpting it into something, like, "Okay, I'm going to work on it a little more today, and by next week it's going to be better than it was this week." And you see it grow, and you see it change. I think I work very much the same style that I always did, but certainly the perspective is different. Also just being in your fifties and being married a long time and having children and seeing life, from that perspective. So in your twenties, you're talking about your parents; now in your fifties, you're talking about your kids because you are the parent. It's like, "Wow, that's really a 180." As it should be. One should grow and change as your life changes.

Now that you're touring with the new material, are you looking to commit it to a special?

I don't know. I've toyed with the idea. There's a school of thought some comics have that as soon as you've got it, put it out there. And there's another school of thought that's "Well why would you do that? Not everybody's seen your hour." There's something more exciting in a way about going town to town and working as opposed to memorializing it. So I have no plans to do that at the moment. It still feels so new; it's really only been a year and a half that I'm out touring. And "touring" is a very loose usage of the word. I think I'm going at a very gentlemanly pace. It's only weekends, and it's every other weekend. I'll do two shows, three shows and go home. So it's not Willy Loman. I'm not living out of a suitcase in fleabag hotels. There are some fleabag hotels, but it feels like it's a quick in and out.

Have the demands and pathways to success changed for people coming up now?

I don't know. I think that certainly the world has changed and there are so many more outlets that you can be "famous" without being famous. Somebody can have six, ten million hits on a YouTube piece and you've never heard of them. But they're obviously doing well. Or coming back to stand-up, I would hear of people that are quite established that I had never heard of. Like, "Wow! So that guy's selling out theaters? That guy's selling out arenas? I did not know that." And they might not be mainstream, but they're out there doing really well.

But the actual craft of stand-up hasn't changed. There are ways to break in there didn't used to be--there's Internet, there's more channels, there's all that. But the actual craft of standing on a stage and telling jokes hasn't changed. There's no shortcut to it other than slogging away at it and doing it as many times as you can. So it's very rare--as much technology as there is, and how things are made easier and can happen faster--it's rare that something remains unchanged by technology. And stand-up, you can't do it better or faster with any new gizmo. There's no app that will make you funnier.

I like how on Twitter you only follow twelve people including Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama, but not Barack.

I think he's busy. I'm not sure how much he's Tweeting. Yeah, I don't read that much. Even those, I just wanted to see what their Tweets looked like. I'm very late to the game on that, and I was originally only encouraged to do it because it lets people know you're coming to their town, and that's a slow build. Like, "Okay, if that's part of the game, let's do that." But it's become fun, actually. It's another little art form.

But I don't know how people have time for their life: "Yeah, I Follow 5,000 people." Well how do you have time to eat? How do you have time to live? How can you breathe if you have 5,000 people whose every whim you're listening to?

It's interesting how you can get people like Steve Martin who really embrace it and start expanding what they're doing with it, and then on the opposite side of the spectrum you have people like Lewis Black who detest it.

Yes, I get it. That makes sense. I think I'm probably closer to him. But, you know, it's opening up a filter. You let the world in, and some days there's a lot of nice things, like, "Oh, look at all these people who are excited that I'm coming to their town!" That's nice to hear. And then you get somebody that's saying something nasty, and you go, "Wow, I didn't need to hear that!" So it's like opening this door to your house: "Well, you might meet a lot of people, but you might not want to meet 'em all."

It's a different form of immediate reaction.

Yeah, yeah, it's totally immediate. But I still have to remind myself, "Hey, I haven't Tweeted in four days. Get out there and write something." And every thought that comes into your head, it's, "Oh, why bother people with this? This is absurd." So it doesn't come naturally to me, and I admire people like Steve Martin. It's not surprising that he is mastering and molding something new out of it, because he's always done that. He's surprised people and written plays and novels, and there's his bluegrass. He's an artist in the truest sense, so it's no surprise that he would find an artful way to succeed at this.

You mentioned the TV series that you've been working on. Is that FX's Married?

No, I just finished that. That was really simple and fun. I was just a hired actor that they asked me to come play this one role. I did five episodes and went, "Well this is really easy and fun." And for me, it was a great relief to actually be in somebody else's sandbox and let them worry about it. I don't remember having that experience on a TV show. After all these years, looking at a script and going, "Oh, I only have to worry about these six pages. All these other pages are not my problem." I'm not used to that. I'm used to going, "Oh boy, this scene affects that page, and blah blah blah."

The other thing I was mentioning is the pilot that I haven't sold yet. Well, I've sold it to a studio, but now we're hopefully about to go and sell it to one of the cable networks. But I haven't written it yet. It's funny, because like I say, my thought was, "Well, I have this idea. Let's go write it!" They go, "Well don't write it yet until we know who's going to buy it." I guess I could have quietly sat and written it by myself, but the game is stacked against you. The game is about dragging it out. So we'll see. I'll write it, and if it comes out, great. And again, there's still a "maybe," if I write it and someone goes, "We love it, but we're not going to make it!" In stand-up, you don't have that. There are no gatekeepers.