When it comes to versatility, you’d be hard-pressed to find another actor as adaptable as Paul Reiser.
From his acting debut in 1982’s “Diner” (which was also writer/director Barry Levinson’s first movie) to his performances alongside Eddie Murphy in 1984’s “Beverly Hills Cop” and Sigourney Weaver in 1986’s “Aliens,” Reiser effortlessly demonstrated his range. Since that time, he’s also become a fixture on television, co-creating the Emmy-winning sitcom “Mad About You” and keeping us guessing about which side he’s on in “Stranger Things,” to mention a couple of his many projects. For LGBT fans, it’s his role as Gordon, father of queer writer Hannah (Rachel Bloom) in Hulu’s brilliantly funny “Reboot,” that may officially earn him a following in our community. These days, Reiser is returning to his stand-up comedy roots and heading out on a multi-city tour. He was gracious enough to make time for an interview to discuss his long career.
Twenty-twenty-two is the 40th anniversary of your movie debut in “Diner.” When you look back on it, how do you feel about the experience?
[Laughs] There was an event here that, I think, The Movie Channel put together a couple of months ago to celebrate the 40 anniversary, so a whole bunch of us got together — the actors in the cast. It was kind of staggering to think of it as 40 years. For me, it was absolutely the opening of everything. I was really just beginning. It was much sooner than I would have expected or reasonably hoped to have a break, as they call it. It happened by accident. I literally walked in with a friend and happened to stumble into an office where they were casting this movie, and the casting director thought I might be right (for the part). It was totally an accident and a bit of an education for me. That's kind of how things happen. There is no more reasonable way that things happen. They’re often just silly accidents and coincidences and near misses, sometimes not a miss. That opened up everything for me. I had not even been out to LA ever. So, when I did come out, instead of just being a stand-up who you haven't seen, you’re “that kid from the movie who’s on the poster” [laughs]. The movie, while not a mega-hit was very well-received critically, and by film aficionados. Over the years I've seen how much it has really meant to and stayed with people. There's an audience, a lot of people, men and women, surprisingly, for whom the film was an important touchstone in their lives
Twenty-twenty-two is also the 40th anniversary of your stand-up debut on “The Tonight Show.”
…And they were sort of tied together. I was not passed the ball. I was not invited yet to “The Tonight Show,” which was my only goal. I wasn’t particularly looking to be in a movie. I just wanted to get on “The Tonight Show” as a stand-up. Because “Diner” was coming out, that was the week that they said, “You’re not just a stand-up. You're a stand-up who is in a new movie that people are talking about. It literally opened the door from my stand-up, as well.
You’re embarking on a stand-up tour in 2023. In the more than 40 years since your Tonight Show debut, can you please say a few words about the evolution of your stand-up – for example, are there things that you did jokes about then that you wouldn’t necessarily do again now?
It's funny. It's an interesting evolution. My goal was always to be a stand-up. That was really all I had in mind. Because of “Diner,” things opened up and suddenly I found myself doing all these acting roles. They were great and I'm very grateful that they happened, but they kind of took me off track a little bit. I’m not in any way complaining. When “Mad About You” started, which was ‘92, and maybe the year before as we were developing it, I really wasn't on the road. When the show started in earnest, I was just kind of consumed with it. When it was over, I was at a different point in my life. The net result was I didn't do stand-up for what turned out to be 20 years. I didn't mean to, but ‘92 to I guess 2008 or 9, I just hadn't done it. Other than once in a while going up at a charity event or something, but not regularly performing. What’s funny to me now is that people know me from this show or that show but still, a lot of them go, “I didn't know he does stand up,” which tickles me. I guess that's fair enough. I haven't been out there. Certainly, the world has changed, and sensibilities have changed. People are much more aware of taking responsibility for what they say onstage, which is good. But for me, personally, I was never someone who walked the edge. I wasn’t looking to ruffle sensibilities. I think the biggest change for me is as I've gotten older, your material and your perspective changed. When you're 23, 24, and you're wanting to be recognized, you want to make it, and be seen, it’s different [laughs] than when you’re in your 60s, and you have grown kids and you've been married for years. “Mad About You” came out of my act. I was talking a lot about having just been married. When I was invited to create a show, I said, “That's the kind of show I would want to do. Something really small and intimate that’s just about a married couple.” Newlyweds are different than being together for five years or 10 years and having kids. With many comics, hopefully, your material changes as you change, as you grow. “Mad About You” was about this man and woman, but we had a lot of feedback and terrific response from gay couples, from men and women. It wasn’t just about men and women, it was about intimacy, it was about two people in a confined space. No matter how you slice it, however you come at it, that's tricky. It was an education for me to realize that we were talking about something bigger than we even thought.
In your acting career, you have an incredibly varied resume including sci-fi standouts “Aliens” and “Stranger Things,” as well as a number of dramatic roles such as in “Whiplash” and “Fosse/Verdon.” Do you prefer comedy or drama, or do you like them equally?
I've never been a fan of these harsh divisions of comedy and drama. For me, the stuff that's always been the most memorable and the most impactful is the stuff that can straddle both. “Mad About You” was absolutely a comedy, but some of our most memorable stuff was when we did something a little bit more emotional. Similarly, when you're in a not-specific comedy thing, sometimes the most impactful moments are when there's a bit of levity, a bit of humor. Because, hopefully, nobody's life is only drama, only comedy. I've always loved the actors that can tip back and forth at a moment's notice. Tom Hanks and Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk. Those are the guys who are funny one second and then touching the next second and then funny, again. That keeps me engaged. That's what life is. You could laugh at a funeral and you could cry at a birthday party. Anything can go in any direction. I've always loved finding something that enables you to hit both. You can't always do it. (In) “Aliens,” certainly, there was no place to tell a joke. The show I’m doing now, “Reboot” on Hulu, is really fun because it's totally a comedy. It's about a comedy. There are funny characters and funny actors, and you're there to make comedy. That's new to me, to do a show about a comedy.
You mentioned “Mad About You,” which was rebooted in 2019, and now you are starring in the Hulu series “Reboot.” Does this feel like an interesting coincidence to you?
No [laughs]. I've never been a fan of reboots, in general. I always feel like if something’s done, it's done. Helen Hunt and I thought long and hard about going back and doing the revisit. We didn’t call it a reboot because we weren’t trying to start it from scratch. We were just checking in. You haven't seen these people in 20 years, what would that relationship look like now that they raised the child who was a handful and who's leaving the nest? What has life done to these two people and this relationship in 20 years? That was the incentive that we thought would be really fun to explore. I don't know that everything needs to be rebooted. The premise of “Reboot” was just because all these shows were being rebooted. That's how “Mad About You” got to be done again. They came to us and said, “Everybody is looking to redo things that were successful.” We resisted until he came upon why we thought it would be fun to explore. Plus, for us, the fun of working together again was the appeal. We said we’d do it once, and I’m glad we did. Steve Levitan had this idea where these casts are getting back together, but what would it be like if nobody got along? What would people's lives be like? Even though “Reboot” is about the making of a sitcom, it's not so much about the sitcom at all. The actual sitcom is almost never seen. It's about rebooting, to use the term, people's lives. It's about second chances. It's about my character hopefully getting to be a better father to my adult daughter. One character is now sober and trying to be a professional and a grown-up. To go back to your other question about drama versus comedy, what I love about “Reboot” is it’s really funny. Everybody in it is really funny. But when I watched it, I was really surprised at how much I cared, as a viewer, about these people. I wouldn’t call it heavy drama, but it's not a joke, joke, joke. These are funny situations. These are people who I care about. I haven't heard yet that we're going to go back and make some more, but I hope we do because I think there are a lot of stories to be told, and a lot of interesting characters to play.
“Reboot,” in which you play Gordon, is in the tradition of writers’ room comedies including “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “30 Rock.” How much of your writers’ room experience from “Mad About You” comes through in “Reboot?”
It's very lifelike. I always tell people, “You don't have to have worked in television to enjoy the show, but if you have you will definitely get a kick out of it because it's so true to life.” Some of this is just in the ethers, in the atmosphere. Writer’s rooms famously will lose two and a half hours ordering lunch [laughs]. Or the friction between everybody in a closed room and people offending people. All the dynamics. New sensibilities versus old sensibilities. Those things ring true. What's fun for me is getting to play a guy who's in charge of a show but I don't really have the burden of being in charge of anything [laughs]. It’s Steve Levitan’s problem. It's nice to just be playing that guy.
“Reboot” includes a touching scene in which Gordon’s daughter Hannah (Rachel Bloom), comes out to him. Before “Reboot,” did you have an awareness of an LGBT following for your work?
I'm not aware of “Reboot” impacting that. As I said before, with “Mad About You” I was heartened and grateful to see how deeply this show, which was about a heterosexual couple, how deeply it resonated with other couples and gay couples. We would hear it all the time. On the street, a guy would say to me, “That’s so true! Me and my husband or me and my boyfriend have been having that exact fight.” They’re not just men/women fights they're two-people fights.
It was universal!
It's universal, and that's always been true. That whatever is the most personal will end up being the most universal. That was one of the things I loved about “Mad About You.” We can talk about things that were so small and intimate because they actually resonated the most for people. I don’t know that I had a particular following or anything, but I certainly like to think that people can come to my stand-up show and nobody’s going to get hurt. As I said before, some people enjoy pushing the envelope, but that’s never been me. There’s no point in doing it if people aren’t having a good time and are put at ease. I’m not here to make anybody uncomfortable.
Paul Reiser is performing at The Parker in Fort Lauderdale on Feb. 24.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of eight books including the poetry chapbook Fear of Muses (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2022). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.