The list of sitcom legends is either very short or very long depending on your tastes. In terms of beloved sitcom writers and creators, the average person can name off the top of their head, most people would be hard-pressed to come up with someone beyond Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Lena Dunham or possibly, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. But, one hilarious name on that shortlist is without a doubt Phil Rosenthal. As the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, Rosenthal crafted an enduring sitcom family, which, in his words, does something a sitcom can rarely pull-off: Give the audience a dad-protagonist who essentially is just searching for peace. Since 1996, countless dads have seen themselves in Ray, and that relatability is completely the result of Rosenthal’s collaboration with Ray Romano to make a sitcom father not only relatable but, funny because he’s so desperate for a freaking break.
These days, Rosenthal stars in his comedic travel-food documentary series, Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix. If you like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, but wish you learned something about food, and that there was a little more heart to the conversations, then you’ll love Somebody Feed Phil. The travelogue finds Rosenthal sampling cuisine from around the world with the people who actually make the grub, and the best part is, he’s by no means an expert. The warmth and down-to-Earth qualities that made Everybody Loves Raymond so beloved are on display in Rosenthal’s real personality as he chows-down in Somebody Feed Phil.
Fatherly caught up with Rosenthal to discuss the origins of Everybody Loves Raymond, why families are funny and how writing a fictional sitcom character led to the real-life global adventure of Somebody Feed Phil.
What’s the origin story of you and Ray Romano?
The way the business works is that your agent sends you tapes of comedians how are looking for people to create shows for them. And then, as a writer, they’re sending you out to create shows for them. So, I saw this tape of this Ray Romano fellow; he had six minutes on David Letterman and Letterman said: “there should be a show for that guy!” At that point, I’d written for Coach and I wrote a spec script for Fraiser and they liked my work, and Ray and I met and we hit it off.
How did you decide to make it a sitcom family?
In the beginning, we didn’t know what the show would be. I think he would have been very comfortable doing a Seinfeld-type of show; you know where he and his comedian friends sit in a coffee shop and talk about nothing. But I told him that show was already out there and in the hope of finding something else, I asked him about his wife and he told me about his crazy Italian family and for every crazy story he had, I had a story about my crazy Jewish family! And so, those characters were created out of his real family. But, what I didn’t know about the personalities of Ray’s real family I filled in myself; with parts of my family, my wife and so on.
What is Ray’s parenting philosophy? Is it different from his philosophy as a husband?
Well, character is the result of writing plus actor. So, Ray was not only an actor on the show he was a writer. So, I think it’s a little bit of an exaggeration of Ray’s real personality we would laugh about off stage and then play for laughs on stage. But, there were times when he was clueless and other times where he had this wonderful emotional depth. And we loved to explore that.
But what kind of parent was Ray?
If you look at his primary motivation in the show it was to not make trouble. Just make sure everything was okay. And I think it’s very rare to have a protagonist that just wants to be left alone. But, such is the plight of the modern dad. If you’re at work all day, or if you have a hectic family life; you’re looking for that little spot in the house no one can find you. The funny part of the title “Everybody Loves Raymond” is that it’s a blessing and a curse to him. But, it’s also the point of view of the jealous brother. The brother wishes he was Raymond, but if you look at Raymond, do you really want to be Raymond?
Why are families and marriage these endless mines for comedy material?
Because it’s universal. The biggest compliment we’d get on Everybody Loves Raymond was people saying “you were listening outside my house last night.” Other people were going through the same things. I don’t know these people. I don’t know their life. But it turns out, the more specific something is the more universal it becomes. We get letters from Sri Lanka: “that’s my mother!” I don’t know those people! I was writing my mother!
Is there a connection between Everyone Loves Raymond and Somebody Feed Phil?
There is! it actually started with an episode of Raymond. There’s an episode in Italy and Ray Romano did not want to go. He’d never been to Europe and I said why not and he said he wasn’t really interested in other cultures, specifically his own; Italians. Which I thought was hilarious. So I decided we had to do an episode where we bring him to Italy. And now, we’ve sent him back out into the world as ME! Someone who is very excited about other cultures and traveling. The transformation I saw happening for the character is something that happened to him and it changed me. And now, I get to live that transformation.
Somebody Feed Phil seasons 1 and 2 are streaming on Netflix now.