by Jane Roser
When walking into Macy’s to buy a pair of socks helps catapult your career, fate takes on a whole new meaning. Actor/comedian Paul Reiser’s friend was dropping off a photo at a casting office for Diner, the classic coming-of-age film that would make Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin and Mickey Rourke household names. Reiser accompanied him and afterwards stopped into a nearby Macy’s to buy socks where he ran into casting director Ellen Chenoweth; she encouraged him to return the next day and audition.
“When I walked out I thought, well this will be a pretty funny story if I end up getting this gig and I got the socks and the movie,” laughs Reiser. “It was a lucky break and a really cool project. To this day people, mostly men, tell me that movie was an important part of their lives and 35 years later it still hold up.”
Reiser’s goal was always to be a comedian and he says the film was an interesting distraction which opened up a lot of doors. Diner led to, among other things, Beverly Hills Cop, Aliens, One Night At McCool’s and the Golden Globe/Emmy/SAG award winning TV show Mad About You which Reiser co-created and starred in alongside Helen Hunt.
The first time I remember seeing Reiser onscreen was when he guest starred on an episode of Remington Steele in 1982 called “A Good Night’s Steele”; Reiser played a patient at a sleep disorder clinic and his performance was memorable and hilarious. “Oh my goodness,” Reiser chuckles when I mention this, “I don’t think I’ve seen it since the first time [it aired]. Well, that’s a first. I don’t think anybody’s ever come up and said they’d seen that.
“It’s kind of ironic that I ended up not doing what I set out to do for so long. It was a good 20 years before I got back into doing stand-up, which was about three years ago. I’d wanted to get back into it, but for various reasons kept putting it off and it’s been really fun, it’s what I love doing, there’s an immediate joy and response to it.”
Keeping busy with the FX series Married and a new Amazon Prime show called Red Oaks, Reiser is also a true Renaissance man having written the screenplay for 2005’s The Thing About My Folks, three bestselling books and the theme song (with Don Was) for Mad About You. “I’ve always played piano,” says Reiser, “but I’ve never really mixed it in with anything else, it’s always just been sort of a fun hobby (Reiser has a degree in music and composition from State University of New York at Binghampton). I did an album a few years ago with this great singer-songwriter Julia Fordham; we decided to write a song, then two, then three…we recorded them, which wasn’t planned. I was never one of these guys who secretly wanted to become a rock and roll star; the stuff I write is really sad. I originally wanted to call the album Why So Sad?– I write a lot of music, but I’m a sucker for a heartbreak.”
Following his role as Miles Teller’s father in the Academy Award winning film Whiplash, Reiser next will star as a doctor in the upcoming Will Smith film Concussion, then 6 Miranda Drive with Kevin Bacon and Devil in the Deep Blue Sea with Jason Sudeikis. Reiser is a master at playing both comedic and dramatic role and tells me that they’re not so different from each other, you just play the reality. “But there’s certainly a different vibe when you’re doing a comedy. Some of my favorite actors are equally effective in drama and comedy, you can’t really pinpoint what it is they’re doing differently; you think of someone like Jack Lemmon or Tom Hanks and guys who straddle that world always appeal to me, they’re all using the same tools.”
Near the end of Whiplash, there’s a scene where Teller’s character is being publicly humiliated by his music teacher. Reiser’s character runs backstage and the look on his face when he sees his son is so heartbreaking, no words are needed to convey the pain of that moment. “It was a very moving script,” says Reiser, “the father didn’t have a lot of screen time, but every time you saw him, you knew what he was feeling. I have two boys myself, so it was very easy to tap into that. You realize as a parent there’s only so much you can do to guide them and protect them. You have to let go and that likely may mean they’ll do something you disapprove of and to watch his son, whom he obviously loves, fall under the sway and chase some ghost to satisfy his teacher who is clearly psychotic, is painful. It was a very elegantly written scene, but every parent knows that look and that feeling of ‘I can’t get in there and help them’. It was a powerful movie, for sure.”
Reiser’s new Kindle book How To Get To Carnegie Hall recalls encounters with the likes of Neil Simon, Carol Burnett and Carl Reiner. Not having enough material for a full printed book, this was the perfect medium for Reiser to share memories of his idols. “I was talking to someone and realized how many of my heroes I actually got to meet. I’ve been very fortunate, one of the greatest things about having some success is, if you’re lucky, you’ll cross paths with the very people who inspired you to do this. For me, I can cross almost all of them off my list. I got to work with Woody Allen and Mel Brooks and Carol Burnett; the stories are all based on very small moments and observations, but the through line of it all was watching their diligence and level of care. They got to be where they are, partly, because of their work ethic. If I took anything away from it all, it was appreciating their commitment to better themselves.”
Getting back into stand-up comedy was a slow process, Reiser kept avoiding it, but after performing at a charity show recently, he left the stage thinking he’d forgotten how much he missed and enjoyed it. “So, I just went back really the same way I’d started when I was 19, I’d go to comedy clubs here, maybe on a Tuesday night and do five minutes, then the next week it might be six minutes; it helps to get your instincts back.”
It took about a year before he felt he could go out and sell tickets. “I do it at a pretty reasonable pace, like every other weekend and all over the place, there’s no rhyme or reason, I just go out and then go home. I tell my wife and kids if I didn’t have them, I’d have no act, so I gotta get home and write this stuff. In the show I talk about my marriage and having teenagers and what I find is that no matter where I go, people are tuning into it. They say, ‘hey, we’re going through the same thing, man.’ People like to have company.”
Paul Reiser will be at the ArtsQuest Center at Steelstacks in Bethlehem, PA November 20th, The Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville November 21st and The Howard Theatre in Washington, DC on February 20th.