Paul Reiser is probably best known for creating and starring in the hit sitcom Mad About You, as well as his more recent work in the critically acclaimed Red Oaks and the wildly popular Stranger Things. People sometimes forget, though, that he’s also a standup comic. “I kind of put that on the back burner and neglected to get back right away,” he says. “What’s funny to me is when people say, ‘I didn’t know he was a comedian, too,’ because I think that’s all I do.” He understands the confusion, because of the long break he took away from standup.
Indeed, early in his comedy career, he was sidetracked when he was offered a role in Barry Levinson’s film Diner. Oddly, he didn’t even try out for a role but simply tagged along with a friend who was auditioning. “I had a very curious flow of events in getting the role in Diner,” he says. “That door led to other doors. So there’s something to be said for happenstance.”
In college, Reiser had been studying another art form. “I was actually a music major in piano and composition,” he recalls, “and that was really only because I played the piano. That’s what I loved doing and I was fairly proficient at it so it seemed like that was an easy major. I thought, ‘I’m halfway done.’”
He had no thoughts of being a professional musician, particularly as he became more interested in comedy. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how that world worked, so he took business courses in preparation for a job after graduation. Had he lived anywhere but New York City in the late 1970s, that might have been the end of the Reiser-as-comedian story.
It was around that time that comedy clubs like Caroline’s and Catch a Rising Star were becoming popular. “You’d see on TV these funny comics who came out of those clubs and so, suddenly, there was a goalpost,” Reiser says.
“My freshman year in college I was 18,” he continues, “and I went up on stage that summer, one time only, on audition night.” He figures he was probably not very good. “But when you’re young,” he adds, “you’re insulated by your own stupidity, so I didn’t even know I wasn’t good, but I was silly enough to think ‘oh, I’m not bad at all.’”
What cemented it for him was the reaction people had back at school when he told them what he’d done over the summer. “I would instantly tell everybody I was a comedian,” he laughs. “It was for all of five minutes, but it was such a defining experience and I thought, ‘This feels right.’ So I just continued to go over the summers and when college was out, I stayed there in the comedy world.”
He did standup through the ’80s while also appearing in films like Beverly Hills Cop, Beverly Hills Cop II, Aliens, The Marrying Man and Bye Bye Love. He closed the decade by landing a starring role in the sitcom My Two Dads, which lasted three seasons on NBC. Two years after that, in 1992, Mad About You debuted. Even before the show went on the air, he’d stopped doing standup.
After Mad About You’s seven-year run, Reiser continued to act and develop shows, as well as write three books on family and marriage. It’s been only in the past few years that he’s returned to standup.
“What was really interesting to me was, it felt exactly the same as it did when I was 17,” he notes, “and here it is 34 years later.” And while it was all very familiar, he still felt a bit rusty.
“If you’re a basketball player and take a couple years off, you know how to do it, but the muscles are not all firing. It took me a good year just to get the muscle back and know how to perform and feel comfortable enough to go out and sell tickets and ask people to come to see me.”
After all these years, his comedy style has remained unchanged. “I’m often struck by how similar the through line is,” he says. “I circle back and realize I did an early version of this 30 years ago. This is just a newer version. The things I’m interested in and drawn to have remained the same.”
“I was doing standup six or seven years before I started talking about my relationships,” he adds. “My girlfriend at the time had just moved out to L.A. and I noticed my life was suddenly different. I started talking about that and the bits became much better and deeper.”
Apparently, age has been a friend in that regard. “For all the aggravating things about getting older, at least you know yourself better.”
Another difference Paul Reiser has noticed this time around is that he’s never been more comfortable on stage. “When I went back out on the road after all those years, it was a different point in my life,” he says, “and audiences knew me. It’s was like getting together with old friends, because the audiences largely grew up on Mad About You. It just feels a lot more organic and—as much as I loved doing it the first time around—it’s even more fun this time.”