Profile: Paul Reiser ’77
“I know what really good comedy should sound like now. I’m tougher on myself.”
Paul Reiser is working on a standup act as a way of returning to his roots.
Paul Reiser ’77 remembers falling in love with performing. He was in a Hinman Little Theater production of Guys and Dolls and spent every day of the weeklong run looking at his watch, counting down the minutes until show time.
“It was a new feeling to me, I never had that,” he says. “It really impacted me. That is a specific feeling I wasn’t getting anywhere else. So you had this big test at 3 o’clock or the girl that you wanted to talk to wasn’t calling you back, it was like, ‘but you know what, I got this big show at 8 o’clock, and that’s going to be fun.’”
That summer, Reiser’s new-found passion took him to New York City, where he took a few turns onstage at some comedy clubs. When he returned to Binghamton in the fall, he thought it was funny to say that he worked as a comedian, even if he was stretching the definition of “work.” The next summer he tried it again. After graduation, he dove in and worked the clubs full time.
His timing was perfect. Comedy clubs were springing up all over. A producer could take a shining to a comic, put him on The Tonight Show and launch a career overnight. Reiser soon gained the attention of people in the industry, landing parts in Barry Levinson’s 1982 Diner, where he performed a set onscreen, and Beverly Hills Cop a year later. Next he was on Late Night with David Letterman and had a role in a movie, playing Burke in James Cameron’s Aliens. In 1987, he starred in his first sitcom, My Two Dads. His biggest success to date came in 1992, when he created and starred in the television sitcom Mad About You with Helen Hunt. Reiser had become a household name, an author of two bestsellers, a husband and the father of two children.
Although Reiser loved every minute of his career, when he got back to developing a standup act a few months ago, he thought about his time at Hinman Little Theater and had an epiphany. (Disclaimer: Paul Reiser does not have an act, he’s just working on one.)
“I hadn’t had that feeling until I recently started doing standup again,” he says. “I suddenly looked at my watch and went, ‘I want to try that new joke out.’ It’s noon. I got eight more hours. I haven’t felt that in years. It’s a very specific thing that confirms that when something feels right, it’s right.”
In the years since Mad About You, Reiser has written a few jokes for occasional appearances on talk shows or when he’s emceed events, but that’s very different from developing an act, which is more personal and requires working a room and refining the same jokes over and over until they’re perfect.
“It really felt fun,” he says. “It was really like using parts of your brain anew. It’s not like riding your bike. Four, five, six times up and I’d suddenly feel parts of the brain kick in, and I’d go, ‘oh yes, that skill’ — like changing subjects at will or digging deeper or making associations or talking to an audience.”
Reiser says doing standup again after 35 years has been interesting because he’s a much different person now. Then he was a smart-alec teenager who would say stuff and think, “gee, I hope this is funny.” But now he’s a husband, a father and a professional.
“I have a much more demanding standard,” he says. “I know what really good comedy should sound like now. I’m tougher on myself. I wouldn’t do stuff that would get me a laugh in ’78 because that’s not what I want to be doing now because it might have been too shallow or too stupid or whatever.”
He’s more of a student of comedy now, too. In his car, Reiser listens to comedy shows on satellite radio, enjoying a joke’s construction. Even if comics aren’t to his taste, he pays attention to mechanics and fine points, appreciating how they succeed, and fail, in making the audience laugh.
One of the greatest comedy craftsmen is Bill Cosby. He’s 74 and still performs 2-hour-plus shows three or four times a week, sometimes twice in one day. Reiser saw Cosby’s show about five years ago, and it both inspired and intimidated Reiser.
“He was just brilliant,” Reiser says. “I sent him a note that said, ‘Watching you work for two hours-plus, I had two thoughts: one was I can’t wait to go do standup again because that just looked so exciting. And the other thought was I’m never doing standup again because I’m never going to be that good.’ I felt both those things simultaneously. ‘Man that’s exciting,’ and ‘Man that’s a long way to go.’ But you know how you do that? Do it every day for 60 years. That’s how you become Bill Cosby.”
Who knows, with a little more practice, this young guy named Paul Reiser might make a name for himself as a comedian.