“I’d like to think that the deepest connection we can have is relatability and a sense of humor, which I think is our most underrated value as human beings.”
Phil Rosenthal, creator, writer, and executive producer of Everybody Loves Raymond and Somebody Feed Phil; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, October 20, 2016.
On being the son of German immigrants
My parents were born in Germany. My grandfather was a tailor, and they lived in Berlin, and Kristallnacht happened. Now they were lucky, a lot of Jewish families didn’t get out of Berlin, but my father’s father had some connection to America. A lot of people couldn’t get out, including my mother’s family. They were in a camp. My grandfather on my mother’s side was put into the worst of the worst camps – Auschwitz-Birkenau. He stayed alive because he invented things that were useful to the Nazis like lice powder and bug spray and things like this, so he became an asset. My grandmother and mother were put in a separate camp in France. When the war ended, my mother and grandmother got out, and they wired to see if my grandfather was still alive, my mother’s father. He was and they said, “We have family in America, let’s go to America.” “Nope,” he says. “My job is here, in Berlin. I have to do my work.” And then he said: “Come back to Germany.” And they’re like, “Are you crazy? We’re not, absolutely not.”
They took a boat and were turned away; many boats were turned away. They lived in Cuba for two years. My mother said it was the happiest time of her life. But the worst time of her life was the boat because, on the boat, she got deathly ill. Almost didn’t survive. But my grandfather stayed in Germany. He was a politician. He started the restitution program, which gives back money from the German government to German Jews, all over the world, to this day, monthly checks if your business was stolen by the Nazis. That was my grandfather. I’m named after him. His name was Philipp Auerbach. Eventually my mother was able to move with her mom to Washington Heights in Manhattan and that’s where a lot of German Jews settled. They call that “Frankfurt on the Hudson.” My dad already lived there. So they met and started dating.
Being the son of German immigrants, especially immigrants who went through something so unusual and terrible, it colored the experience. What do I mean? Pop culture was almost unheard of in my house. My mother was an opera fan, a ballet fan. My father liked a certain type of old-school Jewish comedy. In fact, he dabbled in it a little bit in the Catskills and stuff. So maybe that’s where I got a sense of humor. My mother was also very funny. But there were things that they just didn’t understand about American culture.
“I watched a lot of TV to an abnormal extent”
I was in love with pop culture, as everyone was. I loved the Monkees and the Beatles. I watched a lot of TV to an abnormal extent like, like a crazy amount. I watched TV more than any other activity in my life, including sleeping. I’m talking about 10 to 12 hours a day. And I would tell my parents, as I got older, “I’m learning.” But it sounded like baloney to me even as I was saying it, because it’s all I really wanted to do. This TV was my friend, and when I went outside a lot of times I was picked on. The only way I could make friends was to make people laugh. And I learned how to do that from my dad, my mom to an extent, and television.
When you’re a kid you don’t know there’s writing, directing, producing. You just see the funny guys, and if you’re like me you just want to do that. But it’s funny, my parents and I couldn’t even really talk about the Beatles or big giant cultural things. They weren’t interested. I was obsessed with Johnny Carson. I remember as a little kid, my parents had a small black-and-white portable Sony television, and I would sneak that into my room and under the covers. I have to turn the brightness all the way down. I have to turn the sound all the way down. I can barely hear. I could barely see it because I don’t want to get caught. If I get caught they will take the TV out of my room. They want me to sleep, so I do well in school, which I had no interest in whatsoever. This was my school. It’s funny, at one point when I was a teenager, and they saw me just sitting on the couch watching TV, they said, “What are you going to do, get a job watching television?” So when I finally started working in television, I sent them a giant television, the biggest one I can find, with a note on it that says, “Ha, ha.”
“The point is laughing together”
I’d like to think that the deepest connection we can have is relatability and a sense of humor, which I think is our most underrated value as human beings. I think we choose our friends based on a compatible sense of humor. Not necessarily the same sense of humor. The point is laughing together. I go one step further. I think that who we marry is based on a sense of humor, because all the other things in a marriage lessen over time. But if you can be 90 and still laughing with your partner, you win. For me, it has always been the ultimate connection to human beings.
I was always interested in the comedy of inclusion. Everybody Loves Raymond is a family, that for all intents and purposes is at each other a lot, but they’re also laughing a lot. They share jokes, and what kind of set that show apart maybe in the ’90s when it premiered, was that it was a family and, yes, they were bickering, but they were together.
“Any of us can be creators now”
I tell my son who just graduated from college, “Make your movie! Make your show! Do it!” You have the tools to do it. Way easier than 30 years ago obviously, right? But because it’s so accessible, it now has to be extra good to cut through all the other millions of people who can do the exact same thing. Any of us can be creators now. Any of us could always say that we were actors; we can walk in a room and say, “I’m an actor.” Any of us can be writers, right? We couldn’t be filmmakers necessarily, unless we got our hands on the technological equipment and now we all have that. So it’s a great equalizer.
“Sometimes real life is funny enough”
I think the public still is somewhat discerning, not always toward the best stuff but to the stuff they’re interested in. We just can’t help what they’re interested in. I always like to say, like when we put Raymond on the air, they were, “What’s the hook? What’s the gimmick?” I would say the gimmick is we’re going to be half decent. This family lives across the street from his parents. Nobody’s jumping up and down at CBS saying, “Oh my God, what a sexy idea. We have to do that show!” However, that’s the show that runs nine years because there’s an infinite number of stories, because there’s an infinite number of things that happen to us in real life.
I happen to think certain things are funny and so I’m going to put them in the show. Here’s an example: I gave my parents – I thought I was being nice for the holidays – a gift of the fruit of the month, and my mother called me as if I had sent her a box of heads from a murderer. “There’s so many pears. How am I going to eat all these pears? I can’t talk anymore there’s too much fruit in the house.” Okay, so I put that in the script, this actual call that I got, thinking that you would see it and say “Look at how crazy Ray’s parents are,” right? But what I didn’t realize was your parents are crazy too. I hit on some truth that I never thought about, which was you can’t give your parents a gift without it blowing up in your face. I still get letters to this day saying that they had the same experience giving their parents a gift. I thought this was an illustration of crazy funny. Had no idea it would be relatable and that’s the jackpot. I learned through chance. I didn’t know until it happened. Once it happened I would be stupid not to follow that road, right? It can’t work on every show, but for this show that’s how it worked. Because sometimes the real life is funny enough.
“There’s a celebration of humanity in our best pop culture”
Think about Singing in the Rain, think about The Wizard of Oz, and think about our magical movies that captured the world’s attention for good reason. These are beautiful stories at their best. We have always valued it, our pop culture, and we do it very, very well. Jazz, right? These are gifts to not just us but to the world. I mean go to France and they’re insane over American jazz. In Russia, in times where it hasn’t been so good, people would give you everything they had for a pair of American jeans, you know? It was that this is American culture and our way of selling it and making it commercial. I don’t think anybody beats us at that, right? There’s a celebration of humanity in our best pop culture. That I think is universal.
“Food and humor are the ways to connect with other people”
I have great hopes for this food and travel show beyond what I’ve already done. And I have a goal in mind, which is to be an ambassador for us and to get Americans to step outside their own little worlds. Do you know that two-thirds of Americans don’t have a passport? That’s including everybody who came here with a passport. So wouldn’t the world be a little bit better if we all could experience some of someone else’s experience? That’s the whole point of the show. Food and humor are the ways to connect with other people. So that’s, you know, we connect over food in the most primal way and then one step closer to, you know, being friends is laughing. So that’s food and humor.
On the Die Hard costume and the Seinfeld puffy shirt
This is an iconic thing because it embodies action, adventure, movies that we love. Die Hard is one of the best action movies ever made. Why? Because the script, it’s so good. Anybody can blow stuff up, but if it has a story attached to it with meaning, and the stakes are high, and you care about the characters, and they make you laugh even at certain moments, they’re fully rounded characters, and so we care more. It’s the caring that makes the action movie better.
This is iconic, the puffy shirt, because it’s just a very funny thing in a sitcom that turns out to be a real thing…again relatable. Everyone has had that piece of clothing that makes them look like an idiot and they thought maybe they would look good in it. I remember in 1973 when I was thirteen I had a like, you know, one of these fringe vests like that the hippies wore, except it was vinyl, and my grandmother made it and gave it to me. And I made the mistake of wearing it to school. It wasn’t very good-looking. So I relate to the puffy shirt.