Paul Reiser on his Sundance film and returning to standup after twenty years
To anyone who grew up watching too much basic cable in the '80s and '90s, the sight of Paul Reiser cracking wise is comfortingly familiar. Whether on contemporary classics like Aliens and Diner or the long-running and widely syndicated sitcom Mad About You, chances are good that Reiser's face is on a television somewhere at this exact moment.
Not one to rest on his considerable laurels, however, Reiser is currently in the midst of a mid-career renaissance, appearing in several upcoming movies and honing his standup act in clubs across the country. In town this weekend to headline Comedy Works' South club, Reiser talked with Westword about his role in the Sundance Film Festival smash Whiplash, the lasting influence of Aliens, and his experience returning to the stage after a twenty-year hiatus from standup.
Westword: So you've had a pretty busy year. You were in the movie Whiplash, which has been getting great reviews so far.
Paul Reiser: Have you heard about that? It was the opening night screening at Sundance Film Festival.
It won an award too, right?
Yeah it was the winner of the audience and grand jury award. I think it comes out in theaters in October; some time in the fall. It almost plays like a thriller, but it's a really small movie. It's about this young kid and his abusive teacher. Miles Teller plays the kid and I play his father. He gets into this very elite music school and his dream is to become a jazz drummer. J.K. Simmons plays the teacher and he's powerfully abusive and sly, and my role as a father --and I have kids-- is to protect those kids from bad choices. But when they're a certain age, there's very little you can do. So it's a torturous thing, watching him slide further and further away from sanity. It really is a small movie, it was made for probably like a million bucks or something. We watched it in a theater with 1,200 people and it was like they were watching The Exorcist --people were gripping their chairs. Seeing that was really cool. We've had a great response. It also played at Cannes [Director's Fortnight].
What's the movie you have coming out this summer called?
It's called Life After Beth. It's coming out in August. This one is more of a comedy. It's a zombie romantic comedy starring Aubrey Plaza. It's really funny but really sweet. I play the dad in that one too. It's funny, once you reach a certain age, you're the dad.
Lots of dad roles out there. You did write a whole series of books about parenting, though.
Yeah, and I got more comin'. Yeah, so those were fun. I just finished shooting a movie yesterday with my friend Kevin Bacon called 6 Miranda Drive. Its been a fun year. I did a season of a show called Married that's premiering on FX in July. I guest-starred in five episodes. So, I've been getting to do exactly what I enjoy doing, which is getting out and doing standup as much as I can. I like to be home a lot too, so I'm not on the road all the time. And in the middle, I've been getting to do all these fun projects. It's nice to be able to do both. When I started doing standup 30 years ago, that wasn't how it was. Back then, standup was my "real job" and any movie or TV roles that came along were sort of icing on the cake. Now, it feels like that again too, only after not having done standup for over 20 years.
Oh, wow. 20 years?
I didn't mean to! I didn't decide to stop doing it, but when Mad About You started in 1992 I got kinda busy. It took over everything. Then, when it was over, I was happy to just stay put. One day I looked up and realized "gosh, it's been a lot of years." I decided to just jump in. I called up the local comedy club and asked if I could come by to work on material. After about a year of doing that I said, "alright, now let's go out and perform." I was actually the same club in Denver about a year ago.
At the south Comedy Works?
Yeah, it's a great club. It's really beautiful. One of the nicest clubs I've been in. This time, I've been doing clubs, theaters, casinos, doing all different kinds of venues. Comedy Works is actually one of the finest comedy clubs in the country. It's beautifully run, it feels like a theater but still has the nice intimacy of a club. So I'm looking forward to coming back and seeing what Colorado is like in the summer.
Can you talk about the process of getting back into standup a bit more? That sounds pretty daunting after so long away from the mic.
Yeah, you know, it was something I always said I was going to do and I just kept postponing it. I didn't want to dig up my old act and dust the cobwebs off of it, I wanted to start fresh. It's sort of like when I was 17 and I did comedy for the first time. It was the same thing, where you take out a big empty legal pad and a pen and think "what do I want to say?" It was daunting. But I had a couple of little ideas that I thought were funny. The only time I had performed was periodically emceeing charity events, where I'd go up a do a couple minutes. I had a couple of starting points and then I just jumped in. I always tell younger comics "there is no shortcut. Just get onstage and do it." So I went up with the little bits that I had, and I started developing them. I started remembering the old skills that I had. The skills of writing and performing. Then you just get up and do and suddenly, your five minutes becomes ten minutes, and then, look at that, you got 15 minutes. I remember each minute was painstaking. When I finally did 20 minutes, I couldn't believe. I'd talk to guys who'd just done an hour and I'd say "an hour? That's inconceivable!" Last week, I went up and did two hours, so, ok, I guess it does come back. It's really nothing but time and practice. There's a different feeling now. It's even better than I remember it the first time.
What's the difference?
Well, first of all, being in your 50s you're a little more confident and focused, you know what makes you laugh.
You know who you are by now.
Exactly. The audience knows me. So if they show up, it's like getting together with old friends. I have 30 years of history with these people, whether they watched the shows, read the books or seen me here and there on talk shows: they know me. I've been pretty consistent. I've been pretty much the same person. I'm not any different than I am on Mad About You by design, because that show came out of my standup. So there's been a through-line. I had no great plan getting back, it was just a matter of getting the muscle up. Now, if I miss a week or two, I have to take a startup gig to get going again.
It's interesting that the drive to get onstage never went away.
Yeah, it was sort of suppressed, but it was always there. There are lots of comics who never intended to be comics. They do standup as sort of a launch pad. Their whole act is an audition. The minute they get a TV show they say "That's I'm done with that."
No more bombing, no more perpetual rejection?
For me, it was never like that. I always loved the art form. I love watching standup. It was strange that I hadn't done it. I had friends --Jay Leno is a buddy and every time I saw him he'd ask "why aren't you getting up there?" So it was just like anything else, I just decided: it's time. A lot of big decisions in my life were made that way, by realizing that it's never going to become more clear, you're not going to get a sign. I remember my wife and I had been together for five years and thought about when we were going to get married. How about now? When should we have kid? Nobody tells you when it's the proper time. If you want to swim, you've got to get wet, you've got to get through the first few minutes of thinking "Jesus, the water is cold." So I jumped in, and I'm loving it. I look forward to getting out on the weekends.
Have comedy audiences changed at all in the past 20 years?
It doesn't seem like it to me, no. I don't think so. As much as the world has changed and technology has changed, standup doesn't change. It's so low-tech that it's impervious to technological advances. It's as human as you get, a person just standing and talking. We've been doing it since we were cavemen. People who go out to see comedy are the same people who've always gone out to see comedy. If anything, it seems that in a world where everybody's got their thumbs moving and a screen in their face, there's something refreshingly simple about the human contact that is standup. We're sitting in a small club and this guy's talking to us. For an hour and a half, we don't have our faces buried, we're actually in contact with another human being. It's refreshing.
It's like a pickup basketball game. You don't need much equipment, just a court, a ball, and some people.
Exactly. That's a good analogy.
Did your notoriety help you get back into standup or create a burden of expectations?
Did it help? Yes and no. When I came back in, people would always be very excited when I got introduced. "Wow, we haven't seen this guy in a while!" So there's a nice little charge of energy right at the top. That lasts about 12 seconds. Then you have to do what everybody else does, which is entertain. I could also argue that it's a distraction. "Oh, why is he here? Is he filming this?" It's certainly very encouraging to come in and feel welcome. I was really coming in under the radar too. I live a pretty quiet life, and I wasn't doing a bunch of movies at the time and I certainly wasn't on TV. So there was also a thing of "Oh, I haven't thought about this guy in years. What's he been doing?" So there's a nice boost, but there's also scrutiny. "Now that we know you, what do you have to say?" I realized I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't know what I was building towards. It's just about getting better at this particular skill. It's like playing the piano or the violin. You're not necessarily planning on selling out a stadium, but you work everyday, and your fingers get a little faster and it sounds a little better. That's what it's about. For me, every weekend I go out, it's fun and I get a little better. I'm really having a great time going wherever it is I'm going.
So, you've had a really diverse filmography? Did you train as an actor at all, because you often get cast in roles that most comics couldn't pull off?
Not formal, but like everyone else out here, I took acting classes. There are skills and pointers that people can teach you, but mostly again, you learn by practicing. I've been lucky too. I remember when Aliens came about I read the script and it was fantastic. I though "wow, this is not the kind of film that I'm going to generally be offered." It was such a wonderful, once in a lifetime --sorry, we just had the 30 year reunion for the cast at a science fiction comic-con in Calgary [Con-Version] and most of us hadn't seen each other. One evening, we did a panel in a hockey arena with like 3 or 4 thousand people in there asking us questions. It was amazing to me how important this movie was to so many people. There's an army out there of people who live and breathe Alien, people have asked me to sign stuff with lines from the movie that I don't even remember. They know things I don't know. It was cool to be in something that resonated with so many people.
But you had to know it'd be huge when you took the part.
Well, yeah. I knew it was going to be a great movie, and it looked like a big, popcorn hit. But I would not have guessed that it would have the resonance it's had for 30 years.
There's a lot of iconic imagery from that movie though.
Sure. A lot of the movies that came afterwards sort of lifted from it.
Shows begin at 7:15 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. both nights. Tickets cost $30 and are available from the Comedy Works website.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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