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Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal on the beauty of self-discipline

Why self-imposed standards are the best thing a creative project can have.

2015 Summer TCA Tour - Day 6
Phil Rosenthal imagines his favorite sandwich, probably.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“I’m blessed or cursed with the worst poker face in history,” Phil Rosenthal says, when I ask what makes him such a great host for a food show. “You can tell what I’m thinking. It reads all over me. I could never lie very well to my parents. They always knew. Some people have that face. I guess I have that face. If people laugh, if they get enjoyment, if they say, ‘Oh, I can taste it, because of the way that your face is tasting it,’ that’s great! I’m happy to help.”

Rosenthal is one of my favorite people to talk to in all of the entertainment industry because he combines true showbiz savvy with a real affection for making people laugh that reminds me of my funniest uncles growing up. So I was thrilled to have him join me for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting.

Rosenthal could have easily rested on his laurels from Everybody Loves Raymond, the classic comedy he created (based on the comedy of Ray Romano), which ran for nine seasons on CBS, from 1996 to 2005. The show stood as a beautiful example of the family sitcom at a time when it seemed to be on its last legs, and many members of its cast (four of whom won Emmys for their performances) and most of its writers have found huge success elsewhere since it went off the air.

But in more recent years, Rosenthal has set his sights on making a show about two of his favorite things in the world: travel and food. In Somebody Feed Phil, whose newest season debuts Friday, January 12, on Netflix, he visits the world’s best food cities and devours anything and everything he can find, both good and bad, and then his face lights up with everything he’s tasting in that moment. (The show was originally known as I’ll Have What Phil’s Having and produced for PBS. That season is also available on Netflix.)

Because Rosenthal has worked both within the very strict confines of network television, and outside them, in the much looser world of streaming, I wanted to know whether he prefers the former or the latter. But instead of choosing one over the other, he answered my question with some of the best writing advice I’ve heard: It’s not what your superiors tell you you can get away with that matters; what matters is that you set your own standards for yourself.

I’ll let him explain:

I love self-imposed discipline. What do I mean? On CBS, even from 1996 to 2005, when we were on, we actually got some notes, “Could you be a little hipper and edgier? Could you be a little hotter and sexier?” I’m, like, “Yeah, that’s Ray and me. Hotter and sexier. You got the right guys for this.”

I felt like we could have been way more suggestive in our language. We could have said words that you hear all the time now in sitcoms. Number one, I thought it was easy. So did my crew and my staff and my writers, who I’d be nothing without. So did Ray. We knew that we could suggest something — what was the cleverest way to do it? What was the way that the adult would get it, and the kid wouldn’t? Let’s aim over the kids’ heads, so that the family can watch together, and so that grandma isn’t offended.

That was a conscious choice. There’s a show we did about a sculpture. [Season six episode “Marie’s Sculpture,” for which writer Jennifer Crittenden received an Emmy nomination.] Marie makes a sculpture. It looks like a woman’s part of the anatomy. We could have said the word for that. But what if it was almost like a comedic challenge? What if we never had to say it? To me, the show is funnier for it.

On Netflix, they say “around an hour.” But they say if it’s 15 minutes short, that’s okay. If it’s 15 minutes long, that’s okay. ... It literally doesn’t matter to them. So, self-imposed. I think we should be under an hour. I think maybe there will be exceptions, where there’s so much great stuff, we have to be over an hour. But I’m saying as good as the show is now, I’m looking at cuts. What can we cut to get it under an hour? I think that’s important.

You want to be as tight and good as possible, because you can become indulgent and say, “Oh, yes, just me eating is fascinating to watch.” No! It’s not. There has to be more to it than that. If it was just me eating, I think you’d get bored. There has to be more. It has to be funny. It has to be entertaining. It has to be beautiful. I want it to be — a very modest goal — the most entertaining food and travel show in the world. That’s my goal. I’m going for it. How many shots do you get?

On Raymond, I felt, “How many shots do we get?” It has to be good! I want to make it good for us, not because of some ratings or something. We live and die by our work. Your name is on it. At the end of the day, you have this DVD, this tape, of your show. You want to be able to show it to people later? You want your kids to be able to show it to their friends?

That’s what’s in the back of our heads. I used to tell people, “Yeah, I’m doing Everybody Loves Raymond for CBS, but in the back of my mind, it’s for Nick at Nite.” And guess what? With that goal in mind, it’s now on TV Land. It lasted because we decided to make something that might be worthy of lasting. It’s not just, “Let’s get those ratings right now.” We’ll have a sexy thing and make a sexy joke and be a little vulgar even. That’ll get attention. Yeah, you’ll win the battle, but you lose the war.

Listen to the full episode to hear more from Rosenthal about producing a show that films all over the world, creating timeless television, and what shows are making him laugh now.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.