By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Actor, author and comedian Paul Reiser is calling from Hollywood, which isn't surprising until he adds it's the one in Florida.
"I like to be in the same state when I talk to somebody," he says. "It's an expensive hobby but you know what? Darned if it doesn't make the interviews go better."
Obviously, 20 years away from standup comedy hasn't dulled Reiser's wit. He stopped around the time his sitcom Mad About You debuted, picking up a microphone only for emcee gigs at charity events. One night the laughs were so gratifying that Reiser told himself: "I must be crazy to not be doing this."
So, he started doing it again, "getting that muscle back" first by dropping into comedy clubs and now with a full-fledged tour. "It's embarrassing how much fun I'm having," Reiser says, and for a few minutes on the phone the feeling is mutual.
Reiser, 55, chats about comedy's elusive nature, returning to standup, and his Mad About You co-star Helen Hunt's acclaimed performance in The Sessions, in these interview excerpts:
Twenty years later, what's it like to be back on stage again?
Somebody actually said to me: It's like riding a bike. I said: No, it's like pushing a bike uphill with your eye. There's a bike involved somehow. Certainly being 55 is different. You're talking from a more experienced perspective. You're married longer, you've seen more kids, you've lived a life. You realize how dumb most of it is.
I'll tell you what's really been nice is that audiences know me and it's like picking up the conversation, like a good friend you call every couple of months. You just hit the ground running.
What did you think of The Sessions and Helen's performance?
It's a very tricky movie to make, I would think, so intimate, so potentially melodramatic but it had such a great, light touch. And it was a great, great role for her.
Helen spends of lot of time in the movie with her clothes off. Did she ever show up naked on the set of Mad About You?
All the time. She would come in like that and we would have to persuade her to put on a jacket. We're like: Don't show up nude. After a couple of years she got the hang of it.
Would doing nude scenes be a good career move for you?
I'll be honest with you. I wake up every morning and I stand naked by the phone, hoping. In case somebody calls, I'm already in wardrobe. So far that phone call has not come in. But I'm ready and I'm doing sit-ups, just in case it happens.
Why are you still mad about standup comedy?
It's such a work in progress. You're up there every night and this stuff is either funny and engaging or it's not. Every night you're fine tuning, trying to get it right and that's elusive.
I did a play (Writer's Block) almost 10 years ago with Woody Allen directing. He'd come to me after a preview and be mystified: "I don't understand why that line didn't get a laugh tonight because it got a laugh yesterday." And I'm like: Are you kidding me? Is this news to you? You've done comedy. It's slippery. That was a pivotal moment for me, very comforting. Okay, if Woody Allen's still chasing that holy grail of why something is funny once and not the second time, it's nice to know I'm not alone.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.