In the end, everybody still loved Raymond, but Raymond had nothing left to say.
After nine years and 210 episodes, the final episode of the CBS comedy Everybody Loves Raymond airs tonight at 9, after a one-hour retrospective.
"We were out of ideas," creator Phil Rosenthal said, joining star Ray Romano to talk with reporters by telephone. "We stopped when the stories stopped."
Rosenthal said he wrote the finale more than two years ago, when he thought the show might be winding down, and he held on to it. The episode is good, he promised. It's not an afterthought. It's closure.
When the well went dry this year, when even with strong ratings the writers felt there was nowhere else to go with the characters, Rosenthal said he pulled out the last episode.
And make no mistake, the well is absolutely dry, he said.
CBS wanted two more episodes to fill out the spring, Rosenthal said. But there was nothing left, no topics unexplored, and nothing Rosenthal and Romano said they could think of for the fictional Barone family to argue about. The show leaves as the highest rated comedy on television, and there are no immediate plans for spinoffs.
"We could have patched together two more episodes, but it wouldn't have been worth it," Romano said.
The network didn't send an advance copy of Monday's finale to critics. And Rosenthal wouldn't reveal anything.
Romano, 47, said the TV family has grown close. There were tears after the final episode taped.
But things weren't always so comfortable. In the beginning, Romano said there was uncertainty, and no one knew when it debuted in 1996 if the show would make it through the first season. Romano said he was uneasy with the original Friday night slot, and equally uncertain about the title.
"I still wish we could go back in time and change it," he said. "It just breeds resentment and contempt to say "You're going to love this guy.' "
It arose from a conversation where Romano described his real family to Rosenthal.
"The title comes from my brother, when he used to compare my life to his, he'd say, "Oh, everybody loves Raymond,' " Romano said. "Phil used it as a working title, and I said "Don't!' and he said "We'll change it.' And he didn't."
In defense, Rosenthal said he offered Romano a chance to offer something better. The best he presented was Um, Raymond.
When the show moved to Monday nights in 1997, Romano said he was even more apprehensive.
"I couldn't figure out who was going to watch," Romano said. "The men were going to watch Monday Night Football, and the women, and some gay men, were going to go to Ally McBeal. I really thought this spelled trouble. I like Monday Night Football. I didn't even watch my own show."
Surprise. It was a hit, rising first to the 33rd spot in the Nielsen ratings, and eventually to a regular place in the top 10. Nielsen Media Research lists it as this season's 10th-most watched show.
Everybody Loves Raymond chronicles the Barone family _ Ray (Romano), a New York sports writer; wife Debra (Patricia Heaton); brother Robert (Brad Garrett); mom Marie (Doris Roberts) and dad Frank (Peter Boyle).
Ray and Debra bicker. Marie and Debra bicker. Robert and Frank bicker. Ray and Robert bicker.
But underneath, they love each other, in a passive-aggressive sort of way. Honest.
(An all-time great moment in passive-aggressive warfare came in an episode where the couple returns from a trip and leaves the luggage on the stairs, each figuring the other has the duty to haul it to the bedroom. The luggage sits for a week while both pretend not to notice.)
But fans of the show could see some tension under the weekly episodes this past season. There was a harder edge. Debra's jabs dug a little deeper. Ray seemed a little more timid.
Rosenthal said the mood was nothing intentional, but as the show evolved, writers got to know each other and as in any relationship, became a little more comfortable with each other, and a little more blunt.
"That's marriage," Rosenthal said. "I don't know if anger is the right word . . . a certain exasperated (tone), or frustration is better."
"As long as we kept the audience aware that they still loved each other, we could get away with the conflict," Romano said.
The key, he said, was to remember the show was aimed at families, balancing self-imposed boundaries of taste without taking the audience's intelligence for granted.
It was a tightrope, he said.
On the Internet site jumptheshark.com _ where visitors debate the moment a good show goes astray _ many fans feel the show is still strong, it never "jumped the shark."
(The term refers to the Happy Days episode where Fonzie jumps over a shark tank on water skis, a point at which many agree the show declined.)
But Raymond did commit one of the mortal sins of shark jumping, bringing in new characters, including a B-level celebrity. Robert married longtime girlfriend Amy (Monica Horan), introducing her weird family, including a brother played by Chris Elliott, who came to the show in 2003.
"The appearance of Chris Elliott signifies a grade-A shark jump," a poster commented.
Another remarked on the show's increasing tension, "The wife stays mad at him all the time. ALL the time!! I think I saw this show before when it was called Home Improvement."
Romano said there have been several keys to success. For one, Raymond debuted before reality shows. There was less competition for a spot in the network schedule, and viewers expected half-hour comedies. Even with low ratings, CBS gave the show time to develop.
Rosenthal questioned what might come next. Although long-running sitcoms are getting harder to find (Cheers, Frasier, Friends, all gone), the genre isn't dead. The Simpsons endures, recently airing its 350th episode, albeit with the benefit of cartoon characters who never age or go on strike.
Reality shows won't dominate forever, Rosenthal said.
"It's always been tough to get a comedy on the air and make it work," Rosenthal said. "There's less real estate now, but it's cyclical. Everything's dead until it comes back. There's always been a family sitcom on TV. Someone will come in and fill the void."
Producing the final episodes has been sad, Romano said. There were good times along the way. Nine years is a long time.
"I never laughed so hard as all of those years," he said.
"We revealed a lot about ourselves," Rosenthal said. "It was like therapy."
Romano said he took something very special away from the set of Everybody Loves Raymond: the living room couch.
"I don't know where I'm putting the couch," he said."My wife doesn't want the couch around. I'll have to build a little shack for it. A Raymond shack."
Chase Squires can be reached at (727) 893-8739 or squiressptimes.com.
EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS STUFF
UM, NO: Alternative titles suggested for Everybody Loves Raymond were That Raymond Guy, Lucky Raymond, Nice Going, Raymond, and Um, Raymond.
NOWHERE TO GO BUT UP: In its Sept. 13, 1996, debut the show ranked 69th out of 106 shows, and by the end of the first season it was ranked 81st, according to Nielsen Media Research. It finishes this year as the 10th-most watched show and the top-rated sitcom, averaging more than 17-million viewers a week.
HOLY SMOKES: The first time Peter Boyle (Ray's dad) uttered his catch phrase "Holy crap!" was in the pilot.
"EVERYBODY' IS EVERYWHERE: Everybody Loves Raymond airs in syndicated reruns in 191 of the nation's 210 TV markets (locally on WTTA-Ch. 38 at 6:30 and 7 weeknights and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays). It also airs in 169 other countries.
BY THE NUMBERS: Nine seasons, 210 episodes, 12 Emmy Awards _ and star Ray Romano has been on Late Night with David Letterman 20 times. (Raymond and Letterman are produced by the same company, Worldwide Pants.)
FRIENDS: Guest stars over the years have included Jean Stapleton, Julie Hagerty, Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman), Fred Willard, as well as sports celebs Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Terry Bradshaw, Barry Bonds, Katarina Witt and the late Tug McGraw.