Friday, November 03, 2006

Looking Carefully at the Detail

I wrote recently on this site about Kiran Desai and the way that her attention to detail is one of the reasons that makes her such a great writer. Here is a story about the same quality but in a different medium.

In the year and a half since “Everybody Loves Raymond” left the air, a few television comedies have managed to make noise in the ratings: “Two and a Half Men” on CBS, and “The Office” and “My Name Is Earl” on NBC.

Phil Rosenthal was a writer and producer for “Everybody Loves Raymond” for its entire nine-year run. He has written a book, published this week, that details his experiences in comedy writing. Its title: “You’re Lucky You’re Funny.”

That’s about it. And none has matched the consistent popularity of “Raymond,” which attracted close to 20 million viewers a week.

...This is how Mr. Rosenthal summed up his sitcom’s success in a telephone interview, and it’s exactly what he writes in the book.

What really made the show stand out, Mr. Rosenthal said, was faithful reliance on truly specific — sometimes minutely so — details of married life. The details were so specific because they almost always came directly from the lives of Mr. Rosenthal, Ray Romano, or any of a phalanx of the married men, and occasionally the women, who kicked around ideas (as well as one another’s egos) inside the show’s writing room.

...In person, Mr. Rosenthal, 46, has a speaking cadence (and even a writing cadence) that makes every sentence sound like a punch line from a borscht belt comic. You can sometimes hear the rim shot in your head after he delivers (or composes) an especially funny line. But Mr. Rosenthal did not grow up listening to those comics. He grew up watching and absorbing comedy on television, especially the classics, from “The Honeymooners” to “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
This, he said, was where he noticed specificity. And where he realized he wanted some kind of career that would get him laughs. Not as a writer, though.

...As his book makes clear, however, there really was nothing intrinsically unique about “Everybody Loves Raymond.” The concept, bickering families, could hardly be more ordinary. But few current comedies seem to be able to get it anywhere near so right.

If he had to pin down a reason for so many failed comedies, he said, it would probably be that writers keep looking to get the next laugh instead of trying to “tell a great story.”
That and forgetting to go for specificity. “A lot of these shows will go for generalities, thinking that’s the way to get everybody,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “But that’s the only surefire way to miss everybody.”

Source: Bill Carter, 'He Found Big Laughs by Looking at the Small Stuff', October 28, 2006, NY Times. The full story can be found at this Internet address:

Image: Phil Rosenthal