The World According to Paul Reiser
The actor talks about comedy, his quarantine habits, and working in a food wholesale warehouse
Welcome back to “The World According To,” series in which InsideHook solicits advice from people who are in a position to give it. Our latest subject is Paul Reiser, a veteran comic and actor. His sitcom, Mad About You, routinely ranked among the top-rated shows of the 1990s, and he also appeared in Diner, Aliens and Whiplash. At 64, Reiser continues to act, most recently in the second season of The Kominsky Method.
InsideHook: Have you been paying attention to the protests?
Paul Reiser: No, I live in a cave. I don’t even know what you’re talking about. You know what? I feel like we have to not talk about that for this, because this just feels so silly and trivial. I mean, it feels absurd to even be doing publicity in the midst of what’s happening. I feel like it’ll look either really trite or really ignorant, so I’m pretending that we live in another time for the next half-hour.
I assume you also don’t want to discuss, in light of current events, if you would feel differently about playing a detective, like in Beverly Hills Cop…
Nah, let’s steer clear of that. But it’s a creative question.
What words would you put on your own tombstone?
“What are you looking at?”
Who’s the first famous person you ever met?
In high school going with my buddy to the Bottom Line in the Village, once to see George Carlin once to see Robert Klein. This was ’70 or ’71, because they were soon playing much bigger places. I remember going over to get George Carlin’s autograph. I gave him the long, narrow paper menu. He very sweetly and apologetically said, “You know, I don’t like to sign my name, but I’m going to give you this.” He drew a smiley face, where one eye was a heart and one eye was a peace sign, and then the smile. I remember thinking, Well that’s cool, but nobody is going to know that it’s you. I said, “This defeats the whole purpose.” Years later, I became friendly with his daughter and I told her that story. She said, “Yep, that was Dad. He didn’t like to write his name.”
Have you been social distancing?
Yeah, but every day you start seeing the vigilance start to chip away. Suddenly, I’m not really wiping off every package that comes in. We had two friends over and we had a drink outside, socially distanced. I thought, Well, this isn’t terrible. It’s still weird. I’ll tell you the good thing: one of the few positives of this moment is you don’t need any breath mint because your mouth is covered, and you don’t have to shower quite as extensively, which I appreciate.
I found a story from 1977 that mentions you giving a piano recital at SUNY Binghamton…
You found an article from ’77? That’s surprising. I’ve played more in the last year than I have in the last 30 years. When I was a kid, I showed an inclination and my parents jumped on it. We had a piano in the house, so I got lessons. I took it seriously. But I didn’t love practicing, and I didn’t love the academic part of it; I just loved playing music. I auditioned for the piano professor at Binghamton and got in. I never thought I would become a classical pianist or anything, because I never believed I had that kind of skill. As a music major, for your final thesis you had to give a concert. I had this evening, and I had to prepare for the better part of a year putting this program together. That was just a big focus of my life. I never really played publicly, other than that. It was always just for my own enjoyment.
Why did you start playing again?
As you get older, you start thinking, Well, what do I want to do, and what do I not want to do? I started going back and playing in a much more advanced and focused way than when I was actually a piano major. It’s just learning to learn. I found I was looking at music differently. I wanted to hear that sound come out of my hands. I tackle pieces I would never have had the patience for years ago. The funny thing about the lockdown; I got to be really good friends with my piano professor at college. He was only a few years older, I guess. We’ve been friendly over the years. I thought, Well, nobody’s traveling, but we have Zoom. So I had my first piano lesson in 45 years. I had the laptop next to the piano and he’s in there. It’s funny; even as an adult, you instantly go back to whatever dynamic you had as a kid. It’s like, Oh, I hope he doesn’t yell at me. Wait a minute. I’m not in school, and he’s retired, and I’m 60, so I think we’re okay.“
It’s been noted elsewhere that you don’t generally play villains. Aliens is a notable exception. Does playing a terrible person just not hold any appeal?
No, not at all. I think it’s quite appealing. But it’s always about finding the little nuggets and other angles of a person. It’s great fun to play a prick. I don’t think of these characters, like Red Oaks’ Doug the country club president, as two dimensional. Even the guy in Aliens. He wasn’t born to say, “I’m going to kill people as best I can.” I mean, to follow his logic, all of us at any point could be tempted to take the wrong thought pattern and be led astray. Like, Oh, I’m just doing my job. And then you get far afield. But it didn’t start that way. He didn’t wake up and say, “I hope I get a chance to kill Sigourney Weaver and a young girl. That would be a good Tuesday for me.” That wasn’t the plan.
What’s the one thing you own that you would save from a burning building?
I have a sketch—I don’t know if it’s pencil—that John Lennon did. It was the first piece of art my wife ever bought me; we weren’t even married yet. The sketch was done during the Montreal Bed-In. That’s always been a magical thing to look at and have.
What would you have done with your life if acting hadn’t worked out?
I sort of did it in reverse order; I tried the B plan first, and then I went for my A plan. When I got out of school, my dad had a very successful food wholesaling business. It was always in the back of my mind that I’d go into it. I used to work my summers in the warehouse or the office. My father had this very traditional desire to pass on his successful business to his son, both for his own edification, and for his son’s comfort level.
In college I started getting into comedy. I spent about a year or two in the clubs. I wanted to be a comedian, which is the worst career plan in the world. There was no reason to believe it would lead to any kind of success. I spent a year or two doing both—learning my dad’s business and being very practical and pragmatic during the daytime, then sleeping a little and going to the clubs at night. I was doing both worlds poorly. Then I had this moment of clarity: I don’t want to do this, and I will forever regret not having given comedy a full shot. At that point, I was seeing people that I knew start to make it. This guy was on The Tonight Show and another had a sitcom. I realized I don’t want to be 45 or 50, telling my kids, “Oh, you see that guy? I knew him 20 years ago…” So I broke from my family business. I burned my bridges. I didn’t have a plan to go back or, like, be a saloon piano player.
What’s your worst habit?
I skim while reading. I just don’t have the patience for the details. I will often go off half-cocked about something. They didn’t do this. But they did. Oh, I didn’t read that part. I get very agitated at somebody failing to do something that they actually did and told me about but I chose not to read.
Is the Great American Experiment working anymore?
You don’t set its sail, and it just goes forever. The Great American Experiment is indeed working, but that involves major corrections. We are in the midst of that. It doesn’t mean we’re done, but it certainly doesn’t mean we’re finished.