Paul Reiser On Stand-Up Comedy, Johnny Carson, ‘Stranger Things,’ Bruce Springsteen And More

For actor/comedian/author Paul Reiser his upcoming stand-up dates, including tomorrow (December 29) in Oxnard, take him back to the beginning, when he would stay up late watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson for comedians like Steve Martin and George Carlin.

That is where my conversation with Reiser starts, as the show he co-created in 2017, There’s…Johnny! has recently premiered on Peacock, giving new life to the superb homage to the early ’70s Carson days of the iconic late night show.

The seven-episode series, centering on a kid (Ian Nelson) from Valentine, Nebraska, who comes to L.A. and lands a job on The Tonight Show, very much reflects Reiser’s own love for comedy and entertainment as a kid.

The show is notable for its excellent cast, including Tony Danza and the brilliant Jane Levy, in a pre Zooey’s Extraordinary Playlist role. The cast alone makes There’s…Johnny! worth your time.

“Jane Levy is exceptional, She’s so powerfully vulnerable and strong and intelligent. There’s just so much going on in her, and I was thrilled that we got to do that before she became too big a star, which is on its way and happening,” Reiser says when asked if the show could ever enjoy a reboot a la his seminal sitcom, Mad About You, with Helen Hunt.

While There’s…Johnny! is getting a new life and since it celebrates comedy it is a natural launching point for our Zoom interview, there is a lot to discuss with the acclaimed Reiser, from Mad About You to his role on Stranger Things and his Emmy-nominated turn on The Kominsky Method. Then there are the comics he admires, like Chris Rock, and how Bruce Springsteen inspired his stand-up.

Steve Baltin: I actually from last night to this morning streamed the entire show of There’s… Johnny!

Paul Reiser: God bless you for finding it.

Baltin: First of all, okay, great cast. I will watch anything with Jane Levy. She is amazing, I just watched a really brilliant Italian show that was on Netflix, Generation 56K. The reason I mentioned that show specifically, it reminded me a great deal of the movie, Cinema Paradiso, which is one of my favorite films of all time. There’s… Johnny! Has a very similar feel to Cinema Paradiso in being a love letter to growing up in love with entertainment.

Reisre: I had never heard that, but it’s very flattering. That’s one of my favorite movies too, certainly, one of my favorite soundtracks. Yeah, I love that movie, and, yeah, you’re right. It was very much a love letter. And now, I’m remembering ’cause I haven’t watched it in a while. But yes, that final scene where he finds the lost tapes in the basement, that was the paradigm, Cinema Paradiso, that beautiful ending, where he finds the clips together. And so we were working with the composer, I said, “Watch that and aim for that. That’s what it is. It should have that magical feeling.” We didn’t have as much time, we had about 20 seconds of screen time to get it in, but it was that same thing, finding the mother lode of your youth. You’re the first person who’s ever called that, so good for you.

Baltin: You can tell people who really love entertainment, and I know that you didn’t grow up in Valentine, Nebraska, but I’m sure there were a lot of autobiographical elements to that idea of growing up, whether it was loving Johnny Carson or other people that inspired you.

Reiser: I grew up in New York, and that sense of Johnny Carson being consistent in your life, I don’t remember watching it with my parents, as the character in the show did. But somewhere in high school, I got a TV in my own room, which was a big deal, ’cause then I could stay up to watch The Tonight Show. And I would only stay up or make a point to stay up when I knew [George] Carlin was gonna be on, or Robert Klein, or Rodney [Dangerfield], or Steve Martin. So it was always for the comics. It sounds so old-guy to say, but when we were doing this, I found myself telling people, “When we were kids, we didn’t have DVRs.” But the truth is, all television was more important and impactful because you couldn’t record it, you couldn’t capture it, you’re gonna have to find it when you find it, and as a result, it goes deeper into your brain and your heart. So when we were doing this show and looking for clips that would work with our stories, we were like a kid in a candy shop. We were saying, “Wow, let’s go look at these ’32 George Carlin’s.” But we would watch the Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, and George Carlin specifically. I remembered that appearance, and I remember where he was going, and I remember he came out and he took off his jacket and just dropped it on the floor, and I remember seeing that. That was 50 years ago, and that those memories were so deep, speaks to how impactful Johnny and the show was. So it was definitely somewhat autobiographical in that way.

Baltin: Do you remember the first time that you stepped on The Tonight Show stage as a guest?

Reiser: For sure, yeah. My generation, my class of comedians, for quite some time, the gold standard was always when you get on The Tonight Show. It was sort of your seal of approval. And [for] my parents and their generations, you weren’t really a comedian unless you could say you’re on The Tonight Show, ’cause that was always people’s first question, “Oh, have I ever seen you on The Tonight Show?” “No.” “Well, then you’re not really a comedian.” And there was no real comparable standard anymore. It’s great if you’ve been on Jimmy Fallon, [Stephen] Colbert or anybody, but it’s not Johnny and it’s not as singular as it was. So we were always, in the back of our minds, aiming for that shot. And I remember it vividly.  I only did stand-up once in April of ’82, and I did my shot and then I walked back to the curtains and that was it, and then I didn’t do it for a number of years. I did it next, which was, I guess around ’86 or ‘7. And then there was a spell where Johnny was really quite welcoming to me, and I wouldn’t do stand-up, I would just do all my material from the couch. I must have done it 25-30 times over a couple of years, which I look back and it strikes me now like, ” That was pretty impressive to me, ’cause there was a period that Johnny had me on every two months. A couple of years ago, I watched several of them in a row, and I saw that over my second to third to fourth to fifth to sixth appearance, I got more comfortable, he got more comfortable, and it became less about, “Let me go through my jokes,” as just playing tennis with him. And it was in those appearances that I got to really appreciate first-hand and watch his dexterity and his graciousness. He was all about making his guests look good, it was never about him. And he, of course, would look good in the process, but he would set you up. If you were floundering, he would change the subject for you, he would chime in. He was just masterful in a way that nobody else is quite that. The show was entirely his personality, but it wasn’t about him trying to score, especially with comedians, he loved when comedians did well.

Baltin: When you’re on stage, do you still think back to those early comedians that you watched on The Tonight Show when you had the TV in your bedroom?

Reiser: All the time. I  just had this memory the other day. I was flying to some gig, and as George Carlin used to say, “We work for free, you just gotta pay us to get on a plane.” That’s the drag part of it, being on stage is the treat. And I remember a moment in high school, flying somewhere to see a potential college. I think it was upstate New York, and I remember it was just a cold winter, and the only way that it made it palatable was I had this fantasy of that I was on my way to some town to do a stand-up show. That was my fantasy. It wasn’t winning an Oscar, it wasn’t being James Bond. It was like, “Man, if I could be like Robert Klein or George Carlin.” And it’s 50 years later, almost, but that memory came. I was just on this dull flight and I thought, “Oh yeah. Remember when you wished you were going to do a show? You’re doing it.” So it never wears thin. It’s never something I take for granted. And I know a lot of my comedian friends and musician friends feel the same way too, the fact that we skated through. I can’t believe nobody’s caught on to us yet, that we were actually doing what we wanted to do in these knucklehead jobs of ours. We’re flying and telling jokes, or in their case, going and playing some songs. It’s never something I take for granted.

Baltin: Tell me what you were looking for in these upcoming shows.

Reiser: Obviously, there were no shows last year and I was a little late even at coming back to it this year, I only just got back last month. And I made a point of saying, “I wanted to just go out and just do a series of clubs which are smaller venues and more intimate,” like the show in Oxnard next Wednesday. There’s something very nurturing for me ’cause that’s where we started, at these clubs. So while it’s great to play a big theater, there’s something very reaffirming and comforting to be back in a club where it smells like a club, where people are drinking, and occasionally, somebody is being silly ’cause they’re drinking too much. You can see them, they’re right there, and it’s just more interactive. I always tell people this, there are very few things that you can do in your 60s that are close to how you did them when you were 19, and stand-up is one of the only ones really. And so it feels like the first time, every time. It’s just always fun, and I’m surprised at how much joy it gives me to get back on stage every time.

Baltin: Did not being able to perform during COVID make you miss the stage more than you thought?

Reiser: Yeah, I think it surprised all of us, or it certainly impacted all of us. I saw a lot of musicians that are like, “Well, we were doing live streaming shows.” And some were more successful than others in replicating that thing, but it’s almost like the tree falling in the forest that nobody hears. You can record it and put it out, or stream it and somebody’s watching it, but you’re not making that human connection. And the audience needs that, and the performer certainly needs that, and comedy certainly needs that. A singer, you can argue, “Well, you’re singing a song alone in your house, it’s pretty much the same as if you’re singing on stage.” But comedy certainly is a participatory thing. You can’t just be funny in your shower. You gotta go out and watch your jokes. And that’s why they change every night, even if it’s the same joke. It constantly changes because of who’s listening and how you are on that moment in that day. And I was sitting here before we got on going over a tape of a show I did last weekend, and I think, “Well, this is not fun, it’s not funny.” That’s the homework part, going through it.  Part of what’s so exciting about doing stand-up, it’s so elusive, and you never ever, I don’t think, nail it down. ‘Cause the minute you do, it just is not the same tomorrow. So that’s part of what’s so fun about it for me.

Baltin: Who’s the comedian you saw come closest to nailing it in stand-up?

Reiser: There are certain guys that are just at the top of their game for a long run. You watch a Chris Rock special and then you watch another one two years later, they’re both great, and they’re both airtight, and you can imagine that the night before and the night afterwards, they were equally powerful. I’ve done, even just a little pop into a club to do a set, it can be a great response and I go, “Yeah, it wasn’t great for me. I didn’t do anything new, or I didn’t find anything.” And there are other nights where the audience can be lackluster, but you go, “I got something out of that.” I think the ones that inspire me, it’s really the consistency, it’s never a great night. If you go back to the Steve Martin going on The Tonight Show, you remember guys like Steve Martin or Albert Brooks. They would be great every time, and so you could, with confidence tune in next time and go, “I can’t wait to see what he’s gonna do.”

Baltin: I want to come back to something you said too about TV meaning so much more then now. It’s interesting that you say that because you do a show like Stranger Things, also The Kominsky Method and clearly, it appeals to people in a huge cultural way. Do you see that?

Reiser: Yeah, it’s obviously a vastly different world, and we consume our entertainment in a vastly different way. So I can look back fondly at those years of TV where, yeah, you stayed up late because that’s the only time you could see it. So yes, it’s not as impactful, but on the other hand, you can watch it whenever you want. So There’s… Johnny! it’s now on Peacock, but it’s its third home. We made the show for Seeso, which folded, and then it was on Hulu, and then it went to, now Peacock. And to me, none of it makes any difference as long as it’s somewhere, as long as you can find it, so somebody listening right now might say, “I’ve never heard of that. Let me go check out Peacock. Let me go watch it,” whereas years ago, you couldn’t. You go, “Oh, I missed it. I guess it’s lost to history.” So there’s good and bad. I remember when I did the second season of Stranger Things, and people were clamoring, “When is it coming? When is it coming?” And then they’d watch it all in a day. And I’d feel like, “Well, we just spent a year and a half making that. Take your time, chew your food.” And it’s like you work hard at making a meal and somebody gobbles it down. It’s like, “Well, that seems a shame.” On the other hand, I know personally as a viewer, I’m way behind, but I know that it’s there.  I’m watching Curb now. It was waiting for me. So as a person on this side of the fence, who makes content, put it in the world, and people will find it whenever they choose to.

Baltin: As a music person, are there artists that you see have similar tendencies to how you do your stand-up act?

Reiser: Yeah, there are a couple of live shows that stand out. I remember the first one when I was probably nine or 10, and my older sister and her boyfriend were in college. We saw the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. She had really gotten me into blues and that kind of stuff, but what I remember most was we came back at 2:00 in the morning, and I remember, until that day, I didn’t know there was a 2:00 o’clock in the morning. So the idea of staying up late and being in this smoky-filled thing entered my DNA. And another one was the first time I saw Springsteen. It was March of ’77 upstate in Binghamton, New York. He played the hockey arena, which must have been maybe 8,000-seater, and I don’t even know if it was filled. Born To Run was out, but he was still hadn’t become what he became. And I remember that night being blown away by the energy, the dedication, the sincerity. And obviously it’s showmanship ’cause he does it every night, so it’s a bit of showmanship, but it certainly still feels real. And I remember thinking, “This guy really sounds like he wants to be here in this little dingy hockey arena on a Tuesday, and it feels like this is where he wants to be.”  And subsequently, I felt that consistently, every time I’ve seen him, a dozen times over the years, but also listening to E Street Radio on Sirius, and they’ll play a live concert every day. And every show is great. That I was listening to a lot, a few years ago when I was coming back into stand-up, and I found it very inspiring and directly translatable.

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