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Everybody really does love ''Raymond''

Now in year two, Ray Ramono’s sitcom is winning raves from critics and audiences alike

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It’s a set packed with enough family values to make a Promise Keeper weep: As a studio audience shuffles in for a taping of his CBS sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond, star Ray Romano is gently disengaging his real-life kids — Alexandra, 7, and twins Matthew and Gregory, 4 — from his shirttails. His real wife, Anna, currently six months pregnant, is preparing for her role as an extra in this episode about Ray’s 20th high school reunion. And TV wife Patricia Heaton is pumping breast milk for her 5-month-old son, Joe, in a dressing room backstage. It’s such a pro-family environment, even rock & roll wild man Paul Stanley of Kiss (whose wife, Pamela Bowen, guest-stars as one of Ray’s classmates) looks housebroken; he sits peaceably in the front row with his curly-haired son, Evan, nestled in his lap.

The Family Matters set is right next door on L.A.’s Warner Bros. lot, but spiritually, Raymond is miles away from such bland kiddie fodder. Romano’s sophomore series reigns as TV’s most subtly subversive — and consistently brilliant — sitcom. ABC’s tapioca Home Improvement and TGIF cringe-athon may have turned ”family comedy” into dirty words for intelligent viewers, but Raymond has reinvented the genre in a way no show has since Roseanne.

Each episode starts with a mundane incident straight out of Ozzie & Harriet (e.g., Ray invites his buddies over to watch a fight the same night his wife is hosting a Tupperware party). Yet the show’s pinpoint insights into family dynamics have turned it into a kind of suburban psychodrama — only with really funny jokes.

Although Romano and Heaton’s Ray and Debra Barone have three tots (played by Madylin, Sullivan, and Sawyer Sweeten), the show is ”not really about the kids,” as the star pointed out in the opening-credits sequence last season. ”Some people say, ‘I’ve never seen a house where the kids aren’t around,”’ says Romano, 39. ”But we did that deliberately. It’s so hard to keep a show with children appealing to adults and not be like Full House.”

”If you pay attention,” explains creator-executive producer Philip Rosenthal, ”most of our shows begin with the words ‘Well, they finally went down for a nap.’ It’s not about kids, it’s about people who have kids. It’s about Ray being caught between the generation under him and the generation on top of him.”

The latter is represented by Ray’s buttinsky parents (Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts), who live across the street with his obsessive-compulsive cop brother, Robert (Brad Garrett). ”I love the dysfunction — every family has its strange quirks,” says Garrett. ”This is one of the few family shows that isn’t about a trip to Sea World.”

Of course, Raymond isn’t entirely squeaky-clean. ”We have a lot of stuff about me not wanting to have sex because I’m too tired,” says Heaton. ”Maybe I’m giving away too much, but my husband [actor David Hunt] will tell you that’s reality.”

Reality is a key word on Raymond. At a time when once-realistic sitcoms like Seinfeld are flying off into slapstick surrealism, Romano remains dedicated to grounding his show in everyday minutiae. Observes the characteristically blunt Boyle, ”I was watching a lineup of sitcoms, and everybody did something unbelievable and then fell down. That’s crap!” Anything deemed too ”shticky” is thus banned from Raymond‘s scripts. ”We try to stay away from sitcom-formula jokes,” says Romano. ”Like a Lenny-Squiggy entrance. Someone says, ‘Who would be stupid enough to wear that hat?’ and they enter wearing that hat.”