Everybody may love Raymond, but, for his first stand-up special in 23 years, Ray Romano didn’t want people who liked him too much.
With Netflix helping flood the market with comedy specials, it’s hard to do something new, yet the 61-year-old comedian managed to find a way. In Right Here, Around the Corner, Romano goes back to his roots in New York City by walking to the Comedy Cellar for an unannounced pop-in set. It doesn’t end there, though, because after 30 minutes, he strolls right down the street to do another unannounced 30 minutes at the Village Underground. “It just didn’t appeal to me to have tried-and-true Romano fans hooting and hollering at everything you say,” says Romano. “I just wanted that different energy.”
EW chatted with the comedian about his stand-up return, his initial resistance to doing a special, and his new Netflix movie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s been 23 years since your last stand-up special, so why finally now?
RAY ROMANO: Because we’re running out of time. [Laughs] I put it off for a while. Not that people were beating down my door to do it, but there are so many ways and places to do a special that my agent kept telling me, “Why don’t you do one?” I never stopped doing stand-up. It’s been 23 years since I’ve done a special, but I’ve always kept the stand-up muscles in shape. I don’t tour, but I do enough; I do five or six dates in Vegas, I do charities, when I’m in New York, I pop in. I always want to continue doing stand-up. A special didn’t appeal to me because I just didn’t think I needed to do it, and I also didn’t want the burden of doing a special and then feeling like you had to retire all of that material, which a lot of guys do. I constantly write new material, but not a lot, because I’m not working that much. So every year or two, I have a new 15 to 20 minutes. And I just thought, I don’t know, do I just want to give up all that material and start from zero again? And is it worth it? And I get to a certain age and I see all the stand-up on TV and I still love popping into my club and going on. There’s still an energy with that audience. There are some comics through time where you wonder, “Do they still hold up now years later?” And the energy I got from the audience when I go to the city and pop in unannounced, it kind of told me, “Yeah, I still hold up, but who knows for how much longer?” So let’s do a special and have this thing that you can look back on. And yeah, I will have to write new material, but that’s a good thing. And Netflix made an offer. I wasn’t doing it for money. If you took Ellen’s money and subtracted Chris Rock’s money, that’s what they gave me.
That’s still probably a fair number!
It’s okay, but I’m not doing it for the money. It wasn’t about that.
So what was the process like coming up with new material?
Well, I didn’t have to write new material for the special, because it’s been 23 years since I’ve done it. I wanted to use fresh material, but like I said, I’ve been continuing to do it, so I had an hour of material that I was ready to go with. I just had to pick and choose; some of it was a little bit dated so I didn’t want to do that. And I split it up into two different shows, so I just had to figure out how the strongest way to present this, with a half-hour here and a half-hour there. But it wasn’t like I had to go into the clubs and grind. If I do a next special, then I’m going to have to get out there and get to work. But the material was there. Within the last two years, I’ve written at least 30, 40 minutes of new material, so it wasn’t that hard to get the hour.
You bring up the structure of the special, there’s so much comedy out there right now — a lot of it thanks to Netflix — but this is something I’ve never seen in a special. So what was it about this idea that really appealed to you?
There’s something about doing a show when you’re announcing it and you’re in a theater, so everybody coming is a Ray Romano fan. I’m not taking anything away from that, but it just didn’t appeal to me to have tried-and-true Romano fans hooting and hollering at everything you say. I love those fans, but there’s something about going on unannounced. Listen, I’m not naive, I know I’m not an unknown, so when I go on, I’m still getting some of the benefit of the doubt because they know me and they give you a little more. It’s a lot easier for me than a total unknown comic who the audience has to size up. But the energy when I go to the Comedy Cellar and I do a pop-in set and it’s unannounced is great. I’m getting a little older now, there may be plenty of people in that crowd who have never see me do stand-up, who don’t know I do stand-up. And there’s something exciting to that. It’s like the old days; the one thing I miss about stand-up is when you had to go up in front of a room of total strangers, they’ve never seen you before, they’re paying money to sit there and watch you and you have to win them over. Now, again, I’m not delusional, I know that when I go on stage I have the benefit of them knowing who I am. [Jerry] Seinfeld says, “You get the first 10 minutes for free. They’re going to laugh at whatever you say in the first 10.” I say it’s more like three or four, but you do get that and then you can tell what’s funny and what’s not funny. And I just wanted that extra element of this is not an invited audience, this is an audience just out for a night of comedy and it’s not a room full of Romano heads, and let’s see what happens. Again, I want to repeat myself: It’s not that much of a risk. It’s not like I’m going to another country. They do know me and they are very generous. I just like that as opposed to fans that are there to cheer you on. I just wanted that different energy.
And you split the special between two clubs and also thematically split the material, with one of the shows focusing more on your family and the other about aging and other anecdotes.
I worked on mixing and matching up the material and just to keep it linear and smooth, it just all led into each other. Thematically, I have stories about aging, stories about being married, stories about my kids, and then I just have standalone stories about watching the movie Everest, just odd stories. So I would keep it even and then try to find the right spot for these standalone pieces I do. But yeah, when I’m talking about children, let’s do all the stuff with kids in this show and then let’s do all the stuff about how my wife won’t have sex with me in the next show.
The second part of the special is when you’re talking about your children, and as you walk out we realize they’ve been there watching. And we then follow you all as you chat about the show and go grab some pizza. Was that always how you pictured ending it?
The concept originally was just to do it at the Village Underground because it holds some more people. But the concept was to walk from my apartment, talk about it and walk to an unsuspecting audience at the Village Underground. And Michael Showalter, who directed it, when I was telling him this idea, he was like, “What about doing it at both of them?” And I thought that was very interesting, I could just walk from one to another. And then I knew my kids were going to come to one of them, so then I had the idea to have them at the last one and I know of this pizza place, Joe’s, down the block and we would just go out like we would on any other night and that would be a cool shot at the end. It’s a little bit of an inside look at what my life used to be. Do a set there, do a set here, pop around in the city. But I liked the idea of the family being there at the end. I don’t want to get overly schmaltzy with it; it’s kind of bringing it back to what it all means and is all about.
It’s a busy month for you with Netflix. A few weeks after the special comes out, you’ve got the release of Paddleton, which just premiered at Sundance to strong reviews. Like many of the Duplass brothers’ movies, this seems to have been filmed in orthodox fashion, so what was that experience like?
That was very interesting, because, I don’t want to say it’s an improv movie, but it was a detailed outline movie that was not scripted. So the subject matter was heavy and we knew it was going to be funny, but each scene was outlined and we discussed it a little and the characters and who these guys were and what they’re about. I had ideas and everything was agreed upon but never written out in dialogue. And we did it that way, and I have to be honest, at the very end, it gets really heavy and it’s the most that I’ve ever been invested in a character in any kind of dramatic movie or scene. There’s some scenes at the end where I have to get to a certain place and I’d put on my headphones and listen to sad music and sit in a corner until they yelled action. In this movie, it was so organic. I don’t know if that is because of the nature of how we did it, where it’s not written lines and it’s just coming from you inhabiting the character. I don’t know, but I do know that I was so emotionally invested in it, more than any other movie I’ve been in.
Right Here, Around the Corner begins streaming on Tuesday, while Paddleton hits Netflix on Feb. 22.