Director and star Phil Rosenthalreveals how he translated his hit sitcom Everybody Love Raymond for Russian audiences, on Blu-ray and DVD August 2nd
Phil Rosenthal created one of the most successful sitcoms of all-time with "Everybody Loves Raymond." He was a bona-fide expert in his craft. And then...the Russians called. In the hilarious Exporting Raymond, a genuine fish-out-of-water comedy that could only exist in real life, Phil travels to Russia to help adapt his beloved sitcom for Russian television audiences.
The Russians don't share his tastes. They don't seem to share his sense of humor. But what Phil did discover was a real comedy, filled with unique characters and situations that have to be seen to be believed. An audience award winner at multiple film festivals across the country, Exporting Raymond proves that even if you've never seen "Everybody Loves Raymond", you'll still enjoy this wildly entertaining film.
The Exporting Raymond Blu-ray and DVD debut August 2nd. To celebrate this release, we caught up with Phil Rosenthal himself to chat about his experiences in bringing Everybody Loves Raymond to a foreign audience and Exporting Raymond to the big screen.
Here is our conversation.
Did you get a chance to see the new Afghanistan Office that just arrived on-line?
Philip Rosenthal: I didn't. I should take a look.
What do you think an Afghanistan version of Everybody Loves Raymond would look like?
Philip Rosenthal: I hear that they are starting to do it! I can tell you the countries I know it's going into. It's going into Poland, India, Israel, Egypt, the Netherlands. South America is soon to follow. They are telling me that Everybody Loves Raymond may actually become the most produced show in the world. Yeah.
What are your immediate thoughts when you hear that?
Philip Rosenthal: Well, you are talking to someone who found it incredible that we even got on the air in America. Right? That we were even able to sell a show that was so low concept. That this guy and his family lived across the street from his parents, no one was jumping up and down, "Oh, my god! We got to have that show! It sounds so hot and sexy! We got to have that!" Right? I always consider myself lucky that we got on the air at all, and had any success beyond that. It has all been a wonderful dream. Then, that other countries would want to do it? Our former enemies in Russia? That was incredible. Now these other countries? It is surreal. This has been surreal on top of surreal.
What do you feel is the one main throughline every incarnation of this show is able to obtain and hold onto?
Philip Rosenthal: I have to think, because its not a topical show, that its not a uniquely American show...It deals with timeless, human relationships. Parents, spouses, and children. And sibling. It doesn't seem like it shouldn't be relatable to people everywhere, because it's about people. That's why it seemed so crazy in Russia that, the executives anyway, seemingly were not relating to it. It is a low concept. There are high concept and low concept things. A high concept would be Transformers, were your car and your toaster become robots. Right? A low concept is where a family lives across the street from the dad's parents. That is a very low concept show. But, as it turns out, if you try to do Transformers as a TV series, and maintain that every week, you'd soon run out of stories, because how many times can the car turn into the robot before people start to say, "We've seen that!" Where as, the low concept thing is something that may not seem very exciting, but you have infinite storylines, because you are dealing with something that people can really relate too. Like a fight between a guy and his brother. That can bring up issues that change. Issues that remain the same, but are expressed in very different ways. A low concept turns out to be like real life, there are infinite things that happen to us. It is like everyday real life.
In the current landscape of TV, we've seen a lot of high concept ideas in recent years. But then you have Louie, which is incredibly low concept. And audiences are gravitating towards that. Do you think low concept shows are going to gain in popularity once again?
Philip Rosenthal: It's all cyclical, and the executives never learn. What they really want to buy are high concept things. Those high concepts get you on the air. Oh, my god! This is so unusual, and so hip, think of all the attention we will get when we put this sexy thing on the air! But the high concept doesn't stay on the air very long. And the low concept does. Simple because you can service it, and get more stories out of it. You happen to hit on Louie, which is my absolute favorite show on television right now. Its not just because its low concept. Its because its also, and this is the most important thing you can have when doing anything...A book, a TV show, a movie...The execution is so fantastic. It's all about execution. Do you know what Louis C.K. said to the executives when they asked him to make a pilot for FX? He said, "You will give me this amount of money, and then you will see the pilot. In other words, we are not collaborating, we are not talking...If you really want me to do this show...Which I don't want to do because I have been burned before...Give me the money, I am going to do the exact show that I would like to do...And you will either take it or you won't take it. But I am doing it myself." They deliberated, he did the show he wanted to, and they said, "We love this! We want to pick it up." He said, "Okay, you can pick it up. But here is how we are going to do it. You are going to give me the money for every episode, and I am going to deliver the show." He writes, stars in, and edits every episode himself.
Is that liberating for a creator such as yourself, to see that happen? Does that give you hope that you can go on and do that someday?
Philip Rosenthal: Well, here is the difference. Someone has to be willing to give the artist that chance. Louis C.K. will probably admit to you that he was lucky to get that gig. Because not everyone is in demand like that.
It doesn't really seem like he was in demand; at least from the public's perception of it. He wasn't a huge star before the show...
Philip Rosenthal: The public...Still...Hasn't flocked to this show. Because they have a low budget and word isn't out yet on how great the show is. It is known among the people who have seen it. But that is still a low number.
But it is getting bigger and bigger by the week.
Philip Rosenthal: I can only hope! That is seriously one of my favorite shows.
I like Breaking Bad, too, but on the flip side of what we are talking about, that is a very high concept show. That might be the highest concept show on television right now...
Philip Rosenthal: That is a very different type of show. The rules may be different for drama then they are for comedy.
Now, talking about giving Louie a chance, you give your father a chance, especially with the extra features on this DVD, to really show his talent as a comedian. He has his own little segment here. Did he always want to be a comedian? Or is this something that is just starting to immerge in his later years?
Philip Rosenthal: When he was a young man, he did a little spritzing, a little tumbling, as they say, in the Catskills. And he was always very funny amongst his friends, and at social engagements...Especially inside my house. He is the funniest person I have ever met. I just love him, and I think it is a gift for everyone else to see him.
When are you going to produce his stand-alone DVD? I'd certainly buy it after watching him on Exporting Raymond...
Philip Rosenthal: Here is how you can see more of his act. He has about seven or eight jokes at that website that is advertised. Oldjewstellingjokes.com. That website does have a lot of old Jews. And maybe I am biased, but he is the best one.
He is a funny stand-up, and he is very funny in the movie. When we talked during this film's theatrical release, you had said that there wasn't much left on the cutting room floor. But there are deleted scenes of your parents, and quite a few other moments that have made it back onto this release...
Philip Rosenthal: There is a little bit, but there is not a lot. There are a coupe of things. You know, the movie had to be, in my mind, under 90 minutes. It had to be fast moving, and entertaining. It is a documentary, and it's not about a deathly serious subject. You know, I wanted it to play like comedy. Number one? I wanted it to be entertaining. Then funny. I got lucky, because when I sent the cameras out, funny things happened. I didn't have to manipulate anything. I didn't have to manufacture scenes of conflict or humor. They just happened. Especially with my parents.
You have this scene near the beginning, when you arrive at the Russian airport, and your bodyguard/driver hops out of the car when you ask him about George W. Bush. And your face is priceless. Is that just natural comedic timing on your part?
Philip Rosenthal: I am afraid that is me. I know other people have remarked on this. I can say, I guess its good for this movie. It hasn't served me well in life, because I am a terrible liar. Everything is on my face. I can't play poker. I can't lie to the wife or the kids. Believe me, I would like to.
That's what makes the movie so funny. You can see these very real, true emotions pouring out of you. You just can't help yourself. That makes it even funnier. Now, when this guy jumps out of the car after you ask him his opinions on Bush, was that just perfect timing on his part? Or was he really trying to skirt the question?
Philip Rosenthal: That was pure luck. You hit on something. This is the kind of luck you have to have when you are making a documentary. You'd think that he is getting out of the car because he doesn't want to be involved in a political discussion. But the truth is, he was barely following along because English is not his first language. And this is where he has to get out, go across the parking lot, to go to the booth, to pay the toll, to exit the airport. Which is very unusual to us. Because we live in a world, where, when you are leaving the airport, you don't have to leave the car to pay the toll. You drive up to the toll and pay out the window. So why? Why would they put the tollbooth window on the other side of the street so that you have to get out? Everyone has to get out of their car in the rain, or whatever, in the freezing cold, to pay and come back to their car...Does that make any sense?
No, it seems like it would make the line a lot longer. Can you imagine doing that at LAX? It would take forever to get out of there...
Philip Rosenthal: You are exactly right. But in Russia, that's how it is. I am not making fun of the culture. I just don't understand it. I don't think many Americans would. Its just not common sense. What we consider common sense, anyway.
The cool thing about the DVD is that you have two episodes of Raymond, and then you have the same two episodes as done for Russian television audieces. How did you choose which two episodes to provide here?
Philip Rosenthal: This was very easy. The first episode is the one that is shot during the production of our movie. Now you can see the full episode and how it turned out, right? The other one is discussed in the film, and it has always been one of audiences' favorite episodes....The one about the luggage.
With your American version of the show, you were able to pull in aspects from both your own life, and Ray Romano's life. How does that work in Russia? Are the actors able to bring anything to this, making these episodes new and personal in any way?
Philip Rosenthal: They were only going to take our scripts and translate them. The Ray character is already defined, because its based on Ray Romano's real life and his actual personality. We weren't looking for someone who was exactly like Ray Romano, but the character of Ray is an everyman, an every schnook, who would like to be left alone, but is caught in the middle of his family bothering him. So, there are lots of different types of men this could apply to. The only thing you don't want is a tough guy. Right? As you saw, at one point in the casting, they were bringing in big strong men that looked like Dolph Lundgren. That is the one thing that he shouldn't be. A guy like that.
Dolph Lundgren would be an interesting choice...
Philip Rosenthal: Interesting? The show would last half an episode. Right? This guy wouldn't be married to her. He wouldn't have this, he wouldn't have that! You are always trying to make it seem relatable and believable. The actor only has the script, since they are only translating, and not making it up themselves, they couldn't tailor it to the actor. The actor, in other words, had to do what was written. Later on, as the series goes, if it lasts, they can start bringing in their own spin, and I encourage this in any country. They can bring in real life stories of what happened in their own country! Because you want the show to be relatable to the people who are watching it. My job here was to find the similarities when I went over there. I think we found those things. Especially when you see a typical Russian family. The only differences I found was that their grandparents had rarely used a computer.
Is there anything you regret about this experience?
Philip Rosenthal: What do I regret? I guess I was afraid for nothing. Because nothing bad happened. I always prefer to not be nervous and worried. But I can't help it. It's my nature. I am nervous and worried whenever I embark on a new adventure, thinking this will be the one I can't do. This will be the one that gets away and proves that I really shouldn't be doing this. I wish I wasn't that way. It's a personal wish.
Exporting Raymond Blu-ray and DVD arrives in stores Tuesday, August 2nd.