For this sitcom lover, the early to mid 90s was the Grand Canyon of disappointment. After "The Wonder Years" and "The Golden Girls" went off the air, there was nothing that had me in front of the screen laughing out loud. Part of the problem was that TV networks started to fall in love with stand-up comedians. Network executives ran down to their local Improv and started signing up these one-joke-wonders at breakneck speed. They all wound up in some sort of family-based sitcom. Roseanne. Brett Butler. Tim Allen.
So, when one more comedy club creature named Ray Romano wound up in his own show on CBS, I didn't even blink. I didn't even know who the hell he was. I kept on not watching.
Even when critics seemed to love this show which was essentially ignored by the general public, I didn't bother to check in. For the first season. For most of the second season. Then, "Entertainment Weekly" came out with an article that basically scolded its readers for not finding "Everybody Loves Raymond." How dare a common magazine tell me what to watch? The nerve.
I finally decided to tune in and show up that foul-mouthed "Entertainment Weekly." It was March 9, 1998. The episode was entitled "Good Girls." And it was all about whether the female characters had been "good girls" before they were married.
It was freakin' brilliant. I could not remember when I had laughed so hard at a TV sitcom. Out loud. Hmmmm.
I was still skeptical. They couldn't possibly do this every single week. I tuned in again two weeks later. An episode simply entitled "Traffic School." Brad Garrett as Robert practices teaching traffic school to his family by using a ventriloquist's dummy.
It was freakin' brilliant. Except for several weeks previously, I could not remember when I had laughed so hard at a TV sitcom. Out loud.
Hmmmm no more. I was a fan. And never missed an episode over the next seven seasons.
In its very simple construction as a series, "Everybody Loves Raymond" played on the one thing virtually everyone can identify with. Family dysfunction. As idyllic as we would all like to portray our relatives, there are always bad feelings, anger, quirks, and overall annoyance with each other. Creators Ray Romano and Phil Rosenthal brilliantly spotted this and ran the table for nine amazing seasons. The premises from week to week were very basic. A mispoken word. A wife showing up late. A little white lie. A misconstrued comment. Taken to explosive and comedic heights each and every time. I regret deeply that I never got to participate in any of that writing. It was 30 minutes of Shakespeare, Noel Coward, and Neil Simon all rolled up together every week.
When we once asked our friend Madelyn Davis about the secret of casting a situation comedy, she answered with one single word. Serendipity. You have no idea what and who works well together. It just happens. Not often. Mostly, not at all. But, it did on this show. Every actor involved was spot on. Take a look at this expert cast in a very simple opening to an Easter-themed episode. The Barone family is celebrating the day with Brad Garrett's in-laws, played by recurring regulars Fred Willard and Georgia Engel. Who does not remember a similar holiday gathering in their own family?
That scene starts the show and it is a runaway train from there. There is one episode that won the Emmy for writing. Ray and Debra fight over a suitcase left on the stairs. They both stubbornly refuse to move it. The B plot is all about a "big fork and spoon" hanging in their parent's kitchen. This escalates into World War III and this clip. The entire script should be taught in a master class of comedy.
When you watch this cast, two actors leap off the screen. The late Peter Boyle, as Frank Barone, is the character you wait for. He appears and you are immediately riveted as you wait for his first nasty comment. He is the only cast member not to win an Emmy for the work here and that is a crime.
Meanwhile, amidst all the comedy, it is Patricia Heaton, as Debra Barone, who glues it all together week after week. Just like Audrey Meadows did on "The Honeymooners," Heaton is the voice of reason in all this hysteria. I know some people who thought her portrayal as Ray's wife was harsh and shrill. They don't get it. This character had to endure this torture day in and day out. It is a completely motivated acting choice. Watch her here as she and Ray speak to his son's teacher after he has written a story about his "angry family."
I own all nine seasons on DVD. And still watch them because I miss the show incredibly. It taught me so much.
It's all Entertainment Weekly's fault.
Dinner last night: Grilled bratwurst on my first ever visit to Angels Stadium.