When I have children, I’ll sit them on my lap and explain to them that when I was their age we had an expression about a piece of art that was not to our liking. That expression was, “not my cup of tea.” I’ll explain to them that this expression was used when talking about a piece of art that, despite its pedigree and achievement, was simply not to a person’s liking. This phrase will seem very alien to my children since they will have been brought up exclusively in the Internet age. Today, there are two absolute ways to voice your opinion about a piece of art and they are as follows:
“That shit sucks.”
“That shit is amazeballs!”
Of course, once I’m finished with my lecture on olden times civility, they will walk away and whisper to each other, “damn, Dad’s story about old phrases sucked shit!” Then they will plod off to their holographic gaming device and spend several hours killing zombies, an experience they will consider to be “the most amazeballs shit EVR!!!”
Well, I assume that’s what it’ll be like. One of the most lamentable facts about the Internet is that it’s brought about a society in which moderate thought is simply not considered. Nothing is just “okay.” Either something sucks or it’s amazing and it’s this dichotomy of thought that has led to an infantile discourse in politics, to be sure, but that has also seeped into our discussions about something as trivial as televised situation comedies. Which leads us to Everybody Loves Raymond.
It is a show that I genuinely enjoy yet never feel as alone in my opinions as when the TV show is brought up in conversation (which doesn’t happen much, granted, but happens more often than you would think for a show that ended its runs more than half a decade ago). The criticism for Everybody Loves Raymond is generally a reductive summation of the show’s set-up: a dopey husband married to an attractive, but demanding wife, and a pair of overbearing parents always butting in. Of course, those things are true about the show and a big reason I avoided it for so long.
But then I did something crazy; I watched it. It’s a good thing the show is a perennial re-run favorite or I would’ve missed out altogether. Does the show break new ground? No, but like Seinfeld before it, it uses the banality of everyday life to look at subjects that are not traditionally covered on Network television. Here’s an excellent clip of Ray trying to explain the existence of humanity to his daughter:
The scene hits all of the right notes. Ray enters the room with a stack of books about reproduction as he mistakenly presumes his daughter is curious about where babies come from, but the stakes are raised considerably when he learns she really wants to know why we are here at all. This scene is great as it shows the particular helplessness that parents feel when asked an impossible question, but it also serves as diving board for a more in depth conversation the adults engage in later in the episode.
Generally, when a show talks about religion at all, ambiguity goes out the window. Either there is a God or you’re a fool for believing in religion at all. However, this episode does a great job of showing the ambivalent nature of faith while providing a healthy dose of comedy to lighten the contemplative mood. What’s most impressive is that the writers are able to tackle the most poisonous of network television subjects and not only wring strong laughs out of it, but to do so without being offensive to anyone’s beliefs.
To some, this desire to not offend may be exactly what they dislike about Everybody Loves Raymond. Seinfeld kicked off a new wave of comedy in America with Larry David’s mission statement of “no hugging and no learning.” At the time, this was truly revolutionary and set the show apart from the treacle that infected many of the family oriented sitcoms of the day. And that cynicism is reflected in many of the hit shows of today. Everybody Loves Raymond flew in the face of that motto, but only up to a point. Certainly the show had moments of sweetness, however those moments were earned only after ugly displays of self-centeredness and disregard for others’ feelings were played out to often tragi-comic effect. Often the show took dark, psychological turns that would not be out of place in a Tennessee Williams play. In this scene, the boys are playing hooky from going to a family therapist, however it’s while they are devising their alibi they have a breakthrough:
It’s a gut wrenching moment that is both beautiful and sad. We see the cantankerous patriarch of the family, Frank Barone as a sympathetic figure and it is one of the few times on the show that he lets his guard down. Granted, having an actor as talented as Peter Boyle helps in selling this scene and he does a great job at keeping this moment from devolving into schmaltz.
However, throughout the show’s run the writers do their level best to keep the treacle factor to a minimum, providing truly human moments, while also mining those moments for laughs. It is a thin line to walk on a show centered around family and while they certainly faltered at times, it is more a testament to the cast and crew that the those times were pretty rare.
The same could be said about Ray Romano’s standup. There was a surprisingly long run for much of the 90s when comedians were given their own sitcoms based on their standup. Generally, the first season of the show would be culled straight from the comic’s act until the writers settled into a groove and added more depth to the supporting players. This is certainly true of Everybody Loves Raymond. It was this phenomenal set on Letterman that would win Romano his sitcom:
These jokes were the result of years on the standup circuit and because of this, Romano performs with a confidence and self-possession that seems out of place in the context of his more familiar sitcom persona. However, fans of the legendary animated Comedy Central show, Dr. Katz (possibly the most clever approach to showcasing standup comedy — as comics would come to professional therapist Dr. Katz and present their stand-up routines as “therapy sessions”) were more familiar with Ray Romano by this point as he was a frequent guest on the “couch”.
Romano’s standup bits are much like the sitcom as they seem pretty mainstream on the surface, but as we listen a bit closer we realize that the jokes revolve around a man who, despite whatever success he has earned feels embattled, stuck in an existence where his wants and needs are constantly hijacked by the ungrateful monsters who have infiltrated his life. In a sense, Romano can be seen as a more audience-friendly version of Louis CK, whose thoughts on fatherhood and marriage are just as disparaging, although CK takes a more scorched earth approach to speaking about it.
And really, there are more parallels in Romano’s and CK’s later work than most comedy nerds would like to admit. While Louie has gained a devoted following and deservedly so, Romano premiered his treatise on middle age a year earlier in a hour-long light drama called Men of A Certain Age. While it never captured the zeitgeist quite the way Louie did, it features the same kind of melancholy and humor about growing older, without the Felliniesque absurdity.
Like Raymond, the show is centered on Ray Romano, but a stellar supporting cast surrounds him. Men of a Certain Age follows the lives of three middle-aged guys who have been friends since college, and takes a peek at the mess they have made of themselves due to hedonistic impulses (Romano’s character is a recovering gambler and Scott Bakula’s an aging womanizer) or just never summoning up the courage to believe in yourself (Andre Braugher, playing against type, is a weak willed car salesman providing the series with some of its most heart wrenching and humorous moments).
While Everybody Loves Raymond plays Romano’s selfish man-child for laughs, Men of a Certain Age shows us the heartbreaking consequences of being trapped in a state of arrested development. The show garnered quite a bit of critical acclaim, but like the recent HBO show Enlightened, it never translated to even a respectable viewership.
Which is too bad, as it showed Romano in a different light and proved that he was capable of more than just what we saw on Raymond. Not only was it a great showcase for his considerable and underrated writing talent, the show proves that Romano had picked up some considerable acting chops as well. It may have been those acting chops that got him a recurring character gig on the NBC show, Parenthood (another critically heralded but under-seen show that may or may not be coming back to television).
Throughout his career, Romano has mined the pathos of the modern day family man and like any great comedian, he’s done so with an unflinching eye toward the truth. While he may never gain the kind of respectability that a raucous trailblazer like Louis CK enjoys, Romano has quietly built a solid reputation as a character actor and as a thoughtful chronicler of manhood in middle age. After Everybody Loves Raymond, Romano could have done anything he wanted and while he has indulged in a couple of cash grabs (Ice Age, though I think the at some point, everyone decided that animated movies get a free pass), he has pursued projects that are challenging both creatively as well as intellectually. If that doesn’t earn him some respect, nothing will.
Justin Gray is a standup comic, podcaster, and writer living in NYC, which is a fancy way of saying he is poor.