Anatomy of a Failure: The Paul Reiser Show vs. Curb Your Enthusiasm

Any television show put on against American Idol has a hard row to hoe. Put it on mid-season, things get tougher. So maybe that was enough to doom Paul Reiser’s return to TV, no matter how good his show might have been. Reiser complains that NBC didn’t give the show a chance, giving him a bad time slot and not enough promotion. Maybe, but I fear he’s deluding himself. By not promoting the show NBC gave him an excuse and allowed him to avoid the truth — The Paul Reiser Show didn’t work. It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario in which it would have thrived.

I don’t mean to kick a man when he’s down; I like Paul Reiser. He’s funny. He’s a good actor, better than many stand-up comedians. Had things gone a little differently, he might have been a fine character actor (he has small but memorable roles in both Diner and Aliens, and if he hadn’t landed on Must See TV, directors might have continued giving him parts in their movies — Quentin Tarantino, take note).

But his various forays into series television always seemed like he was in some lesser version of a more popular show.

Nineteen eighty seven was the year that both Full House and My Two Dads premiered, the latter featuring Reiser. Full House clearly won over My Two Dads in the race to be the best orphaned children raised by bumbling men show. (That may have just been about the numbers; Full House boasted three dads.)

Then there’s Paul Buchman of Mad About You, a less cynical version of a Seinfeld character. Neurotic? Absolutely. But able have a fairly normal, healthy relationship. He could have been a second cousin of George Costanza or Elaine Benes. Paul Buchman might joke about crawling under his desk at work to take a nap. George actually installs a bed. Paul was kinder, gentler, more functional, and as such, not as funny.

Of course, Mad About You was a very successful show. Some people preferred the more optimistic, less cynical vibe, to the harsh world of Seinfeld. So maybe we shouldn’t fault Paul Reiser for thinking lightning might strike twice. He’d already found success in the nineties as a more benign version of a Larry David creation. With Curb Your Enthusiasm finding the broader audience of syndication, maybe it was time to try again.

At first glance, the two shows are virtually identical. Both are shot with one camera, documentary style. Both revolve around a real life aging star (or in Larry David’s case creator/executive producer) of a successful nineties sitcom who has too much time and money on his hands. But Reiser made sure he had kids in his show because, you know, it’s so much nicer. Once again, Paul Reiser’s kinder, gentler comedy reared its ugly head.

Having tried to backwards engineer their own version of Curb, the makers of The Paul Reiser Show threw out everything that makes Curb Your Enthusiasm original, interesting, and most importantly, funny.

Every episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm is based on an outline by Larry David. Nearly all the dialogue is improvised and comes across as more natural than a scripted series. The laughs often come from surprising places, at surprising moments. Comedy is about surprise, so the jokes even in any reasonable scripted series are on some level surprising too. But the inevitable set up/punch line/set up/punch line aspect of scripted sit-coms can’t help but feel more stilted, and by definition, more planned, less spontaneous.

The Paul Reiser Show, of course, was scripted, and suffered for it. Not that there aren’t very good scripted sit-coms. The writers of Two and a Half Men have a gift for writing good jokes, and throwing a lot of them at the audience. The Office, much like Curb, often finds humor in the insensitivity of its characters, and the awkward situations that that insensitivity creates.  30 Rock has Tracy Morgan and Alec Baldwin spewing madness and Tina Fey’s aggressive likability. Maybe they hoped Reiser was that likable. Alas, he is no Tina Fey.

In the opening monologue of The Paul Reiser Show (each episode starts with Reiser talking directly to the audience with an Annie Hall-like monologue) Reiser tells us that married men don’t really have friends, just friends of their wives or fathers of their sons’ friends. It’s a reasonable comedic conceit, and it had promise. We expect he’ll be stuck with a cast of non-friends who he can’t stand.

The similarity to Curb makes our expectations for that conflict even more pronounced. We await the Larry Davidian awkward moments. But, we ask ourselves, can Paul Reiser, who’s made a career as a nice guy, break from character, take what some might perceive as a risk, and make a joke to a successful African-American doctor about affirmative action (as Larry David did in one episode)?  Will he, the sweet, caring husband Paul Buchman from Mad About You, allow himself to be depicted trying to get out of his marriage because he doesn’t want to deal with the hassle of his wife’s cancer (another David moment)? Will the author of Babyhood, Couplehood, and most recently, Familyhood, be willing to comment to a father on the impressive size of his six year old son’s penis?

Sadly, no. Everyone on the show gets along. And there’s nothing funny about everyone getting along.

Who are these friends of his? They’re a multi-cultural melting pot of soccer dads. There’s a black friend, a very Jewish looking friend, probably there to make Reiser seem less so, a white guy to round things out, but the only one for whom race is a factor is the middle eastern friend, Habib (played by Omid Djalili). But his ethnicity isn’t confronted directly in any way.

Instead, the jokes are about how silly he is, selling irregular goods and mispronouncing entrepreneur. Curb is certainly guilty of mining racial stereotypes for laughs, but when there is such a character in Curb at least some of the humor comes from the insensitivity and latent racism of the white characters, which is more interesting, and frankly less racist.

To give credit where it’s due, they made one attempt at a joke addressing Habib’s Middle Eastern origins. A woman in the midst of an allergy attack brought on by a cat tells Habib that she hates Persians. He’s taken aback, then he realizes she’s talking about cats. It’s not the worst joke, but since so few jokes like it had been made, it feels out of place. Like a child sneaking an extra cookie, not realizing that no one cares if he has one, the show is testing limits that aren’t there.

Larry David has a cameo in that first episode. The scene (and much of the first episode) revolves around an offer to both Paul and Larry to host a new game show. Paul invites Larry to lunch to discuss the matter. Larry, after berating his friend for dragging him to the valley to have lunch, tells Paul, “you should be doing a show like mine…your version of Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Thus, they acknowledged their inspiration.  But what about the biting edge that drives so much of the humor of Curb? In the same scene, David tells Reiser, “In life, I’m nice, on TV I’m mean. You’re the opposite. You know what I say about you. No, Paul — he’s not really that nice. He’s much meaner than you think.” By using his real name and shooting documentary style, Reiser is asking us to accept this show as his real life. This scene indicates that someone involved with this show felt that it would make more sense for this show if he was mean. That’s the person they should have listened to.

This odd battle for the show’s soul was most pronounced in the climactic scene of the first episode, when Paul auditions for the game show. Frustrated by the stupidity of the contestants (and I thought the stupid answers were a highlight of the show — Question: During what month of pregnancy does a woman start to look pregnant? Answer: February) Paul lashes out. But even here, so close to letting out his inner Larry David, they go wrong. Instead of watching his frustration build we get just a few scenes of him snapping at the contestants; it feels abrupt and out of character. Worse, we see him watching the clips of himself and cringing, ashamed of himself. The producers of the game show love it, and we’re told the test audience loves it. “You’re saying what everyone at home wants to say but doesn’t get to,” the producer tells him. This is a refrain often said about Curb by the show’s fans, so much so that the tag line for Curb’s advertising for a while was, “Deep inside you know you’re him.” The game show could be taken to represent the dark side of Curb, the meanness, the cynicism. At the end of the show, Paul doesn’t take the job. He doesn’t want to go on television and be mean and nasty. He wants to be remembered as a nice guy. And he will be. We’ll always remember him on Mad About You.

Michael Salop is talking more and more like Larry David, much to the annoyance of those close to him.

Anatomy of a Failure: The Paul Reiser Show vs. Curb […]