Translating Comedy Into Russian in ‘Exporting Raymond’

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

For starters, I’ll admit to never being a huge fan of Everybody Loves Raymond. I didn’t exactly dislike it, but I never felt like the target audience and it simply wasn’t my cup of tea. Furthermore, all I know about Russian comedy, I learned from Laura’s excellent comedy tourism series.

So I was a bit of novice going into Exporting Raymond, a documentary following Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal as he heads to Moscow to help develop a Russian version of the show. Why would he want to do this? It’s hard to say for sure. Possibly he just got in over his head; maybe the rubles did the talking.

Rosenthal must have had some inkling that this wouldn’t be an easy process, since one rarely makes a documentary about a straightforward business trip. And the whole documentary is his — he’s not only the star, but the director, writer and producer.

One of the first, and most consistent, issues Rosenthal faces is the argument that Russians aren’t interested in a nuanced family comedy with a “soft” male protagonist, because it doesn’t feel Russian enough. “I thought it was universal,” Rosenthal says early on. “I thought it was. It may not be.”

Again, not knowing the first thing about Russian life, that could be true. It also could be that he’s just not asking the right people. Even in the US, where Raymond was consistently one of the top-rated shows for much of its run, most people in the country weren’t watching it. It’s impressive that 33 million people watched the finale, but it still leaves 89% of the population doing something else.

That lack of acknowledgement starts to make Rosenthal seem a little delusional, like he’s maybe never met anyone in the States who didn’t watch his show. The fact that there is no other creative voice to be found in the documentary doesn’t help. As with Believe , a little bit of distance could have made a world of difference.

Even with a firm grasp on the reigns, Rosenthal doesn’t come across as entirely likeable. He seems dismissive of Russian culture, and not particularly gracious with some of his Russian hosts. He’s incredibly precious about his show, which is understandable but clearly detrimental to the Russian production’s progress. There are a few, timid interviews with other executives who suggest he might be hovering a bit, because even the most generous editing can’t hide his overbearingness.

Despite all of the film’s flaws (including a voiceover that veers perilously close to Carrie Bradshaw territory), it’s impossible not to root for the project to work out. Unsurprisingly, Rosenthal’s greatest skill is crafting a narrative for the documentary that really makes you wonder how, and at times if, the show will be made and succeed.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Yes. The best bits come from Rosenthal’s own parents. I never quite understood the Barones — my family could not be less like that — but the three minutes spent with Rosenthal’s real parents in Queens suddenly made the entire series make sense.

What does it have to say about comedy? There is much discussion about whether humor is universal, which Rosenthal clearly thinks it is. It also notes the shows that have gone big around the world: before The Office became a franchise, local versions of The Nanny were apparently huge.

Is it funny? Most of the laughs come from Rosenthal’s parents, who are an absolute riot. And stick around for the closing credits for the funniest bit in the film.

Can I stream it on Netflix? No, but it is on DVD.

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She doesn’t speak a word of Russian, but she knows na zdrowie is the Polish for cheers, so she’s set.

Translating Comedy Into Russian in ‘Exporting Raymond’