Next year marks 20 years since Everybody Loves Raymond premiered on CBS, turning stand-up Ray Romano and on-air colleagues Patricia Heaton and Brad Garrett into very big TV stars. The show also marked a turning point for creator Phil Rosenthal: An actor/writer who’d previously worked on sitcoms such as Coach, he was now in charge of one of the most successful (and financially lucrative) sitcoms of the late 1990s. Raymond left the air in 2005, but rather than churn out more comedies, Rosenthal has spent more of the past decade in front of the camera than behind it. In 2011, he starred in the successful documentary Exporting Raymond, which chronicled his efforts to help Russian TV producers mount an adaptation of his CBS comedy. And this month he can be seen on PBS, hosting I’ll Have What Phil’s Having, a six-week travelogue in which Rosenthal journeys to a half-dozen major cities around the world in search of grand culinary adventures. The shift from writer to star isn’t as big a transition as it might seem, given Rosenthal’s roots as an actor and the fact that so much of Raymond was infused with his DNA. “You heard my voice, whether you know it or not, in Raymond,” Rosenthal says. “Now, for better or worse, you’re seeing the face that goes with it.” Vulture checked in with Rosenthal by phone to talk about his new series, why he’s such a passionate believer in travel, and whether he plans to return to creating sitcoms.
Tell me how you ended up hosting a travelogue on PBS. It seems in a way to be a natural extension of Exporting Raymond.
It did come from that, and it came from before that. It came from Everybody Loves Raymond. It was after season one. We were filming the last show, and I asked Ray [Romano], “What are you going to do for your hiatus, for your vacation?” And he said, “Uh, I’m going to go to the Jersey Shore.” I said, “That’s nice — you ever been to Europe?” And he said no. I said, “No? Don’t you want to go?” And he says, “Nah.” I said, “Why not?” And he said, “I’m not really interested in other cultures.” Even his own culture. He’s from Italy. His family is from Italy. He wasn’t interested.
So a lightbulb went off in my head: We’ve got to do this [as an] episode. And about five years later, season five, we got enough money from CBS to do it. The best thing about that episode was that what I saw happened to Ray, the character, was … what happened to Ray, the person. We sent him over there as Ray Romano, and they sent him back as Roberto Benigni. He [was] transformed by the magic of traveling. And that’s when the other lightbulb went off in my head: Wow, what if I could do this for other people? It was always something I wanted to do, and I talked about doing it a lot. Then, a year after Raymond, I went to Russia to help the Russians turn Everybody Loves Raymond into Everybody Loves Kostya, which, by the way, just started streaming on Netflix this month.
[Laughs.] So PBS saw it. PBS calls me in and said, “We like this movie, we like you, we like the idea of you going places.” I said, “What do you have in mind?” And they said, “What do you have in mind?” And I told them my idea. I said, “What about a show where every episode I go to another great place on Earth, and I tell you where to eat as a way to get you to go there.” And they said, “We can’t believe you said this … We’ve been looking for a food-and-travel show with humor for years.” And that’s it. They said, “Where do you want to go?” I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “We’re going to give you six hours on the air.” I’m like, “What? Just like that?” Just like that. And that’s how I’ll Have What Phil’s Having happened.
How did you choose which six cities would be the destinations for season one?
I have a mission. What I want to do is get the person who has never traveled off the couch. To come and experience what I think is the greatest thing you can do with your time and your money — even if you don’t have a lot of it. There is no more mind-expanding thing you can do than travel. I think as human beings on Earth, all we try to do is connect with other human beings. And when you connect with someone from another culture it’s extra-special. So, why do these six? Because I want to entice you to come and do this, so I’m going to start with the best: Paris. Florence. Barcelona. Hong Kong. Tokyo. And for me, the best food city in America at the moment, Los Angeles.
Between Exporting Raymond and this show, you’ve been stepping in front of the camera more lately. Is this where you see your career going forward — more performing, less writing? Or a combination?
I love it all. I’ve been trained in writing, performing, directing, producing. I love every aspect of the business — except the business. The business is the worst part of the business. Everything else is great. Writing, performing, directing, producing. They are all branches off the same tree. Meaning, if you are creative in this way, I don’t really differentiate. I like them all. When you’re a writer, you’re looking to connect with your audience through your writing. So, now, being in front of the camera, I’m trying to connect with you in a more direct way. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun. It’s obviously fun. Especially because I’m not acting. There is no performance anxiety because I’m really not performing. I’m just being.
Did you physically get ill from anything? Any food poisoning?
Not yet. I can’t imagine that it won’t happen at some point. I’m guessing it’s an occupational hazard, but I’m not Anthony Bourdain, who is a superhero. I watch him, and I love him, but I’m not doing that. I can’t do that. My joke is that I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything. So I feel like I’m like you: a guy who watches Anthony Bourdain and loves it, but is not going to be as adventurous as he is. But I’m open. I’m going to eat an eel, right? I’m going to eat it, but you’re going to know by looking at me, it’s not something I do every day.
I wanted to ask about your other career as a writer. You worked on a pilot for ABC back in 2014. It didn’t get picked up to series. What was that process like for you?
It felt like, doing that, my sensibility was out of touch with what they wanted. That’s my takeaway from that experience. I loved working with the cast and the crew, and the people I worked with couldn’t have been better. I really enjoyed it. I think I let them down because I’m not comfortable doing things that I’m not comfortable doing. So, certain things that I was being asked to do, I wasn’t the right guy to do them. And the network has every right to ask of these things, but I’m afraid I was just not the right guy for the job. Does that make sense?
It does. But you’re also someone who created one of the bigger comedy hits of the past two decades. Do you think you’ll try again to create another show, even after the experience at ABC?
For me to attempt it again, I’m going to need two things: the inspiration and the person. The idea and the person I want to write for. Those are the two things that I will need. [And] I will need the support of a network to let me do those things the way I do them, because I am incapable of doing it any other way than the way I do it. I quit Raymond twice before it got on the air. Not because I’m obstinate and unwilling to work with people, but because I don’t know how to do it any other way. Once I’m involved personally, I’m involved personally. I can’t change who I am. That’s how it feels to me. I’m not saying this is a good quality, by the way.
Are you working on anything right now?
I’m writing a play. And I have a little online show that I’m going to do with my friend David Wild, who writes for Rolling Stone. He has a lot of friends in the music business, and I have a lot of friends in the television and film business. And we have lunch all the time, and we’re always bringing these people together over lunch, and we thought we should film this some time. So, we’re going to do it for Fandango. It’s called Naked Lunch. It’s a lovely, fun little project to do, and you never know what’s going to come of that. They offered it to us, so at the very least, we can have nice lunches.
You’re getting people to pay you to do the things you like to do anyway. I sense a business strategy here.
This is a brilliant scam, maybe.