It took Paul Reiser decades to return to his first love — the comedy stage

click to enlarge Paul Reiser is mad about doing standup again. - MICHAEL BROSILOW PHOTO
Michael Brosilow photo
Paul Reiser is mad about doing standup again.

Paul Reiser was an omnipresent comedic force not too long ago. During the '80s, you'd see him doing stand-up on late-night talk shows or HBO between jobs adding comic relief to movies like Diner, Beverly Hills Cop and Aliens. During the '90s, he co-starred with Helen Hunt in Mad About You, a long-running NBC sitcom that kicked off evening lineups that included Friends and Seinfeld.

Mad About You's success led Reiser to more movies and television, both as an actor and writer, and for most of the past two decades his Hollywood work kept him from his original passion — stand-up comedy. Before the pandemic, Reiser started doing some shows, and after a global pause, he's back hopping on stages to reconnect with audiences, including at Spokane Comedy Club this weekend.

We talked with Reiser about getting back in the game, his early years, and the loss of friend Bob Saget. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

INLANDER: Why get back into doing stand-up in clubs?

REISER: My buddies, we started together; we just wanted to be comics. Stand-up, that was it. The TV and the movies were like an accidental surprise, a nice accident. That worked out well. But it was always my goal to get back. And I hadn't done it since Mad About You started. It ended up being a long time; I just didn't do it. But I had always been itching to do it.

And then, finally, I just ran out of excuses and sort of started from scratch. It took about a year really to get comfortable again, to get that muscle back. I was out right before the pandemic; it's been a year, almost two years, since I was out. And I said, let's go do some clubs, because there's something about the clubs that feels more at home. There's more interaction, you're looking at the people, they're right there.

That itch was always there — was it hard to actually get started doing jokes again?

Mad About You was kind of all-consuming, because you're writing it, you're getting ready for next season in between the seasons. So I knew I wasn't gonna do it until the time was right. But it was always my intention to get back.

In the beginning, I'd go on stage, and I had, you know, three minutes, five minutes of new stuff. And the audience is looking at me like, "Hey, you're the guy from TV? What are you doing here?" And I'm looking at them going, "I don't know what I'm doing here either." It took awhile to get comfortable again, but the thrill of it and the excitement of it was there. I tell people there's not a lot of things you could do at 60 that feel the same way you did when you were 20, but stand-up is one of those things.

Is there a noticeable difference between now and the old days, in the audience or the clubs?

In many ways, it's the same old, same old. There's always a pool of comics who want to get on. Audiences are maybe a little different and a little more savvy. They've watched the last 20 years of content and the last 20 years of news. It's a different world. You didn't have a cell phone joke, you didn't have an internet joke 25 years ago, so your references have changed, but the way you do it, it is the same. With stand-up, it's low tech, it's just you talking to people.

Was Bob Saget a peer of yours?

We were exactly on parallel paths, even to the point of having shows on the air at the same time, and then getting back into stand-up at the same time. I think he got back a little earlier.

I hadn't seen him for ages, and then just last summer, we had a couple of lunches together, a group of us. And it was impressive, I had just forgotten how funny he was. You don't see it coming. He doesn't look like he's trying for it. He just puts together a sentence that you go, "Well, that's absurdly funny." And as gentle as everybody has been saying, you know, he was just a gentle, sweet, really supportive, good guy."

I've always been as conscious of you as an actor as a stand-up. Were both things always intertwined for you?

I did some acting in college. But I think it's because I hadn't discovered stand-up yet. It's the performance bug. You want to get out there, and you want to get laughs. I wasn't itching to do Shakespeare. My idols weren't necessarily De Niro, Pacino or Brando. It was George Carlin and Robert Klein and Mel Brooks.

There were some people who said, "I just want to get noticed and do stand-up so that I can get a movie." But that wasn't us, we just really wanted to do stand-up. And so getting back to it was so refreshing. It feels like this rush of nostalgia, but also of newness, because it's like, "Wow, I remember going to the clubs when I was 20, when I was 19." And it feels like the same struggle. You're still looking at a joke on paper: "Why did that not work tonight? But it worked yesterday. Let me fix that." That's the fun part.

When you grow up in New York City, it just seems like the world is your oyster for entertainment.

You don't know enough to appreciate it when you're a kid; you don't realize that this isn't everywhere. But yeah, as a kid, I'd go with my parents to see Neil Simon comedies on Broadway. And going to see classical musicians at Carnegie Hall, going to hear blues bands in the Village, going to hear jazz. In high school I had a group of friends, and we'd go to Grand Funk Railroad and Led Zeppelin concerts at the [Madison Square] Garden. But the other group of friends would be going to the Bitter End, a club in the Village, and we'd see George Carlin and Robert Klein play for 112 people. I can vividly picture sitting in the back of the club and watching Robert Klein, and not really thinking, "How do I do that?" but it being sort of a ray of light like, "Wow, that's really fun." ♦

Paul Reiser • Fri-Sat, Jan. 28-29, 7 pm and 9:30 pm • $25-$35 • Spokane Comedy Club • 315 W. Sprague • spokanecomedyclub.com • 509-318-9998

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About The Author

Dan Nailen

Dan Nailen is the managing editor of the Inlander, where he oversees coverage of arts and culture. He's previously written and edited for The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Weekly, Missoula Independent, Salt Lake Magazine, The Oregonian and KUER-FM. He grew up seeing the country in an Air Force family and studied...