Actor-musician Paul Reiser

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Actor, comedian, best-selling author and accomplished musician discusses his new album and explains why he likes sad songs.

Paul Reiser is best known for TV's Mad About You—the semi-autobiographical series he created and co-produced. He also co-wrote the theme song for the award-winning show. The Manhattan native dreamed of being a comedian since childhood. He studied music in college and performed at local comedy clubs during summers. After pursuing a career in stand-up, Reiser turned to features and the small screen. He's also written and produced comedy cable specials and is a best-selling author. He's currently working on a new NBC series, a new book and an album release, "Unusual Suspects."


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Paul Reiser back to this program. The Emmy-winning creator and star of “Mad About You” will be returning to NBC next year with a new sitcom called, ironically, interestingly, appropriately, “The Paul Reiser Show.”
Paul Reiser: I’m glad they didn’t go with somebody else. (Laughter) More on that in a moment. What you may not know, though, is that Paul is an accomplished piano player who is about to release a new CD called, “Unusual Suspects.” From the project, here now some of the video for the single, “Unsung Heroes,” with singer Julia Fordham.
Tavis: I was just whispering to you during that clip, you did the theme song for “Mad About You.” I remembered this.
Reiser: And I’m so glad you told me that. I was unaware until we chatted. (Laughter) That’s why it’s good for me to get out and do these.
Tavis: I love that theme song.
Reiser: Thank you, that’s so nice to hear. Periodically we’ll hear people say they got married to that, that was their wedding song, the “Mad About You” theme song. That’s nice.
Tavis: It’s funny, on my radio show I just had a conversation with Charles Fox, one of the great theme writers of all time in this business – “The Love Boat.”
Reiser: Everything.
Tavis: He did everything, this guy, Charles Fox. We were having a great conversation about the fact that the way TV has changed so much now, where they get the show on, during the credits they’re running the credits so fast, and then they want to get to the next show, “Coming up right now,” there’s no commercial break, so theme music for TV shows is gone now.
Reiser: Gone. I was at a charity event with Charles Fox and he played a little medley of his, and I couldn’t believe A, how many great songs he wrote, but how long and how complicated they were. “Laverne and Shirley.” In those days you could do 60 seconds.
Tavis: “Love, American Style,” all that stuff.
Reiser: Yeah, they were great pieces of music. But now, 12 seconds, into the show.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So will “Paul Reiser” have a theme song? The “Paul Reiser Show?”
Reiser: Quick, quick. Just hum it and goodbye. (Laughter) We got jokes to tell, folks. We’re not here for the songs.
Tavis: Are you anxious to get back to this TV thing?
Reiser: It’s been fun. I wasn’t particularly looking to do it, and it sort of came. It was a nice invitation and we came up with an idea for a show, and it’s very exciting. It’ll be on in the spring, and it’s pretty close to my life because I tell people I’m not smart enough to make anything up at this point, so just let me write exactly what happened yesterday, and we’ll film it.
Tavis: So the TV show is about, then, since it mirrors your life, as you say –
Reiser: Yeah, I play me, who’s had a hit TV show 11 years ago and has been very happy at home, and after 11 years thought maybe I should get out of the house and do something. So this is the search of now what happens in my life.
Tavis: That’s the show.
Reiser: That’s the show.
Tavis: I like that. (Laughter)
Reiser: There you go.
Tavis: Pretty authentic.
Reiser: It is.
Tavis: Yeah. Is it true that you can, in fact, even with all the money, is it true that you can, in fact, be happy at home for 11 years without being on TV every week?
Reiser: Oh, are you kidding? (Laughs) Is that why you’re here every day? Because had you known that you could be happy without being on TV, (laughter) you would have opted for that?
Tavis: No, I know you’re being funny, but I’m asking that seriously because there is this sense that I’ve picked up from some people in this town that if you’re not out there all the time then you don’t really exist. You’re only as good as your last hit. You know all that stuff.
Reiser: That’s not me. I so don’t love being out there. I was very happy at home and when I’m not working, I don’t have the need to be out there. This was actually – as I said, I wasn’t looking to do it but it seemed like the right thing at the right time, and I would have been content being home for a while.
But what was funny in the sort of down time – and I did, in the last 11 years I did some film and some stuff, but some of the things that I’ve always wanted to do, and one of those for me was getting back to music.
I was a music major in college and had always said, “Well, one of these days I’m going to get back to writing.” About a year or two ago I finally sat down, I started playing, and I didn’t know what I was doing, if it was going to be songs or symphonic pieces or whatever.
I bumped into my friend Julia Fordham, who’s one of the greatest singers out there. I think she has this phenomenal voice. I said, “It’s funny I should bump into you, because I’ve been writing music and I have this one song that might be something you can do. Do you want to play?”
And we sat and we wrote a song together, and it surprised us. We went, “Well, that was easy and great, let’s do another.” So we suddenly kept doing it with no – there was no agenda, there was nobody waiting for it. This wasn’t even with no thought of being an album. After we got a couple we said, “Let’s put them down,” and there it is, our baby is born.
Tavis: “Unsung Heroes” is about what?
Reiser: The song called “Unsung Heroes,” which is sort of our offering, a gift to soldiers and even more specifically families of soldiers in Afghanistan, and really anywhere. I had written the music, and as almost all the songs on the album I would give Julia this music and she would go off and get inspired, and words would come to her.
As it happens, the day that I gave her this music she struck up a conversation with a woman whose son is serving in Afghanistan, and it was a real eye-opener for her. She had just never heard a first-person account of what it means when her son – you don’t know when they’re coming and it changes and how do you sustain someone you love halfway around the world?
This song fell out of her and just blew me away. I went, “My God, that is -” it was just such a simple – it’s called “Unsung Heroes” because those people are often forgotten.
To me, the families at home and the moms who keep the families going and kids who are waiting to see when their parents will come home, if their parents will come home, that is every bit as heroic as being the one out in harm’s way.
The impact of the song has been really surprising and humbling to us. We were asked to perform this at a benefit for an organization that’s called Wounded Warriors, where they benefit soldiers, so the audience was all families of soldiers and military, and people were coming over to us and going, “Thank you.”
It’s like nobody ever talks about that side of the equation. We thought, well, this is something – as Mel Brooks would say, this is something bigger than Phil. There’s something going on here with this song.
Tavis: I see you like the prefix “un.” You’ve got “Unsung Heroes,” “Unusual Suspects.”
Reiser: It’s sort of – yes, once we have an idea, we milk it. (Laughter) They’re so hard to come by.
Tavis: So you’re not singing on this.
Reiser: No, I’ve been asked not to ever sing. No, I don’t sing – no, I –
Tavis: You don’t sing at all?
Reiser: No, no. Let’s make that really clear.
Tavis: Come on, come on, come on.
Reiser: Because people go, “Gee, you’re so -” no, no, I don’t sing. But I wrote the – I play piano on it and I wrote the music, and then Julia would write the lyrics and she sings, and she, as I said, this is –
Tavis: Do you know how many people I’ve had on this show over the years who started out just like Paul Reiser –
Reiser: Look how young I used to be.
Tavis: – as great artists who play, and people told them not to sing and they ended up singing. One of the best stories – George Benson was told to never sing by his own manager, in fact.
Reiser: Really?
Tavis: Told me that story in this chair. I just had Dave Coz here the other day.
Reiser: No kidding.
Tavis: “Dave, play, don’t sing.” So maybe –
Reiser: I knew Pavarotti when he was just a bus boy, (laughter) and he would sing. I said, “Hey, pal, keep it down, and maybe, you know, go on a diet,” and he didn’t listen, and it worked out well for him. So you never know.
Tavis: So maybe you’ll be singing (unintelligible).
Reiser: You never know, exactly, and ballooning up. No, that’s not a goal of mine, and I was a huge fan of Julia Fordham before I got to meet her, so to me this is a Julia Fordham album and I was just thrilled for the collaboration, which was so fun and easy. So for me to dip my toe into that world and just start to write music with an artist that I really admire and hear her sing – and she sounds better than ever. Just go listen to her, for no other reason.
Tavis: What’s your songwriting process? Where do you find the inspiration, how does it work for you?
Reiser: It’s really pretty uncomplicated. I would just sit down and just start noodling and something would come. The hardest part for me was learning the technology part, which is pretty simply, like hit play, and using these songwriting programs. I was like a kid in a candy shop, I was like, “Ooh, fake violins and drum loops.” (Laughter) “Wow, I can make it sound like -” I’m, like, 12 years behind everybody else.
So that was the fun part, but I would sit down and I would just start writing a melody, and it was not long to write a song. I would just give it to Julia and she would listen to it, and then we’d sort of simplify it for her and she would go away, and she has this sort of very artistic muse, creative muse process where it comes to her and (makes noise) it usually comes out in one big wallop.
Almost every song on here is pretty darn melancholy, which is – I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like a nice, sad song. I wanted to call the album “Why So Sad,” (laughter) because two very happy people, and every song you want to shoot yourself.
Tavis: What is it about the melancholia that turns you on?
Reiser: I don’t know. I just like being moved by anything, and I don’t get moved by a happy – you can dance to a happy song, you can drive to a happy song, but a sad song – and her voice and her artistry, it impacts you and it’s emotional. So anything that veered on upbeat and happy, I don’t want hear it.
Tavis: What’s funny about that to me, though – we’ve only met a couple of times but I’m looking at you and you’re this funny guy, you make people laugh, you seem to be a happy person. I’m trying to juxtapose the comedian with the melancholy.
Reiser: I’m a crazy amalgam. I am a happy person. Life is good. But I always love – even as a kid I just love moving music and stirring music and even as a kid studying classical music, I would always lean toward – here was a very validating moment.
I was a kid, a teenager, and I saw Ray Charles interviewed on some hip show, it might have been “Dick Cavett” or something, where else, where they would have talked in depth.
Tavis: That comes to mind for me, “Dick Cavett,” hip, but go ahead.
Reiser: But the depth of the conversation. I remember him saying, he asked, “What do you listen to,” and expecting it to be the hippest, and he said, “Well, I listen to classics,” and the classics were Rachmaninov and Sebelius. I’m going –
Tavis: Ray Charles? Exactly.
Reiser: Yeah, I’m going, “I love those guys.” My list would be those two guys and Ray Charles. And I go, “Well, okay, there must be something there that works for people.” I don’t know what it is about it, but these – I also love – and here’s a funny thing. It’s such a different world. When I put on a CD it’s like you don’t even put on a CD anymore. You just pick the – and we were thinking, well, what’s the order? It’s like, “There’s no order; people pop around.”
But I love putting on a bunch of songs that will last for one mood, that sort of you can go away into one place, I don’t want it to be jolted. What’s really nice about this is they’re all very different songs but they all kind of fit together, that you can drive for a while and you won’t be thrown. You will just go each song.
Tavis: This works.
Reiser: It works and it works as a whole, and I say if you listen to this album and you don’t fall in love with Julia Fordham’s voice I will drive to your house and explain to you why you’re wrong. (Laughter) I don’t do that often, but for your audience I would do that.
Tavis: It’s impossible, I would think, though, to fall in love with her voice and not appreciate your composition. They go hand-in-hand, now.
Reiser: Well, God bless you.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, well.
Reiser: I’ll put it – that’s why I drove to their homes. I go, “Well, here’s a little piece of paper that tells you my contribution.” (Laughter) So that way I’m covered.
Tavis: My time is up. Before I let you go, though, how did you get away to the stage, doing your comedy, to the TV screen, away from what is obviously your first love? How did that happen? Did you start here and end up on stage and screen?
Reiser: You know what? It sort of went through comedy, because there was a well-laid-out path for me – not for me, but for anybody. It’s like, if you want to be a comedian go to these clubs on a Tuesday night, and then you come back on a Wednesday.
I went, “Okay.” They didn’t have that comparable thing for music, and it’s like, “I need somebody to show me what’s the plan.” Now I’m a little older and I say, “Maybe I can make my own plan.” But at the time I liked somebody who had it all laid out.
Tavis: So I suspect, then, you’re going to do more of this.
Reiser: I would hope so. I’m hoping, too. I hope you enjoy it.
Tavis: I’m looking forward to it. The new project from Paul Reiser is called “Unusual Suspects,” Julia Fordham does the vocals and Paul Reiser does the composition and the music and it’s a wonderful collaboration.
Reiser: Lovely to see you, man.
Tavis: I look forward to seeing you on NBC.
Reiser: Sometime in the spring.
Tavis: Sometime in the spring. There’s a great promotion – sometime in the spring.
Reiser: Yeah, you know –
Tavis: “The Paul Reiser Show” on NBC.
Reiser: – sit by your TV now and wait. (Laughter)
Tavis: Till the spring.
Reiser: Yeah.
Tavis: Sometime, you will see “The Paul Reiser Show.”
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm