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LOCAL | 2007 JEWISH BOOK FESTIVAL

Paul Reiser kicks off book fest

Paul Reiser makes a point during his keynote address to the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival Sunday night. Photo: Kristi Foster

Paul Reiser makes a point during his keynote address to the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival Sunday night. Photo: Kristi Foster


BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Paul Reiser, longtime co-star with Helen Hunt in the TV comedy hit Mad About You, an award-winning actor, comedian and musical composer, was the keynote speaker at the 2007 Saint Louis Jewish Book Festival.

Reiser, who was interviewed by Joe Williams, film critic of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before taking questions from the audience, offered wide-ranging views on his comedic role models, the state of current TV and film and the ups and downs of screen careers. About 1,400 people attended the Jewish Book Festival opener in the Robert L. Edison Gymnasium of the Carlyn H. Wohl Building of the Jewish Community Center.

Reiser has garnered Emmy, Golden Globe, American Comedy Award and Screen Actors Guild nominations for Best Actor in a Comedy Series and as co-creator of the acclaimed NBC series Mad About You. He also attained success as the author of Couplehood and Babyhood, humorous takes on relationships and parenting, each of which made The New York Times Best-Seller List.

Post-Dispatch film critic Joe Williams asked Reiser a series of questions about his work and the entertainment industry, which gave Reiser the opportunity to hold forth on a variety of topics. Asked what he has been doing since Mad About You completed its run nine years ago, Reiser said, "I've been writing and producing a lot of pilots for TV shows," in addition to writing, producing and directing a film based on his family, The Thing About My Folks, a project he had wanted to do for over 20 years. "I always pictured Peter Falk playing my dad," Reiser said. "When I told Peter Falk that, he said we just had to do the film," Reiser added, describing the film as a "labor of love."

Regarding the TV show pilots he has been writing and producing, Reiser said, "Some of the concepts are comedic, some are more ambitious. Preparing pilots for shows is like playing the lottery. You just have to say to the decision-makers, here's the show. The non-comedy shows are a bit harder to sell. Everybody says they want something different, but often when you try something different, producers want to go back to the familiar."

In response to Williams' question about how Mad About You got on the air, Reiser recalled, "It was kind of a miracle. The network wanted something as a companion piece to Seinfeld even before that show really took off. They wanted something like 30 Something, which had just gone off the air, but smarter and funnier. I wanted to do a show about the small minutae of relationships, a show about a married couple, and the producers jumped at the idea. And it really worked."

Asked how much control he had over the contents of the show as a writer, Reiser said, "We actually had a lot of control over the main concepts. We would get suggestions from producers like we should change a color on the set from blue to yellow, or substitute a dog for a pet hamster, but by and large we had considerable control over the show's contents."

Williams asked Reiser to expand on his insistence that Mad About You was really not about a man and a woman who were opposites, or about a Jewish man and a Gentile woman like the show Brigit Loves Bernie.

"I never conceived it as a show about a Jew and a non-Jew. As a matter of fact, before we cast Helen Hunt, none of the original prospects was blonde. We must have met 300 actresses. But when Helen auditioned, she was perfect for the part. We never used the words 'Jew' or 'Jewish' on the show. I have always shied away from making shows too anything, whether it is Jewish or Italian. Actually, Helen seems very Jewish since she is smart and funny, and in real life she is partly Jewish."

Asked about a Christmas versus Hanukkah show, Reiser joked, "I did come up with a dynamite show about Shavuos, but it was killed." Reiser peppered his remarks with frequent ad libs and spontaneous jokes, reflecting his long and successful career as a stand-up comic. Asked who his role models and influences were among comedians, Reiser said, "I first got inspired with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner doing 'The 2,000-year-old man.' That was truly funny and made me want to do the same. When I was 17, I tried to sound like Woody Allen, but was not very good until I found my own voice. I was also influenced and inspired by George Carlin, Robert Klein, Alan King and Jackie Mason. My family also liked watching The Ed Sullivan Show, which some of my relatives pronounced 'Ed Solomon,' and all of the great comedians he featured."

Regarding how much his being Jewish has influenced his work, Reiser said, "Well, first of all, I've never been a Gentile. I once invited a non-Jewish friend to come over to join my family for dinner and she was amazed at how fast and funny everyong was at the table. There is something about being Jewish that makes us hard-wired to do comedy."

Surprisingly, Reiser did not have a good experience at one of his two appearances in the famous "Borscht Belt" resort The Concord in the Catskills in upstate New York. "I was working with Elsa Manchester, and she warned me that the last comedian who worked with her at the Concord left the stage crying. They gave the audience wooden mallets which could break walnuts, and which the patrons would pound on the table instead of clapping. The problem was that you could not tell if they were laughing or booing with those mallets. I felt like a boxer being beaten up who just had to survive his 25 minutes in the ring."

Reiser said that his wife had encouraged him to take two roles which he was intially reluctant to accept. One was a part in One Night at McCool's, which was actually set in St. Louis, and based on a popular local bar, according to Williams. "I really did not want the part because it involved a scene in a weird bondage outfit, but when Michael Douglas himself called me, my wife told me I had to take the part." The other such part gave Reiser an opportunity to work with Woody Allen, when Allen directed his first stage play, Writer's Block. "In movies, Woody Allen hardly ever talks to the cast, but with the play, until we got it right, he would come backstage each night and talk about why some jokes did not work, and how to fix it. That was the best part of the experience, seeing him in action and working directly with him," Reiser said.

Reiser was disappointed in the limited release of his 2005 film, The Thing About My Folks, based on his own family, which starred Peter Falk, Olympia Dukakis and Elizabeth Perkins. "It was a film I just had to do, one of those 'must' projects that an artist says he or she must do while he has the opportunity.

Reiser's company, Nuance Productions has kept him busy developing projects in conventional and new media. Asked about the threatened writers' strike in Hollywood, Reiser said, "As a writer, I feel that writers too often are undervalued in the industry. There could not be shows and projects without good writers, and I hope we can find a way to settle this dispute and give the writers what they deserve."

Following his remarks, Reiser signed copies of his books Couplehood and Parenthood and boxed sets of DVD's of Mad About You. Nearly 30 other writers will appear at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival through Nov. 15. For information, call the Festival hotline, 314-442-3299, or the Web site at www.stljewishbookfestival.org for any schedule changes, etc.