Twenty five years ago, Phil Rosenthal hit the jackpot that every television writer dreams about.
Awarded the opportunity to create a four-camera CBS sitcom for stand-up comedian Ray Romano, Rosenthal and his star hit upon a concept and title that’s familiar to anyone that picked up a TV Guide during the 1990s: Everybody Loves Raymond. Premiering on Sept. 13, 1996, the series overcame initially modest ratings to become one of CBS’s most popular sitcoms, running for nine seasons and racking up dozens of Emmy statues, plus a lucrative syndication deal.
Everybody Loves Raymond is still on the airwaves a quarter century later, with episodes airing every day on TV Land. (It’s also streaming on Peacock for binge watchers.) According to Rosenthal, that’s always the future he envisioned for the sitcom that set him up for life. “I knew it was for CBS, but in the back of my mind, it was for TV Land — and now it’s on TV Land” the creator tells Yahoo Entertainment with a laugh. “To have gotten on the air at all was a miracle, so it’s like hitting the jackpot not just once, but over and over again.”
Everybody Loves Raymond was also a jackpot that Rosenthal very nearly walked away from before the show premiered. He found himself at that crossroads when CBS inserted itself into the casting process for the actress that would play Romano’s wife — a part that eventually went to Patricia Heaton. But Heaton hadn’t even auditioned for Rosenthal when the network made it clear that they saw a specific type of actress in the role.
“CBS wanted someone hotter to play Debra,” he says, referring to the ’90s sitcom cliché where the schlubby male leads were routinely married to runway-ready women. (That eye-rolling convention was skewered in the recent AMC series Kevin Can F*** Himself, starring Annie Murphy.) “I almost quit the show over it.”
Before submitting his resignation letter, Rosenthal agreed to meet with CBS’s first choice for Debra, an actress he avoids naming in interviews or in his Raymond memoir, You’re Lucky You’re Funny. “They insisted on this actress. I thought she was wrong, but I met with her and she was a very pleasant, very nice person. She wasn’t going to read for the role, but during the meeting I convinced her to read a little bit with me, and she was 10 times worse for the part than I thought she would be!”
Next, Rosenthal had to sit down with network executives — including then-CBS head, Leslie Moonves — to discuss casting. He entered that meeting with his three choices for Debra, which included CBS’s preferred pick plus two other performers, and a strong suspicion that he would be leaving the room unemployed. “Again, I didn’t have Patty yet; I didn’t even know she existed. I did know that [Moonves] was going to say, ‘What about so-and-so,’ and if I don’t say, ‘Yes, let’s cast her,’ I won’t have a show. So that was the day I knew that I’d be quitting my own show.”
Fortunately for Rosenthal, that’s not how things played out.
When Moonves asked, “What about so-and-so,” Rosenthal gave him the only answer he could — the truth. “I said, ‘I love her and I’ve loved everything she’s been in. I think she’s terrific and beautiful, but then she read for me and I have to tell you it’s just not what I wrote. I just don’t see them as a couple. I think she could do it, but I also think that maybe we could do better. [Moonves] said, ‘Well, it’s just an idea.’ In other words, he let me slide and we agreed to keep looking! Two weeks later, Patty walked in and within five minutes she had the part. When it’s right, it’s right, and you know it immediately.” (Moonves resigned from CBS in 2018 over allegations of sexual misconduct.)
Rosenthal may have resolved the Debra situation in his favor, but there was one more near-walkout before Everybody Loves Raymond made it to the air. After CBS picked up the show — which also starred Brad Garrett as Romano’s police-officer brother, Robert, and Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts as his overbearing parents — his agent called him with an unexpected question: Who did he want to be the showrunner? “I assume me,” Rosenthal remembers saying. “My agent said, ‘You’ve never run a show before! You wrote a pilot.’ And I said, ‘So I’ll do more like that.’”
CBS eventually came back with an offer for Rosenthal to co-run the show with a more experienced producer, but he rejected that idea out of hand as well. “I felt that person was still going to be in charge, and I’m not going to have any say in my own show. So I quit! I told them, ‘I quit, goodbye.’ It wasn’t because I was brave — I was actually s****** my pants because I quit the thing I loved.” Three days later, his agent called him one more time to say that he’d been named the one and only showrunner of Everybody Loves Raymond.
“I asked him why the sudden turnaround, and he told me, ‘[Moonves] liked how you handled that thing with so-and-so.’ It just goes to show you that if you stick to your guns — and maybe quit — they see you have some integrity. So my advice to young people is to always quit! I’m not saying quit on your first job, or if you’re dependent on it to be able to eat. But if it’s not your first job and it’s your own thing, that’s when you get to show your integrity. I can’t tell you how many shows have been ruined by the writers taking every note from the network and the studio and then the network goes, ‘This isn’t very good.’”
Everybody Loves Raymond, on the other hand, is still very good 25 years after its premiere. We spoke with Rosenthal — who currently hosts the Netflix travel series Somebody Feed Phil — about the show’s longevity, what a modern (and post-Modern Family) version of the Barones might look like and why he and Romano will never revive the series… but a Friends-style reunion isn’t out of the question.
I watched the Everybody Loves Raymond pilot again the other night, and that style of sitcom feels so different now. It still holds, but it feels like it belongs to a different generation.
That’s because the form has changed. You don’t see the style of show anymore, and I grew up on those kinds of shows. The shows I wanted to emulate were things like The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, All in the Family and, in more modern times, Roseanne. I thought that was a landmark sitcom. Those were all shows that were set in real life. In other words, you believed that the things that happened in that world could happen in real life. The funniest stuff to me was also the most relatable, and a big part of relatability for me is believability. Could this happen? So that was our only rule on Raymond: the shows had a point to them, and they were about something. They were about your working relationships or your family relationships. I had a family, and Ray had a family and that’s what we knew how to write, because we lived it. All the stories were coming from something that happened to us at home.
For example, in the pilot, I was looking for a way to illustrate how crazy Ray’s parents are. How do I show the audience that this is going to be one of the not just funniest parts of the show, but a central tenant of the show? Well, I used something that happened to me. I got my parents a Fruit of the Month club subscription, and I got that phone call. I put that in the script, and I didn’t know that it would connect with the audience. I knew it was kind of funny that my mother acted like receiving a box of fruit was like receiving a box of heads from a murderer. I thought the audience might go, “They’re crazy and that’s kind of funny.” But I didn’t know the audience would go: “Oh my god, I can’t give my parents a gift without it blowing up in my face either!” We still get e-mails and letters from around the world from people saying, “That’s my mother.”
It’s funny that you mention it’s a show about something considering you premiered during an era when Seinfeld had pioneered the “it’s a show about nothing” premise. Were you consciously working against what Seinfeld was doing?
Yes, but not because I didn’t like Seinfeld. I liked it very much! First, I wouldn’t know how to write that show, certainly not as well as those guys did. And second, I wanted to avoid topical humor and concentrate on things that have lasting value. We were going to die on that sword.There are hardly any topical references or things that could date the show, other than clothes and hairstyles of course, which are going to change. It was a show about a family for families made for families, meaning we didn’t want to put anything in the show that you couldn’t watch with grandma or your 9-year-old kid. Not because we wanted to do a bland show — we still wanted to do some risqué material. We just made it fly over the heads of little kids and not be so vulgar for grandma. It’s the age-old lesson: Stay true to who you are, and write what you know. People may not like it, but at least you’re presenting an honest representation of what you can do.
You were also in the middle of the era when stand-up comedy was a path to sitcoms. Were there any cautionary tales of specific comedians making the leap to shows that didn’t work out that you wanted to avoid?
I had no idea, because I didn’t even know if Ray could act! I loved his stand-up and he seemed like a natural presence, so you take a leap of faith. The luck that I had was in teaming up with him was that he cared about the things I was talking about: believability and relatability. He wanted to make sure that everything seemed real and never “sitcom-y.” Meaning you only see behavior like this on a sitcom. That was a great thing to have in your lead actor. Because he had never acted before, I wanted to make sure that he would be comfortable so the first thing I did was surround him with great actors, which they also did on Roseanne. She was a comedian who had never acted before, and that seemed to work. And you can never go wrong by casting great actors! And because Ray is naturally gifted, he learned from them and got better and better. You can see his progression as an actor from the first show to the last show. And now, of course, he’s acting in Scorsese movies!
CBS originally put the series on Fridays, and the ratings weren’t great. Was it frustrating knowing you had this great show that wasn’t getting the audience it deserved?
It was actually a hidden lesson. We were on Fridays at 9:30 after, I think, Dave’s World. They hadn’t had a hit in that time slot, and we weren’t going to change that! However, the few people that did watch the show came back every week, and we also got good reviews. So we were somewhat protected in that time slot, because there were no expectations of doing well. Six months into the run, they were having trouble on Monday night with a show that wasn’t doing well, and here was a show that was performing well for where it was, getting good reviews, and the network liked the show. So they moved us and once we moved, we never moved back!
Initially, we were as nervous as we were when we started, because we thought, “Oh no, we could get cancelled.” In fact, the network even said to me, “If you don’t perform here, that’s it.” But that first week on Monday, we doubled our ratings. And then the next week, the ratings went up from there and that’s when we relaxed a little bit. We weren’t nervous again until Season 3, when they put us opposite Ally McBeal and Monday Night Football and we went, “Now we’re dead.” Within three months, we were beating both of them! We couldn’t believe it. The football players used to knock your books down in the hallway in high school, so this was a real revenge of the nerds!
Did that increased exposure lead CBS to get more involved in the show or did they mostly leave you alone?
We were just lucky in that they had bigger fires to put out, as all networks do. When something is working, generally they leave you alone. Yes, they always said: “Maybe you want to get a little hipper and edgier, a little hotter and sexier.” And I’m like, “Have you seen the show?” [Laughs] I even said at the Emmys one year: “You got the right guy. I’m Mr. Hip and Edgy.”
You did overlap in the sea change in TV comedies that started with Arrested Development in 2003 — that series helped popularize the single-camera format in the U.S. Did you feel that shift and did it pressure you to change your approach?
No, we knew what we were and we weren’t going to change. At the same time, I was aware of a cultural shift and the whole business changing. Sure enough, by the time Raymond was over, the business had changed so much to the point where they didn’t really want the type of show that Raymond was anymore. In fact, there wouldn’t be another family-oriented sitcom until Modern Family a few years later. That worked for not just the network, but also for audiences, because it was brilliantly done and it felt modern. It was a single-cam comedy and it had the kind of political awareness and cultural shifts embedded in it. It was perfect for where and when it premiered, but you also now see that the networks’ attitude is that the family sitcom is this uncool thing. What they don’t realize is that it’s one of the building blocks of television and always has been. You just have to do it well.
If you were making Everybody Loves Raymond now, would it would have to look more like Modern Family?
I don’t know. I do know that I’ve been in situations where I’ve tried to sell a show about another actor about their actual family. And the moment we sold it, I started getting notes from the network saying: “Okay, it shouldn’t about that person, it should be about young people.” And I’m like, “Wait a minute, you just bought this show about this guy’s actual family!” When I left Raymond, I didn’t want to do the types of shows that they were doing, meaning all the shows that were just sex jokes. I wasn’t interested in it. To me, the world became a little more crass and even vulgar. It’s not that I’m a prude, it’s just not what I do. It’s not my strength. There are people who can be really funny in that arena way better than me. So I didn’t want the type of shows they were doing and they didn’t want the type of shows that I wanted to do.
If it were made now, I imagine you’d also have to decide whether Robert would still be a cop or not. Shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine are wrestling with that, too: How do you make cops funny in an era where that’s a much more difficult job to depict on television?
Thank god I don’t have to deal with that. I don’t think I would deal with it, because nothing’s funny about police getting out of hand. We showed that Robert was put-upon, and not loved as much by his mother as his little brother. Those were all these funny things, and then to balance it out, we showed him being a great cop. It’d be terrible if he was a bad cop. That’s not funny: It’s not funny or great and you don’t really cheer for him. He was maybe the most beloved character on the show because of his station in life, meaning he had the least amount of power in the family dynamic. But then when you see him [as a cop]: there was a very specific episode where we showed him being brave and great, and Ray got to see it, too. So the audience had this newfound respect for him, and you just love him.
I didn’t want to deal with those kinds of serious issues on the show. For example, 9/11 happened while we were filming. Were we we going to do the 9/11 episode? I decided no, because that’s not why people watch our show. They watch it to get away from the terrible things that happen in real life. We can show real life without touching on current events because real life still happens, even during 9/11 and even during COVID. Real life happens in your house: You still have parents, siblings and kids, even in terrible times. That’s what I think kept us relatable and maybe evergreen.
Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts have both passed on, but has CBS ever talked about doing a Raymond revival? And would you return for a one-off special episode?
I would love to do a 25th anniversary special to show where the cast is now, and tell stories of the things that happened to us at home and show clips of the episodes these stories became. You’d get to see the actors and how they are and hear them tell stories about Doris and Peter. To me, that would be a wonderful thing. But I don’t believe in revisiting the past as a sitcom. We don’t make former football players who are in their 60s and 70s go out there and tackle each other! [Laughs] It’s just not the same. I love that the show that already exists in the world and if you want to see it, you can watch it. I don’t think revivals work particularly well. So I’m all for a reunion special, but I don’t think I’d like to see us try to do that again.
That’s similar to the Friends reunion, which was a big hit for HBO Max. How do you feel that sitcoms fit into the streaming landscape? Is there a way to get back to the four-camera form you’re talking about in that environment?
It’s always dead until there’s a good one. There are shows on right now that are single camera that I love: I think Hacks is brilliant, Dave is brilliant. Those are reinventions of the form, really. So there are great, funny shows out there, they just look a little different than they used to. I’m sure there’ll be a great four-camera show again. I always say: “Bet on the chef.” If you’re going to invest in a restaurant, it’s not all about location and having the hottest dish on the menu — it’s about who the chefs are, meaning the writers, directors and actors. When that’s the priority, and it’s not just, “Here’s a flashy name or a topical buzzword,” because that only makes a poster. My joke is that in Hollywood, the work stops at the poster. So you hav etc go beyond the poster to ask, “What is this about? Is it worth doing?” Then maybe you’ll have a shot at the next great four-camera sitcom.
I’m sure there are too many to choose from, but is there one particular Raymond episode that has a special place in your heart?
I have a few. We ended every season with a flashback episode and there was one called “How They Met.” It’s hard to do an origin story, but I think that one was really good. I wrote it with Ray, and Ray and Patty’s performance in it are wonderful. It makes me cry! The PMS episode is perfect example of us taking something that’s maybe not funny from our real lives and making it funny. I enjoyed the “Baggage” episode with the suitcase on the stairs. That’s also taken right from an actual fight that Tucker Cawley [the writer of the episode] had with his wife and it worked so well.
The Italy episodes are a personal favorite because not only was it a foray into single camera when we filmed on location in Italy, but it was actually the genesis for the Netflix travel show I do now, Somebody Feed Phil. I got the idea to do a travel show from those episodes, because I saw what happened to Ray the character coming to understand how great travel is from a reticent point of view. I thought it was so wonderful and beautiful, and I wanted to do it for other people.
And I liked our finale very much because it wasn’t a very special episode — it was special just because it was the last one, and the audience knew it. I love that nothing fundamental changed in the family’s dynamic. We met these people in the middle of their lives and we’re going out in the middle of their lives. Life is hard enough, so why not believe that this family continues right where you left them?
Did CBS ask for a bigger finale?
Nope. The only thing they wanted was for us to not go off the air! [Laughs] At that point, they wanted us to stay. But I think you should get off the stage before somebody says, “Hey, you should really get off the stage.” We all know the shows that stayed too long, so we didn’t even do a full ninth season. We did 16 episodes that season, which is not gigantic by the way. There was a season where we did 26 episodes and I thought we were going to die!
Everybody Loves Raymond is currently airing on TV Land and streaming on Peacock