By John Benson
Despite all of Paul Reiser’s success over the past two decades as an actor and author, there was something missing in his life. Sure, he had money and fame, but there was an itch that needed to be scratched.
It turns out that itch was his first love, stand-up comedy, which is exactly where Reiser cut his performance teeth before being cast in his debut breakout role in 1982’s classic film “Diner.” For the most part, these days the 55-year-old is known for his seven-year stint on successful NBC sitcom “Mad About You,” that also featured actress Helen Hunt.
After that show ended in 1999, the New York City native wrote a few books (“Babyhood,” “Couplehood” and “Familyhood”), and appeared in TV shows and movies. But it wasn’t until last year that he ended up back where he started, on a stage telling jokes. Now he’s taking the show on the road appearing Friday and Saturday at Hilarities 4th Street Theatre in Cleveland.
Q. First of all, how did you get back into the stand-up comedy game?
A. I haven’t done stand-up in 20 years. I haven’t really performed standup until like a year ago when I emceed a charity event. I went up and told some jokes and was just having a great time. I thought, “Oh my God, I forgot how much fun that is to be on stage and getting laughs.” So I just took a barebones of whatever I had and I started working out at the clubs here in Los Angeles. I’d go for 10 or 15 minutes and work up stuff. I didn’t want to dig up old material. I wanted to see where I am now. After about a year after working up an act I thought, “Let’s see what its like to leave Los Angeles.” That’s only been recently. And I’m having such a good time.
Q. Is there anything different about being a comedian now after all of your success outside of stand-up?
A. It’s really fresh and fun, and what’s funny to me is, people will say, “Has comedy changed?” The beautiful thing is it hasn’t changed at all. The world has changed but stand-up hasn’t. It’s exactly as hard and rewarding and mysterious as it used to be. What’s exciting about it is there are no other variables. It’s you, your brain and the audience and your performance. And it’s a slippery beast. A joke that works one day doesn’t work the next. It’s sort of like an endless game of chasing the joke. I will tell you what’s really different is being older. It’s harder to stay up late. They said, “We have a show at 8 and 10.” And I said, “At night?” That seems crazy. There’s also a connection with the audience that I have now that I didn’t have the first time around. It really feels like picking up a conversation.
Q. What’s interesting is your background is stand-up comedy. Jerry Seinfeld’s background is stand-up comedy. And while “Mad About You” and “Seinfeld” aired at the same time, his character was a comedian. So when he returned to comedy it made sense. Now you’re returning to comedy and people may not know of your past.
A. Yes, it’s funny people say, “I didn’t know you did comedy.” There is a bit of that, and understandably because I haven’t been doing it. I think Jerry was doing standup during the years of the show and I never did. Some comics say I have no desire but I always wanted to do it. I never had the focus. I knew if I did do it, I wanted to really attack it fresh and have a new act. I didn’t want to go out for the sake of going out. Jerry and Leno would say, “You’re funny, why don’t you get out there?” So I finally did it and they’re right.
Q. What sort of topics will you be talking about at your Cleveland shows?
A. I’m talking about getting older, what’s not working the same as it used to and trying to figure out how to parent kids. There is no manual. I find when you talk about stuff that’s true to yourself, whether it’s life or fights I’m having with my computer or my brain trying to keep up with the technology, when you hit the joke right, people will laugh. That was sort of the gist of “Mad About You.” I always felt when we were doing our job right people were getting it because it was them.
Q. Finally, anything else people should know about your upcoming Northeast Ohio gigs?
A. I have this money-back guarantee. I tell audiences if they come down and they don’t have a great time, I’ll return to Cleveland and take them to see a funnier comic. That’s something a lot of guys won’t do. I’ll back it up.