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Back in the day, faithful fans set aside Thursday nights to watch a lovable young couple stumble through life in Manhattan. This was when TV shows aired on 3 networks…on specific days…at scheduled times. Despite that time-restricting struggle, television’s “Mad About You” became a mega-hit, and Paul Reiser was the popular husband everybody fell in love with.

Today, though, there are lots of places to watch your shows – any day, any time. And most of yesterday’s stars haven’t been seen in quite some time.

Photo: Dmitry Bocharov

Except for Reiser. He’s still here. And as a secretive scientist in the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” the actor has attracted a new audience filled with viewers who have no idea he once was a hit on network television. They just know they like him. Some things never change.

Paul Reiser doesn’t claim to have a pulse on youth culture. In fact, the jokes that get the most laughs on the entertainer’s national comedy tour are all about life as an empty-nester dad.

That’s not exactly a theme that resonates with his growing fan base who’ve discovered Reiser on Netflix’s uber hot “Stranger Things” – not in his breakout role in 1982’s “Diner” or the ’90s hit sit-com “Mad About You.” In the new show, Reiser plays the mysterious government scientist Dr. Sam Owens, sent in to do damage control during season 2 to a small Indiana town plagued with supernatural activities. You’ll also see every cliché of ’80s culture that the Duffer Brothers, the show creators, could throw in.

“I love it,” Reiser says of his new younger fans. “It also makes it easy to spot – anyone under 25 who comes over to me, I know where they know me from.”

Reiser, who brings his stand-up show to Harrah’s in Atlantic City this month, barely had “Stranger Things” on his radar when he was approached by the Duffer Brothers. He was intrigued – his teenage son had turned him on to the sci-fi thriller that also stars talented South Jersey teen Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin.

“They said while they were writing the script, they were calling him Dr. Reiser and were picturing me,” he says. “So when it came to casting, they figured they’d just call me.”

 

Paul Reiser as Dr. Sam Owens in “Stranger Things” | Photo: NETFLIX

 

Reiser was flattered the Duffers even knew who he was considering they weren’t even born

when he was cast as the sandwich-craving Modell in “Diner.” Given the retro creepiness of “Stranger Things,” he considered that the brothers may have seen him as the entertaining villain Carter Burke of “Aliens” from 1986. They did, but thanks to their father, they actually were fans of “Diner.”

“A, that’s a hip father, and B, that’s a really wide cultural span to be influenced by ‘Diner’ and ‘Aliens’ and end up writing ‘Stranger Things,’” says Reiser.

Known for slipping hidden references and homages of the past into their shows, the Duffers even included a throwback to “Diner” in an episode when Owens offers his sandwich to Hopper, the good-guy police chief played by David Harbour.

“It was so subtle, even I didn’t get it, and I was in the movie,” says Reiser.

Reiser’s level of cultural cool has also been raised by another retro role in the Amazon period-piece series “Red Oaks.” He plays Getty, a pompous and unlikable president of a New Jersey country club that again puts ’80s suburban culture front and center.

(left) Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt in the original “Mad About You” series; (right) Reiser and Hunt in the reboot

Moving through the years, his ’90s successes are also getting a second life as fans discover “Mad About You,” both the original that ran from 1992 to 1999, which he wrote, directed and starred in as Paul Buchman, and now the reboot that’s streaming on Spectrum.

For 20 years, Reiser and costar Helen Hunt resisted bringing the show back.

“Helen and I were so clear that we would never do that,” says Reiser. “There was no gain to it, mostly because we were so proud of how we ended it. We did 7 years and wrapped it up in a way that we showed the future so we wouldn’t even be tempted to come back. We answered the questions of what happens to us.”

But with so many other shows going for round 2 – “Will & Grace,” “Twin Peaks,” “Magnum P.I.” – the pressure kept mounting.

The question was: why do it? After considerable conversations, he and Hunt decided the time was right to revisit the Buchman family.

“From the start, the Paul Buchman character was very close to me and over time, it became more and more so,” Reiser says. “Helen’s character, over the years, included more of her DNA. So it wasn’t an effort to get back into the characters. The original appeal for us was that it would be fun, because we had such a great relationship and really enjoyed working together.”

“When we talked about the math of it, that our kid would be leaving for college, I was literally going through it at the time and thought that was a rich area to write from. It made sense for the characters.” (The episodes are available to Spectrum TV subscribers.)

When Reiser’s own kids with wife Paula Ravets – Ezra, 24, and Leon, 19, – left the nest it was bittersweet.

“It’s a weird thing because you pray most sad things won’t happen,” he says. “But your child growing up is not something you want to root against. You say, ‘I have to push you out the door and let you go,’ but it’s making me sad. But there are bonuses you get, too. Suddenly they are happier when they’re home.”

Beyond acting, Reiser, who studied music in college, also writes and produces movies and TV shows, composes music and has written best-selling books. Yet, these days, his first love is stand-up comedy.

Reiser in “Red Oaks” | Photo: Amazon Prime

“My intention was always to do stand-up,” he says of his two-decade hiatus. “Stopping was meant to be temporary. I always considered myself a comic first and foremost, and acting was an interesting distraction and a bonus. When I got back to it, it was clear to me how much I missed it and enjoyed it.”

What Reiser finds most appealing is how simple and uncomplicated stand-up is compared to all of his other projects, something he didn’t appreciate the first time around.

“You don’t have to pitch it or get other people involved or wait for funding or get unhelpful notes from studio executives,” he says. “You show up, meet nice people, make them laugh and go home. It’s just pure entertainment and creativity. It’s the immediacy to not have to wait for a test group – you actually have people sitting there laughing.”

As for next projects, he doesn’t have a bucket list, but never seems to run out of ideas. Currently, he’s writing a comedy film that will shoot in Ireland this summer.

“The one thing I know is that you can make plans, and some of them work out,” he says. “But most of them don’t and other surprises will come in the back door and end up being big parts of your life.”

 


Paul Reiser will appear at Harrah’s in Atlantic City on February 8 at 8 pm.
Main photo: Dmitry Bocharov

February 2020
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