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Paul Reiser On Stranger Things, The Boys, Standup Comedy, And New Show Reboot - Exclusive Interview

Talking to Paul Reiser is like reconnecting with an old friend. He's warm, funny, and generous with his time as he reflects on his four decades in the entertainment business. While Reiser started his career as a standup comic, he soon moved into acting with a breakout role in the 1982 dramedy "Diner." He followed that with a noteworthy turn in the comedy "Beverly Hills Cop" and its sequel, and he proved his impressive range in 1986's "Aliens," as memorable antagonist Carter Burke. 

On the TV side, he starred in the sitcom "My Two Dads" from 1987 to 1990 and then portrayed Paul Buchman on "Mad About You" for seven seasons starting in 1992, a role he reprised for a limited reboot in 2019.

While Reiser's never been out of the spotlight for long, the last few years have introduced him to all new fans, with stand-out — and very different — parts in Netflix's "Stranger Things" as Dr. Sam Owens and in Prime Video's "The Boys" as The Legend. If that weren't enough, he was nominated for an Emmy in 2021 for his role as Martin in Netflix's "The Kominsky Method." 

Reiser shows no signs of slowing down. Not only does he regularly perform standup in cities throughout the United States and Canada, he's also starring in Hulu's new showbiz satire series "Reboot," from "Modern Family" creator Steven Levitan, and has filmed the movie "The Problem With People," which he also co-wrote and produced. In an exclusive conversation with Looper, Reiser discussed all of these projects and more, while making it clear how much fun he's still having as a creative force.

Fans from 22 to 70

It seems like you're working nonstop lately. With your work on "The Boys" and with "Stranger Things," have you found you're attracting new and younger fans?

Yeah. It's funny. It used to be I knew that people coming to my live shows were probably the people who will remember when I was doing standup more often and "Mad About You" people. Now, I can look and I'm doing my own little survey. I go, "Those people who are 22, that's probably 'Stranger Things' crowd. Those guys with the tattoos, that's from 'The Boys.' The 70-year-olds are coming from 'Kominsky Method.'" [Laughs] I do a Q&A at the end of my shows, and I can tell from that, what the questions are and who's watching what.

It's also funny that I always, rightly or wrongly, always considered myself a standup first and foremost because that's what I started doing, that's what I love doing. In fairness, I hadn't done it for so long that, in the last few years when I'm getting back in, a lot of people go, "I didn't know he does that," or some people [say], "Why is that doctor from 'Stranger Things' trying to be funny?" I go, "No, that's what I do. The doctor thing, that was a silly thing on the side." Whatever it's worth, those who know me may know me for different reasons.

Joining 'Stranger Things'

Were you familiar with "Stranger Things" before you came on board in Season 2?

Yeah, but just barely. The truth is it actually had dropped on like a Friday. My teenage son at the time — he's still my son, but he's no longer a teenager — watched it all the first weekend and was telling me about it. Then, Monday or whatever it was, the first day of the next week, I got a call from my agent saying, "Have you heard of this brand new show, 'Stranger Things'?" I was like, "Yeah, of course I have. I have my finger on the pulse of America. Yes, I do." He goes, "The Duffer Brothers want to meet you." I went, "That's crazy." I did know about it by the skin of my teeth.

It's not at all the kind of show that I would be cast in usually or even watch. It's great, but those are not the things I'm drawn to. The fact that they were thinking of this role for me to begin with, it was flattering and mind-blowing, like, "Really? Okay." It made sense. I got what they were going for. When I joined, it was already this huge hit, which was a very luxurious position to be in. I knew going in, "This is a big fat hit."

Discovering The Boys

It's become a phenomenon and it gets bigger.

It's an anomaly. There's [also] "Game of Thrones." How many shows have that kind of reach or cultural resonance, and it's global? I was filming a movie in Ireland this summer, and the first week I was there was the week "Stranger Things" dropped, and the next week, my episodes of "The Boys" came out. Suddenly, I was recognized in a way that I hadn't been before. In my head, I go, "I'm not even home." It's the same button to watch Netflix or [Prime Video], wherever you are. I don't know why I was surprised to see that in Ireland I was recognized.

"The Boys" is a show that I never would've watched. That was one where I had not heard of it until they offered me this role. I asked my son — my son is my cultural canary in the coal mine — I said, "I just got a call. You seen this show 'The Boys?'" Of course he had. I said, "What do you think?" He said, "It's great — and you'll hate it." [Laughs]

I watched it and I said, "Yeah. You're not wrong. What is happening? This show is so over the top." Once I watched more of it, I said, "Okay, I get what they're doing." That's part of their thing: Make it as graphic and as violent and also politically and socially savvy, and it's a really well-done show. It's funny to me that I'm in these things that I have no business being in.

Two very different roles

"Stranger Things" and "The Boys" came out in such close proximity; it was easy to contrast them. For "Stranger Things," you're playing a standup guy, and then not so much with "The Boys."

They're very different roles and they're very different shows. "The Boys" is much more tongue in cheek and winking, dropping all these cultural references. "Stranger Things" has a lot of cultural references of the '80s and nostalgia, but it's not meant to be ironic. It's meant to be very straightforward and nostalgic, in a way — very different characters.

The characters — there's nothing you can do that would be unappreciated in that show. It's like, "Go for it." There's nothing that's going to be wrong or over the top or insensitive. It was fun playing a guy whose heyday was years ago, who's still trying to show off to the 20-year-old women that he [would have] slept with 30 years ago. It's really funny to me. "What do you mean you don't know who she is? Look her up." It made me laugh.

Working with Matthew Modine and Millie Bobby Brown on 'Stranger Things'

You reprised your role this past season with "Stranger Things," too, and you were working with Matthew Modine's character for the first time. Did you enjoy the opportunity to revisit the character in that context?

When I came in, I was replacing him in the story. It was fun because we had done a movie together 30 years ago, and he's a lovely guy and really a great actor. Audiences are surprised by this, but I am also surprised that if you don't know anything, you think everybody's going to be like they are on the screen, and they're not. [Modine's character] Dr. Brenner is this really creepy guy, and Matthew is as sweet and lovely a guy as you could imagine. [It's] the same with "The Boys." I said, "Karl Urban, he's going to be a mean, horrible guy." No. He's a pussy cat. He's really sweet.

It was great fun working with Matthew and Millie Bobby Brown, also. Those kids have grown up over the show. When they started, they were [around] 12, 13, and now they're 47. They've grown into nice people.

Being surprised by how far he's come

What is it like for you to work with these younger actors? Are you the elder statesman in these situations?

I'm an elder statesman of nothing, but a few months ago, there was an event here in LA commemorating the 40th anniversary of "Diner." It was released in '82 ... There was a big screening, a big event downtown, and a bunch of us got together. The cast were invited and we all went out to dinner beforehand, and Kevin Bacon and Timmy Daly and Steve Guttenberg and we were reminiscing, and it didn't seem like 40 years. 

Thank God we're still alive. By definition, you look around [and] it's like, "We're older than the crew. We're older than..." There's nobody older. You start realizing that the people that we looked up to, who were 60 when we were 20, they didn't feel like the old people either because nobody's born in their 60s. You start off younger and then you work it out year by year. 

It's always a surprise to realize how far you've come. Somebody will introduce me at a comedy show [with], "Oh, he's a legendary guy." What are you talking about? Legendary? Abraham Lincoln [is] legendary. I guess if you're not dead yet and they remember you, you're a legend.

Aging up for The Kominsky Method

Speaking of something that skews a little bit older, you joined "The Kominsky Method" in Season 2 and you were nominated for an Emmy for the first time since "Mad About You." How did it feel to be acknowledged in that way?

The fun part was getting to be on the show. Chuck Lorre is an old friend of mine, and I called/emailed him after I saw the first season to say "congratulations" because I thought it was great. I know Chuck, and he's the king of the half-hour multi-camera show, and then he did this new thing, which was so different and beautifully written and executed.

I reached out to say, "Fantastic," and I jokingly said, "Why don't we come up with something like that for me?" Two old guys sitting in a car. I could do that all day. That seems like that's right in my wheelhouse." Then he said, "Funny you say that — would you want to come on this show? You don't have to answer now." I'm like, "Oh, I will. Yes is my answer."

It's funny, the timing of things. He had this idea that [in] Season 2, Michael Douglas would have a nemesis in an old guy who dates his younger daughter. Had I not happened to reach out to Chuck, he wouldn't have thought [of me]. He was thinking of guys in their 70s. When I called him, he said, "What if we age you up?" I said, "Sure." I didn't know what it meant.

It was a whole makeup process, which I was not familiar with. They did a great job, two hours every morning. I had never done that kind of acting before. You have it on, then you forget about it. During breaks, I'd walk around the studio lot and I'd see somebody [and say], "Hey, how you doing?" They'd look at me like, "Who's that old guy?" I went, "Oh, Jesus. That's right. You don't even recognize it." 

The other side was that people go, "Did you see Reiser? He's let himself go. I don't know what happened. He's ballooned up. He lost his hair. He doesn't look well." [Laughs] That was the great thing so that when makeup came off and by contrast to "The Kominsky Method," they go, "You look fantastic. You're not 40 pounds overweight. You're only 20 pounds overweight. You look great."

The rewards of stand-up comedy

Right now, you're on a stand-up comedy tour. Do you enjoy being on the road and making people laugh?

[Laughs] You say it so skeptically.

It sounds like such a lot of work going from state to state with travel being what it is.

George Carlin had a great line. He said, "I'd perform for free — you just got to pay me to go through the airport." That's a drag. That's never fun. Traveling is never fun, but the cookie is getting to do the show, doing an hour-and-a-half show of telling stuff that you thought of that people laugh at and then you go home. 

I actually don't do it as much as I'd like to. Every time I book eight months out, by the time I get there, if some [TV] show has come up, I don't get to perform as much as I would like to. It's funny because every time I go through this, every weekend — I'm going to Iowa in two weeks — I'm like, "I got a connecting flight. Why am I doing this?" Then I get there and I have such a great time. I go, "That's why." I forget each time. It's really fun.

That's what I started doing. [It's] also the contrast of the immediate response of doing a live show versus something like "Stranger Things." [That show] came out this summer, but I did my work like a year and a half ago. I forgot it so when I watched it, I was like, "Oh, right, I remember it now." There's such a time delay. It takes a long time. A show like that takes forever, especially in a pandemic. They worked on it and it was almost two years, that last season. "The Boys" was a couple of days up in Toronto and I forgot about it. A year later, it comes out.

The reward is time delayed, where[as] standup, it's right there. You don't have to wait for numbers, you don't have to wait to get picked up, you don't wait for a review. It's contained and intimate. I love that. It's not on Zoom. There's actual people sitting there, you can see them, and they're laughing, and then you go home.

There's an extra thing now, where I realize because of the tension and the overwhelming volume of news and bad news and division, that to give somebody an evening of relaxing and laughing without poking them, there's nothing controversial here. I'm not going to make you think, I'm not going to make you feel bad. We're going to laugh about stuff that we all know, stuff that I go through that you go through, we're going to laugh and then you go home. It's like, "All right. That's my service for the evening. That's the only skill I have."

Boarding Reboot

You also have a Hulu show coming out called "Reboot." What can you tell me about that?

That was another last-minute thing. I was getting ready to do this movie in Ireland that I wrote and [was] working on for a couple of years to put together. A few months before, we were already in pre-production, and I got this script for "Reboot" and went, "That's really good." It's really funny and [has] great people involved. I said, "I don't know how to say no to this." 

I pushed the [Ireland] movie back a couple of weeks to go and do this. Sometimes, you get something sent your way that you can't say no to. Steve Levitan, who created "Modern Family," he's [a] talented, funny guy, and I'd met him, nice guy. The cast — I went, Keegan-Michael Key is a genius; and Judy Greer, who I'd worked with, who's so funny; Johnny Knoxville, who I had no idea was so funny, I knew his "Jackass" stuff, but he's great on the show.

The premise of the show really appealed to me. I don't love reboots. I'm not a fan of reboots, even though "Mad About You" did come back and do one season. To me, things that are great should be left alone. Here was a show talking about why rebooting a silly sitcom is not a great idea, but it's not about the sitcom. It's about the making of it and the people and how they've changed in 25 years, and the cute kid is not a cute kid anymore. 

It's very subtly about some bigger things. It's about how we've changed and how much more we need to change. I play the guy who created the original show and wants to recreate it as it was, and they brought in a new, younger writer who wants to make it more socially relevant and up to date, and I'm fighting that. It becomes, "What's that tension? Shouldn't you leave something alone?" Not necessarily.

It's a generational thing. Rachel Bloom plays the younger writer who wants to take this into the 21st century. I'm the guy who created the original. There's that generational division. One of the fun areas that they tackle — not deliberately, but as part of the show — is comedy has changed, television has changed, so you can't say this, you can't say that. 

[When] creating a sitcom, you'd have discussions in the writers' room about what you can and cannot say, and the end result would get on the air. On our show, we get to film the scene where that discussion happens, and the discussion is funny: "Why can't I say Eskimo?" [They go,] "That's not a term." It's like, "Since when? Is Eskimo bad? I'm not saying I hate Eskimos." It's like, "So Eskimo is no longer... okay." That stuff is funny.

It's not taking lightly the fact that the world has changed, its sensibilities have changed. It's  people trying to catch up. To me, that's what my life seems like, in every way, trying catch up to how much is changing and the world is changing. It's not inside baseball. It's not exclusionary. You don't have to be in show business to watch this show, but for those who have done half-hour television, it really rings true. It's really funny. I hope we get to do some more.

The difference between Reboot and rebooting Mad About You

It sounds like it [blends] so well with your experience rebooting "Mad About You" recently. Did any of those experiences get reflected in "Reboot?"

"Mad About You" was a sweet experience. We did seven years originally, and we ended it exactly how we wanted to and everybody ended up. We all left wonderfully close. [Reiser's co-star] Helen [Hunt] and I used to joke about how we would never come back and there's no reason and there's no reunions. To me, reunions and reboots only serve the audience, so they can look at the cast and go, "Wow, he put on weight. Gee, did she let herself go? Boy, she had a lot of bad work done." Suddenly, you're in the circus. It never appealed to me.

"Mad About You," we thought long and hard about [it]. It wasn't our idea. People came to us and said, "Would you guys do it?" There were all these reboots. We thought, there are two reasons to do it. The first of one was, "It would be fun to play together again," because we really loved that. We had to come up with, "But why? Why would we do it?"  

We didn't want to tamper with what we had completed. Then we realized, in our case, they would be in a different point of life now. We weren't trying to pretend we were still 30 and newlyweds. That would be sad. Let's jump into the fact that, well, our kid, our baby — when the show went off the air, we had an infant — who is now leaving the nest, and we're back again as the two idiots.

We're not young. We don't have the same dreams. A lot of dreams didn't work out. We walk slower, we don't hear as well, [and] the kid who was such a beautiful, little perfect kid turned out to be quite a handful. There's a lot of life to talk about. We thought, "That'll be fun." We all had a great time doing it and fell right into place.

What else do you have coming up?

I think that's everything. "Reboot" is out now, and I'm editing this film called "The Problem with People," which stars Colm Meaney and myself and Jane Levy. That'll come out, hopefully, in the spring. [On] weekends, I'm going off and telling jokes to Iowa.

The first three episodes of Reboot are available on Hulu with new episodes available on Tuesdays and Reiser is performing stand-up comedy in cities in the United States and Canada through mid-2023.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.