In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
In 1982, Paul Reiser made his big-screen debut in Barry Levinson’s Diner, alongside fellow future luminaries like Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg, and Mickey Rourke. The title of his production company, Nuance Production, comes from an off-hand line in that dialogue-crammed film. “It was sort of an ad lib,” Reiser recalls almost 40 years later. “I remember the night we were shooting it. Barry Levinson said, ‘Go and just say to Mickey…’ and I don’t remember if he gave me the word ‘nuance’ or how we came up with it. And I don’t think we told Mickey, so he just gives me that look in the movie, like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ So that’s how smart Barry Levinson is, that he knew that would be funny.”
Reiser’s Nuance Productions has been best known as the home of Mad About You, the longtime sitcom he co-created and starred in alongside Helen Hunt. That show originally wrapped in 1999 (although it had a resurgence last year on Spectrum). A few years ago, he stepped behind the camera again to co-create There’s… Johnny, a series based on life backstage at The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1972. The show seamlessly blends archival footage with a storyline following Carson’s backstage crew, including Jane Levy as talent coordinator Jane Greenfield and Tony Danza as real-life Tonight Show producer Fred de Cordova, and focusing on Ian Nelson as Andy Clavin, a young kid who becomes a gofer on the show. “We pretty quickly decided we don’t want to have anybody playing Johnny or even Ed,” Reiser says. “The only person that is real is Fred de Cordova. He was such a colorful person that we thought it’d be a crime to not have somebody play him, and Tony Danza was brilliant.” As a frequent Tonight Show guest himself, Reiser remembers about de Cordova, “He would come in and he would stick his head in the dressing room to welcome you. He would make like one social nicety and leave. And all you were left with was the smell of tobacco and cologne.”
There’s… Johnny debuted in 2017 on Hulu to little fanfare, and was taken down after a few years. Reiser says, “It killed me because I was so proud of this.” So when NBC launched its Peacock streaming service this year, “I thought, that’s exactly where it should be. It’s a Peacock show, we have the [NBC] peacock in our opening credits… Luckily they saw the logic to that and they said, ‘Yeah, let’s let’s put this back up on the air.’” There’s… Johnny debuted on Peacock earlier this week.
In front of the camera, Reiser has recently appeared in some exemplary character actor roles in series like Stranger Things, Married, The Kominsky Method, and Red Oaks. Even with that packed schedule, Reiser took a quick break to answer The A.V. Club’s 11 Questions, an interview you can read below or hear on the latest episode of our podcast Push The Envelope.
Paul Reiser: If I could create a candle, it would smell like wax. People would sniff and go, “It smells like candle.” You know what I think would be a great candle? Burnt onions. You walk into anybody’s kitchen, and it smells like frying onions, and it’s on its way to being something. So I thought there should be a spray that just smells like somebody is cooking onions somewhere. But it could work as a candle. Not romantic, but it could be a big seller.
The A.V. Club: You could fool people into thinking you’re actually kind of a chef, even if you weren’t.
PR: Exactly. “Oh, what’ve you got cooking?” “Don’t go in there, it’s a secret!” It’s a candle. The onion candle.
PR: My favorite album in my high school—and probably still—is the Allman Brothers’ Live At The Fillmore. I have an answer for that one. It’s not funny, but it’s factual.
AVC: What about it appealed to you?
PR: It was just… It was just very alive. It was a live album, and it was just really pure blues rock. It was the first band that I ever heard that had two drummers who had this great percussion sound and great guitar playing. And it was blues, which I loved as a kid, which is probably odd. But they took blues and, you know, turned it into blues rock. And it was just the musicianship, and it was just a great album. Still is. Go listen to it.
In fact, I don’t know that I listened to much Allman Brothers after that. That’s how far I have come in 50 years.
AVC: Also live albums meant more back then because it wasn’t like you could just pull up the YouTube or whatever. So at least you could try to enjoy the concert on vinyl.
PR: And it was also I kind of felt connected to it because it was Live At The Fillmore, which was in New York, which was in my neighborhood. So I felt like, “Oh, I know where they recorded that, I know where they were.” So it felt like a hometown thing.
PR: These answers can be very small, right? Can I just give you four words? I feel like I’m giving you such talkative long answers. What conspiracy might be true? I don’t know that I entertain a lot of conspiracy theories.
AVC: Aliens, crop circles, Kennedy assassination?
PR: I believe Kennedy was assassinated. I do believe that. Well, I don’t know what might be true. I don’t know, I have nothing on that one.
AVC: You’re a very trusting person.
PR: Shoot me another one.
PR: Okay, this is really young. I haven’t thought about this in forever. However, I can remember when I was maybe 7 and there was a guy running or he was the senator in New York and he was running for reelection. Keating, Senator Keating. And he was in the neighborhood, and he was shaking hands, and I shook his hand. And that was the first celebrity and the first famous person I ever met. And I remember I said, “I’m never gonna wash my hand. I just shook Senator Keating’s hand.” And my parents went, “It’s not that big a deal.” Oh, all right. And then I wash my hands. So finding out that shaking hands with a senator was not all it was cracked up to be, that was dispiriting. It was my first accomplishment and it was taken from me! Assholes.
PR: We have a guy who does gardening. And we have a very good communication, though we don’t share a common language. But I’ve seen him kill snakes and kill a lot of things that need killing. And he doesn’t seem upset by it. So I would say it would probably be Francisco. He’s going to read this, maybe, and go, “Wow, look at that.”
AVC: This guy sounds really handy.
PR: Morally flexible and has his own shovel, which is all you want out of a guy you want to help you bury a body.
PR: This time, no question. There was only one. And it was the last one I wore was Superman. And I was a kid, 7 or 8. And I was chased and beaten. We were in Manhattan, and we would just do it in our building. But it was plenty. There was like, I don’t know, 10 apartments on the floor, or 12. So that’s plenty. And some bigger kids were chasing us. And I go, “But I’m Superman! I shouldn’t have to be running.” I remember that was another disillusionment, like, “Yeah. I don’t think the Superman outfit is fooling anybody because I’m running and being threatened.”
PR: I love the Hudson Valley in New York. I find every time I drive in that part of the country, it feels very satisfying to me. If I could go anywhere, I’d probably go somewhere more exotic. Maybe Paris. Or Ireland. I like a coastal. I like a river. I like the green, and I like a little chilly. So if it’s not coastal Ireland, closest and probably better food would be Hudson Valley, New York.
AVC: Didn’t you and Jerry Seinfeld used to have a funniest person breakfast on New Year’s Day in Paris every year?
PR: We haven’t done that for a long time. It was fun.
PR: Ironically, I only learned about the bees. The birds never made it into the conversation. So to this day, I feel like I’m sort of half-prepared. I could have said “half-cocked,” but that would just be foul. That would just be wrong and suggestive and foul.
AVC: Schoolyard? Dad’s Playboy?
PR: I don’t remember any information actually coming in. It’s sort of like how we all learned how to go online. It’s like nobody ever really taught us, just one day we realized, “I guess I just Googled something. Somebody must have showed me, I guess, because I’m Googling.”
AVC: Right, that makes sense. Kind of intuitive.
PR: And by the way, in both areas, there are few tools of my knowledge. I really only learn the barest bones. I remember I had my iPhone for, like, five years, and someone said, “You know, you could just click here and take a screenshot of what you want.” What? You could take a screenshot? Well, nobody told me that because I didn’t know. Nobody ever told me anything. So now I sit alone, and the fields have merged. I sit around naked with my iPhone and do the first two or three tricks that I know. Sorry you had to hear that.
PR: Well, I just won’t watch Game Of Thrones. It doesn’t come up that often. Nobody’s lobbying me to watch it. But there are certain things that I have learned that I just am not interested in. No matter how many times you tell me it’s good, I can’t.
I think it came up last year, last December, Helen [Hunt] and I went on Jimmy Fallon. I didn’t mean for it to be public, but he said, what are you doing for Christmas, and Helen said, “I’m going to go home and watch the new Star Wars movie.” And Jimmy said, “What about you?” And I said, “Here’s the truth. I’ve never seen one.” And the audience gasped like if I just said I strangled a puppy. I said, “I’ve seen pieces. I know what they look like. But it’s not for me.” I’m not degrading it. They’re clearly very good. But I’m gonna skip it.
AVC: That’s so funny because so many people at work were into Game Of Thrones that I felt like I should start watching it. And my husband’s like, “This is so not the show for you. It’s got incest. It’s got violence…” And I said, “Just what are you saying about all those people who like Game Of Thrones?”
PR: They like that. They’re pro-incest and violence.
Maybe if it’s from having kids or old age, whatever, but I literally shield my eyes now if I don’t want to watch something. Like I was watching Creed 2, and I kept shielding my eyes when he got punched. It’s a boxing movie, there’s going to be punching! I know, I just don’t want to see it. I’m too sensitive to it or I’m relating to it, like, “That’s got to hurt.” Maybe I’m such a good audience member that it hurts me.
AVC: It seems like things are just more brutally violent nowadays, too, in the movies and on TV.
PR: Yes, and I am a gentle, gentle, weak little lamb.
AVC: Like the opposite of your Game Of Thrones.
PR: Even not necessarily a bad day, I will always end up at the piano at some point in the day. And I will sit down and play and close the door so that I’m not bothering anybody. I never really play with anybody else in the room. So that’s always been my go-to.
AVC: What do you like to play?
PR: I play classical but some days I sit down and I’ll start writing something or I’ll be playing, you know, some Billy Joel or something. Because it sounds good on piano. Sometimes just improvising. But it is just the sound of actual piano. The acoustics somehow are very healing and calming to me.
PR: Probably not. The only reason I would is if I had to cancel a subscription. I go, “Wait a second, the bill came on Wednesday. I was already dead Tuesday. So I’m not paying for that.” So I would like to take care of that upfront, and make less of a burden for my family. “Yes, that iTunes thing, we had to stop that.”
AVC: Very thoughtful.
PR: When you asked me that, you don’t have any insight, right? You don’t have any information on that, do you? When I’m going to die?
AVC: Sadly, no. We’re not that kind of organization.
PR: Keep the mystery.
12. From Tom Green: Why did you do this interview?
PR: Just for the mercenary… Is that the right word? Just so that you would say, “Hey, everybody, watch There’s… Johnny.” That’s the price I’m willing to pay: I’m giving a half-hour of my life answering silly questions talking to a very nice young woman just so that hopefully the 14 people who are aware of this would say, “Oh, I’ll check out There’s… Johnny.” Just being quite honest.
AVC: So we don’t know who our next interviewee is, but what is a question you would like to throw out there in the world for the next person?
PR: What name should we give to the phenomenon when you floss, there’s a little piece of something that ends up on the mirror. It’s not food, and it’s not quite saliva. It’s just a viscousness. And it needs a name. You know, you have cooties, you got boogers. But this needs a name. Here’s a shorter version: What do we call the things on your mirror after you floss?
AVC: That’s probably going to come up with some interesting answers.
PR: And I’m sorry about the conspiracy question. I failed you.
AVC: It’s absolutely fine. It’s a lot of questions. Eleven is a lot.
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