If the last time you saw Paul Reiser on the small screen he was wryly emoting about the state of his marriage to Helen Hunt, prepare to see a whole new side — more gravitas, less neurosis — as he contends with otherworldly monsters in Season 2 of the Netflix drama Stranger Things, premiering this Friday.
And if you haven't yet watched the hugely popular '80s-themed thriller, know that neither had Reiser until about a year ago, when his younger son copped to watching the entire first season in a single day. “I said, ‘Wait, when did you watch that?’ and he said ‘Yesterday.’ And I said, ‘What, for eight hours? No wonder you didn’t finish your homework!’”
Shortly thereafter, when Reiser received a call from his agent asking if he’d heard about the show, he didn’t miss a beat. “I said, ‘Ab-solutely, I know all about it. I’m on top of things, I keep my finger on the pulse,'” he recalls with the smooth, droll delivery that swiftly earned him stand-up fame.
At lunch with the show’s creators the next day — “creative geniuses and just really sweet guys” — Reiser says he was “tickled” to learn that the Duffer brothers, as they’re known, had created a new role around him. “They said, ‘We kept calling the character Paul Reiser, so we figured we should call — Paul Reiser.” Reiser’s (Reiser-like) reply? “Yes, it will lead to less confusion on set.”
In fact, the Emmy-award winner was already experiencing a kind of next-gen TV fame for his work on the sleeper Amazon hit Red Oaks. In that equally '80s-obsessed show, Reiser plays the tough rich guy with what turns out to be a beating heart beneath his tennis whites — at turns cool and comic, as when he’s schooling the junior tennis pro on country club hierarchy, and in other moments, vulnerable and in-spite-of-himself sweet, as when he’s wondering why his college-age daughter doesn’t love him like she used to. While Reiser says it’s merely a funny coincidence that the new seasons of both Red Oaks and Stranger Things are being released within a week of each other, he admits they represent a very busy year on sets. “What, did she call you?” he jokes, when asked if his wife, for instance, might find his schedule a little too booked these days.
For his part, Reiser says busyness doesn’t bother him, just as he doesn’t mind when things are calm. “I’m a big fan of sitting,” he jokes, adding that he happily, and intentionally, took years away from the spotlight after Mad About You ended in 1999. What brought that nice, quiet period to a close? When his younger son, then 8, came home from school one day, plopped his bag down and asked, “Dad, what is it that you do?”
Of course, with Reiser, calm never seems to mean idle. When not acting, he’s likely to be perfecting a stand-up bit or penning an entertaining bestseller rooted in family life (as his much-read Couplehood, Familyhood, and Babyhood titles are.) What doesn't the New York City native like on the hectic-to-peaceful continuum? The “middle ground, where you’re kind of on alert because something might happen, or where you’re ready for something to go and then it doesn’t go." (We’re guessing his eponymous show, which NBC canceled in 2011 after two episodes, would count here.)
Reiser’s Twitter handle is “the guy from the thing with the thing,” which seems like quite an understatement when you consider he has even another big project on tap — the November debut, on Hulu, of There’s Johnny, a show he and his longtime writing partner have been “chiseling away at” for some time. Using Johnny Carson's Tonight Show as its backdrop, and cutting in actual clips of the program from the '60s, the otherwise fictional dramedy centers on a cast of behind-the-scenes characters, including producers, writers and, most central, a single, impossibly sweet gofer. In the first episode, he travels by bus from Nebraska to accept a job offer he’s mistakenly gleaned from a form letter thanking him for his fan mail.
It’s no accident that the show functions as a major tribute to the late-night talk show host, whom Reiser knew well from his many appearances on his program during the '80s and '90s. Watching clips of that time today, Reiser says he’s struck by “how good Johnny was, and why he was so good,” using, by way of illustration, how Carson early on would slow down Reiser’s own “overeager” delivery (“I had apparently prepared 11 minutes of material for a five- minute spot on the couch”) with subtle and masterful interjections. “He would chime in with exactly what was needed in the moment, and he genuinely loved for people to do well,” Reiser recalls.
If a lot of the best TV right now brims with nostalgia, Hulu's There’s Johnny does, too, though Reiser is not so much obsessed with retro mise-en-scène as he is with how Carson’s show functioned as a cultural touchstone, how it highlights how much TV has changed in the decades that followed. “There was a time when we had to watch a show when it was on, at 11:30,” Reiser says. “He was the guy who put you to bed, and we all shared that. Every night, we knew what our friends were doing. We’re watching this guy, and we’ll fall asleep to this guy. That doesn’t exist anymore, and it never will.”
By contrast, Reiser notes, the immediate consumption of streamed shows today makes him question how their shelf life will compare, and whether something is lost in such swift back-to-back viewing. Beyond that, he jokes about how it feels when you’re on the creative side of the binge-watched show: “We worked so long and you just watched this so fast! It’s like you spend days cooking and someone comes and gobbles it down, and you feel like, ‘I worked really hard on that! Savor it! Chew your food! Slow down!’”
Not that Reiser is sweating it too much. After all, with him, where one projects ends, another begins — or perhaps more accurately, while one project is still going on, he’s “chiseling away” at a new endeavor (he’s big on the sculpting metaphor, also using it to describe his much-unloved efforts in the gym; apparently, those biceps don’t just happen on their own).
What’s more, at 61, he’s learned to let more go — or so he says to self-deprecatingly dodge a question about when he might have acquired the gravitas that now seems as much part of a Paul Reiser performance as perfect timing and intuitive intelligence. “When you wake up and you’re closer to 80 than 20, by far, you go, 'OK, I see where this is going' … and it just puts life in perspective. And there’s a natural inclination — and I see this in all my peers and friends older than me — to sweat the little stuff a lot less because you’ve seen so much of it. You go, 'I see that the annoying thing with the phone company will just work itself out. Let me worry about the bigger things, and let me enjoy the bigger things.' ”