What do you do when you’re the man who’s done everything? You started out on the stage as a stand-up years ago, and then you moved onto the small screen with your own hit sitcom that remains in syndication today, before moving onto the big screen. Where else is there to go? The answer is you return to your roots. And you do it in a clever new way.
In Ray Romano’s new Netflix stand-up special Right Here, Around the Corner, we find him in New York, where he was born and raised. As he walks down the street, he can’t help but be greeted with a barrage of “Hey Ray!” This is his home, and everyone knows it. The special itself has him doing a set where he first started, at the famed Comedy Cellar. He goes up onstage and does a killer set, before heading next door (all on camera) to do a set at the Village Underground. We have seen drop ins a few times recently, but this is the first time someone has made an entire special out of it.
The material itself is as strong as ever. In the special, he talks about everything from why you should become friends with a doctor in your 40s, the moment he realized he wasn’t a young man anymore, being in the do-no-right phase of his marriage, trying to avoid questions, his first sex scene, and his son calmly calling to tell him he ran out of gas on the highway.
Completely simultaneously, Ray also has a brand new movie coming out called Paddleton. In this film, we find Ray as the best friend to Mark Duplass, who has been diagnosed with cancer and together they embark on a road trip. The film leans more dramatic, with a bit of dark comedy inserted throughout, something that Ray Romano has been doing more and more of the past few years. It was a huge hit at Sundance this year and premieres on Netflix on February 22nd.
We recently spoke with Ray Romano over the phone to talk about the new special, the art of the drop in, giving advice to comics, comedic vs dramatic improvisation, and embracing the quiet moments that come along with doing a drama.
You’ve talked a bit in interviews about this being your first special in 23 years. But is it true that this is actually your first hour special altogether?
Yeah. I did the half hour [on HBO’s One Night Stand], and then I did the Young Comedians Special, which was even less than a half hour probably, as there was about 5 or 6 of us. I did Carnegie Hall, but that was a CD I did Live at Carnegie Hall, but that wasn’t a filmed special. So yeah this is my first filmed one.
That’s so crazy you never did an hour before this. And how did this particularly format come to be? It’s a fascinating and simple concept to choose to feature the drop in, which is something you do whenever you’re in New York.
I wanted to do a drop in. I knew I wanted to do a drop in and I thought about doing it at the Cellar, but then I thought, “Why don’t I do it at the Village Underground because it holds twice as many?” It just fits a little better. Cinematically it would look better. And then Michael Showalter, the director, suggested “Why don’t we do it in both?” And that sounded like a great idea to me. The Cellar is the nice tight really small one. They might look alike, but it’d be fun to see. It’s kind of like a look into what it really was like back in the day. Spot here, spot there, spot here, just pop in. But it was his idea to do it at both and I thought it was a great idea.
When you do a drop in, do you feel like there’s any less pressure than doing a typical show or is it maybe a bit more?
I gotta think there’s less because when you advertise and people are coming to see you, there’s some natural pressure there. They made a night out to come see you. You do a drop in, it’s just a little extra for them. The only pressure for the drop in is you don’t know. You don’t know if they’re fans, if they even know who you are. You don’t know if they speak English. (Laughs). That was a little bit of a risk but I feel like I’ve done the drop ins so many times, and 99 times out of 100 the energy is great. They’re kind of surprised and happy they’re getting a little bit extra. And the energy for me is up. There’s a little danger element to it but that kind of works in my favor, too. It gets the adrenaline going.
Is that danger element still exciting to you, I take it?
Yeah, but to be honest, it’s not that dangerous. Look, here’s the danger. The danger is back in the day, when you went up and nobody knew who you were, nobody had ever seen you before, and they’re paying money to come out and it’s kind of you against them. They’ve got their arms folded and they want you to make them laugh. And you’ve got to prove it to them. And sometimes you win them over. And that’s a great feeling, when you win over a room full of strangers. Here, look, I could say they never saw me, but in the room there’s going to be many people who know me and are happy to see me. So you do get a little bit of leeway, you get a little room, they give you a little more than if they’re just seeing an unknown. I mean it’s different than if you announced it and you’re invited and then Ray Romano fans are coming, you know. It’s a little different. Then you’re guaranteed. You’ve got people that know your comedy and are coming to see you. So there’s a little danger, but not as much as back in the day when nobody knew who you were.
Exactly. And as you transition between clubs, the recognition you get in New York seems very familiar and laid back. Is it safe to say that it’s not that relaxed as far as recognition goes if you were elsewhere?
Well in L.A., to be honest with you, it’s more than laid back. They don’t even say anything. Because in L.A., half the time people are in the business. They work somewhere in the business, they know the business. It’s very rare that I get any kind of reaction like that in L.A. In New York, yeah you get a reaction like that. “Hey Ray! Hey Ray!” And then if you went somewhere else in the middle of the country, you get a little more. You get a little more of “Stop. Come over here. My grandmother wants to give you an apple pie.”
And speaking of recognition, I loved your appearance on Crashing earlier this year where Pete’s character comes up to you outside the Cellar and starts asking you for all sort of advice. Is that something that happens a lot to you? And does that ever feel awkward, when you’re put on the spot like that?
I mean it happens where a young guy will just want to talk to you and pick your brain a little bit and get some advice. It’s kind of easy and enjoyable because the best advice you can give is just “Get onstage and do it as much as you can.” Somebody gave me advice. I remember when I was just starting, there was a comedian named Max Alexander, he was a great guy, and I remember being at Dangerfield’s I think, and I forget what we were talking about. I was asking him if he made a living doing this or that. I asked him “How? How do I do it?” And it was simple but he said “Just do it. Just keep doing it and it will happen.” And it seems like he didn’t really give enough but he actually gave everything I needed. “Just go onstage as many times as you can and eventually, if you’re good… First of all you’ll get better. And if you’re good enough, the work will come to you. You’ve got to put yourself out there. But you will find the work.” And Seinfeld said it, too. He said “The best way to make money in comedy is not to worry about making money in comedy.” And in the beginning, that’s true for everybody.
Sometimes the simplest advice is the best advice.
Yeah. Look, taking nothing away from comedy classes and stand up classes. That has its purpose, too. That works. It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t put in the stage time. There’s no shortcut, really. You know?
There really isn’t. Let’s shift over to the other thing you’ve got coming out, Paddleton, which I just finished watching. The Duplass Brothers have been known for focusing more on improve in their films. Is there a big difference between having to improvise comedy versus drama?
Well I thought it was more difficult improvising drama. Improvising comedy isn’t easy, some people can do it, some people can’t. But for me, it’s much easier because I have a little bit of a knack for it and you can go anywhere. If it goes one way, you go that way, another way, you go that way. For drama, you kind of want to prepare for where you’re going to go emotionally. And if something gets thrown at you, you have to go that way and the preparation, your mindset is different. I found that in Paddleton, there were times where it was a little bit of a determent and there were times when it was really great that we were improvising. When we were in the hot tub, I found it hard. It was a hard thing to improvise. I wish we had it all scripted in the hot tub. Ultimately it ended up being great, but it took a while to get there. And then when we were in the bed [at the end of the film], it was immediately organic. There were no lines written there. So I don’t know. I really hadn’t improvised drama until this movie to be honest with you. And my experience was overall good. But it worries me a little. I’m a little scared of doing that more than comedy.
Right. And you have only started doing drama within the last few years. How did you go about learning to perfect the quiet moments needed for a more dramatic performance? Is that something that came natural?
Well, my comedy has a lot of quiet moments. I tend to underplay and throw away. Someone wrote a review that said me and Duplass had a contest to see who could underplay the most. So that’s kind of my comfort zone anyway. And if anything, I like to do less. So that actually worked well with the drama. Especially in this movie and especially with the way Duplass works. He loves those quiet moments.
There are a lot of them here. I really enjoyed your performance and your quiet moments here. And going back a few years, one of my favorite performances of 2017 was your performance in The Big Sick, which was your first dramatic performance in film.
Thank you. Well I’ll tell you what, that’s how I got this movie because Duplass saw me there. That’s how we met. We met at the premiere. And that’s what convinced him that I could do this. At least somebody noticed it.
Right Here, Around the Corner is currently streaming on Netflix. Paddleton premieres on Netflix on February 22nd.