LOS ANGELES • Ray Romano was in his office at the Warner Bros lot in Burbank, California, leafing through a large blue notebook he fills with ideas he hopes to some day transform into comedy bits. "Matso. Nickname till Matt loses weight," reads one. "Dog life span. Shave a couple years off the tortoise," reads another. When asked to translate each cryptic note, he spins a very funny tale.
"Every time I have a thought, I put it in the book," he said.
Romano is still doing stand-up, long after the mad success of the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond made getting up in front of a bunch of boozy fans an indulgence rather than a financial necessity.
For the past several years, however, he has also taken on ever more dramatic roles. He is currently appearing in the film The Big Sick as a dad whose daughter (Zoe Kazan) is in a medically induced coma (it is funnier than it sounds); comedian Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) stars in the film as, you guessed it, a stand-up comic, as well as the daughter's sometime beau.
And on Aug 13, Romano appears in the Epix series Get Shorty, based on the Elmore Leonard novel, where he plays a producer trying to finance his latest picture with sackfuls of fives and tens.
Tall and self-deprecating, Romano wore a Casio digital watch, circa 1985. He spoke about his earliest days in the business and why he forced himself to learn every country and its capital ("I started worrying about Alzheimer's"). These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You wonder, are you any good? It’s just doubt, that’s the biggest thing. The desire is there.
COMEDIAN RAY ROMANO, on his biggest worry when he started taking on dramatic roles
In The Big Sick, you manage to find humour in comas and 9/11. What's so funny about great pain?
Well, in stand-up, there's that idea that comedy comes from a dark place, but it's not a rule.
There are so many brilliant people that have functional, normal childhoods, you know? Jerry Seinfeld is the No. 1 exception to all those rules about comedy, that you have to have a neglectful parent or something.
Having said that, the rule works for me (laughs). I always say, "If my father had hugged me once, I'd be an accountant right now." One hug, and I wouldn't have to do any of this.
You've been doing stand-up since the late 1980s. Do you remember your worst night?
Oh, there are so many of them. In the beginning, there are endless amounts of worst nights. But there was one, after Everybody Loves Raymond had been on for a year, out at the University of Florida's Gator Growl. It's in the stadium, like, 30,000 people, Dave Chappelle, Larry the Cable Guy and me. Five minutes in, I heard a woman yell out, "You better start getting funny."
Anything you miss about those early days?
There was something gratifying about going up onstage in front of a room full of total strangers.
They've never seen you in their life and they're kind of like, who is this guy? And then you win that crowd over. That will never happen again, only because somebody in the audience has seen me.
Seinfeld said, they give you the first 10 minutes if you're well known. But you still gotta be funny.
Are there stand-ups now where you go, "Wow, I wish I could do that?'"
Yes. Dave Attell. Louis C.K. I just wish I had the b**** to do some of the stuff they do and be able to make it funny. There would be times when I was coming up with a bit and I'd do it onstage, and I could just feel that, mmm, that's not me. I'll have to give that to Dave Attell.
You're doing more roles that mix drama and comedy. Who do you think does that well?
If you want to pick the biggest turn of all, it's Bryan Cranston, who went from Malcolm In The Middle to Breaking Bad. I just saw (the film) Wakefield, where he's hiding from his family in his attic for a year. Who's done a bigger twist than that, right? And then Louie Anderson in Baskets, playing Zach Galifianakis's mother.
Your character in Get Shorty is a largely unsuccessful producer who still has specific ideas on how to make it in Hollywood. What's the worst advice you've gotten about the business?
In the beginning of Raymond, I think someone said, "Why don't you just write it yourself?," as opposed to shopping it around and finding (showrunner) Phil Rosenthal. If I had followed that advice, we're not here.
When you first started taking on dramatic roles, what was your biggest worry?
You wonder, are you any good? It's just doubt, that's the biggest thing. The desire is there. But then I also want to be a pro golfer and that's never gonna happen.
You still have worries like that?
Oh yeah. No matter how successful you are. I hear that from other comedians all the time. You're just waiting for the funny police to come and arrest you as an impostor.