Comedian Paul Reiser has made a career out of subtly commenting on the state of marriage, thanks to the smart Mad About You, his book Couplehood, his stand-up career, and now his turn on FX’s original comedy, Married, which has its second season premiere tonight at 10:30 p.m.
In the show, Reiser plays Shep, a seemingly stable and mature mate to Jenny Slate’s bawdy and wild character, Jess. We spoke with Reiser recently in advance of the season premiere. He talked about the shifting dynamic between his character and the other characters on the show now that Slate’s role has been reduced, the appeal of the Married‘s less saccharine take on marriage, as well as the Mad About You finale, among other things.
With Jenny Slate moving to a reduced role on Married to work on her other show, does that mean that we’re going to see less of you, or have the writers found other ways to use Shep on the show independent of Jess?
It was very much a work in progress this year, and one of the goals that we had from the beginning was to incorporate my character and shuffle the deck a bit, so it’s not simply a couples, and couples, and couples show. Actually, I think I did more episodes than I was even intended to do. I was supposed to be in about six, and I think I did maybe eight, but, um, no. There is no direct correlation between Jenny’s departure and my part of the show.
Are we going to see you interacting more with A.J. and Russ?
Yeah. The answer to the question is yes. There’s more interaction with the others, and developing those relationships and exploring those, and bringing in some new ones in the future, I think, too.
Last season, there was a scene where it seemed like Shep and Jess were thinking about having a second kid. Is that still possible, and would you be eager to explore fatherhood with the character?
You know, that’s a place that we have been creatively playing with. In the beginning, I thought that they were the couple who didn’t have kids and that was an active choice. But Andrew Gurland is a pretty smart guy. His idea was, give them roots by having a kid, which ended up being an interesting thing. Even in a situation like this, where the actress is leaving, where the characters are still connected because of a shared responsibility. Even if they are off-camera, the plates are spinning, and there’s a responsibility and a groundedness to their relationship, even if it has changed.
Your character seems like the most emotionally mature on the show.
Well, it’s an interesting thing because one of the things that appealed to me about this is that I was… The character is older than them and more life experienced than them, and I’m older than the actors, you know? It was a fun, interesting kind of thing to be old. I’ve done this before. That was one of the fun things about it, that it was a bit of a move, that he has sort of been there, done that and wasn’t really into a lot of the younger problems that they were having or the indulgent parts. I don’t think that I get caught up in their fun, but part of the interesting challenge of the characters was how do you… You can’t be in a show where you only just want to get away from the other characters. It’s hard to find mutual ground and deepen the friendships so it’s not just about, “Alright, listen, I’ve gotta put up with you because you’re my wife’s friend,” especially if the wife is now out of the picture. What happens in this season is the beginning of the deepening of those relationships, of me with the other characters.
Shep seems to have a handle on who Jess is and seems to be somewhat passive when it comes to her foibles. Why do you think that is?
Yeah, I think he very much knew what he was getting into, and she maybe didn’t as much as she thought she did. One of the things that appealed to me from the beginning was that this is a guy who, even though I have a kid, we sort of imply that I was never married, that I delayed getting married, or I just chose to never get married. Ironically, at a later age in life when I do, I marry this woman who very much doesn’t seem like marriage material. To me, I think that’s a thing to still investigate because I thought that was really interesting. If you’ve been so experienced, why did you end up with this really colorful, offbeat, untraditional, unpredictable partner? So, yeah, I think he’s very much aware, and there are some great scenes that come up in this season where it comes to a head a bit, and he knows, yes, he knows who she is, but not everything is acceptable at a certain point.
One of the things I really like most about the show is that the couples on the show are not model couples, but the show seems to stay away from the genius wife/dumb husband trope that many shows kind of fall into. Was that something that appealed to you about Married?
Yeah. I think what appealed to me really was the writing, and even though the characters, some people think the show is much darker than Mad About You, which, in a kind of way, it is because it’s a different time. It’s 15, 20 years later. It’s a different network, and you can do stuff that you couldn’t have done on broadcast network TV. But, yeah, I do like how everybody is fair game and there is… Certainly, you look at Russ and Lina, they are pretty honest, as honest as they can be, and they’re always committed to making it work. That was certainly the template, the non-negotiable with Mad About You. It’s a struggle. It’s like with two people, when you throw them together, people struggle. Not entirely, and not all the time, but you never really get smooth sailing. Because life will always come up, whether it’s job insecurity or child-raising or inability to have kids, whatever. Something’s going to come up that’s going to test you and test the relationship. What I do like about Andrew Gurland and the writers’ work on the show is that they’re exploring pretty rich stuff, and they’re not taking the sweet saccharin answers, nor are they trying to be shocking. I think they’re really going through stuff that he has gone through, Andrew and the writers, and those very personal things are always the most universal. I think that’s what makes this show really work, is that it’s an honest and intelligent look at the realities of trying to keep a marriage together.
What was your experience figuring out how to end Mad About You? Was it more based on satisfying the vision of the creative team, or was it more about what you thought the audience wanted?
Well, I think we just tried to come up with the ending that would satisfy, basically, everybody. I think, what would be creatively fun to do and what would be gratifying to an audience. You don’t want to take for granted the fact that you have millions of people who have invested in this for seven years, and when you land it, you want to stick the landing. You don’t want to leave people unsatisfied, and you don’t want to shock them.
You know, we had a long process of trying to figure out what we wanted to do, and we had a whole bunch of stories, and we ended up doing what I thought was a really ambitious finale. I don’t think I have ever seen this done before or since. We kind of jumped ahead, and we gave the audience, “Here’s what we think happened to these people over the next 25 years,” because we jumped back and forth through time. One of the things was, it was half a joke and half true. It’s like we don’t want to be tempted to come back for the 20-year reunion show and see how they’re doing. Let’s answer all those questions now. Part of that was to give to audience, “Here. Here’s what we think,” and even there, we were very determined to not make it “they live happily ever after.” Ultimately, yes, they do, but it wasn’t smooth sailing. It never is ever smooth sailing, which isn’t to be pessimistic.
It’s really just to be realistic and say, “The minute you stop trying or really working at this, you’re going to drop the ball.” Even in the best of relationships… [like with] Mad About You, we even had a bit at some point when they actually split up 10 years down the road and found their way back to each other later, so we sort of had our cake and ate it, too. It wasn’t great, but they did walk out, ultimately, into the sunset. To answer your question, I think we wanted to try and have our cake and eat it, too. We wanted to satisfy ourselves and give the audience something to hold onto.
I read an interview where you said you were working on writing a pilot for Amazon, in addition to the work you’re doing on Red Oaks. What can you tell us about that?
The pilot I’m doing for Amazon, we’re now taking it elsewhere. It’s not going to be on Amazon, but I’m hoping it’ll be next, what is this? Yeah, I’m hoping it’ll be the beginning of next season. I didn’t mean to be, it’s like suddenly, but there are three or four things that I’m developing. That one is something that I would act in, and the other is, there’s two or three that I’m just producing and writing. It’s fun. I tend to do better when I’m extra busy, sort of like work begets work. When I’m busy doing one thing, suddenly, other things come into life, come back to life in some cases. The show that I’ve always wanted to do that was dormant for a while, and now I think we’re going to do it.
It’s been fun. It’s a very different energy when you’re on a show, just as a hired gun, as an actor, and it’s great. It’s a very different commitment, and, to some extent, I really like showing up and just doing my thing and then leaving. Their problems are not your problems. Let them figure it out, but, on the other hand, it really is fun to be involved from the ground up and shape the show and try and make it a statement that you want to make. I’ve been lucky getting to do both, which has been kind of fun.
Are you still doing stand-up, as well?
Yeah, I am. I haven’t in the last few months because I’ve been busy shooting, but yeah. I have been doing that, and that’s been a surprising joy to me, that having not done it — I didn’t do it for about 20 years — and when I got back into it, it’s one of those things that just felt really right and felt really… It reminded me that that’s what I love doing. I’m sure if you’ve read other interviews, I’ve said this, but one of the things that I love about it is the immediacy. Not just the immediacy that you’re working a live audience and your response is right there, but that there’s no middle ground. There’s no network to step in, there’s no programming directors, there’s no test marketing. It’s just literally the idea. You perform it, and you bring it right to the consumer. TV development, or film, too, it’s such a slow process and so many minefields along the way where ideas get thwarted or killed or changed or whatever. Stand-up is so devoid of that. It’s just a nice, refreshing change of pace.
Married’s second season premieres tonight on FX at 10:30 p.m.