For Ray Romano’s Men of a Certain Age, the laughs are not easy.
(New York, June 19, 2011. Photo: Art Streiber)
“I”M ALWAYS GIVING myself the Alzheimer’s test,” says Ray Romano. “My shrink told me to do this. It takes one minute. You name every word that comes to mind that begins with the letter F. Go.” He runs the test on a middle-aged friend, who is sitting nearby; the guy fares so badly, he doesn’t want to be named here. “Ah,” says Romano, his nasal Queens drawl dragging out the word like it’s putty, “you got fifteen, not so bad. The dividing line is sixteen, that’s what you gotta worry about, but close enough.”
Actually, by this standard, the guy is borderline losing it. But Romano has never been a fierce or bitchy comic. His empathy for the self-inflicted fears of aging is what informs his poignant and funny TNT drama, Men of a Certain Age, now in its second season. “Some people call it a comedy. I don’t like those people,” he says with a sly half-smile. “People coming to the show are probably saying, ‘Oh, Ray Romano—this is going to be like The Hangover.’ People who would like it aren’t aware of the kind of show it is.”
In Men of a Certain Age, Romano’s Joe is a divorced party-supply-store owner on the verge of 50, reluctant to date, and struggling with both a gambling addiction and his desperate attempts to return to senior-pro-tour golf. As a head writer, Romano makes these glum scenarios nuanced and affecting; he sweetly pines for his ex, stresses over the anxiousness of his adolescent son, and grudgingly befriends and helps his dirtbag bookie when he gets cancer. Joe’s best friends aren’t faring much better. Scott Bakula’s Terry is a wrinkled playboy and failed actor trying to make it as a car salesman. Andre Braugher’s Owen, who runs a car dealership for his imperious father, is working his way out from under Daddy’s thumb. Romano says much of what the characters experience are his own crises: “I still feel like an immature idiot inside, but I look in the mirror and—as a friend of mine once said—this old guy keeps getting in the way. The irony of Joe’s occupation is that he runs a party store, which is all about fun and celebration, and he’s got this emptiness he’s working through. The show’s for us,” he adds, “guys.” And yet, Men of a Certain Age’s audience tips slightly more female. “Women think they’re getting it, but we’re not going to reveal all our secrets,” Romano says. “It’s nice, though, for them to see guys talking about something—you know, not just booze and Cialis.” And, indeed, the scenes of the three childhood friends in their favorite diner—sharing sad-sack stories, relentlessly ribbing each other—are the merciless heart of the show.
Romano has made Seinfeldian riches for his beloved sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. From where does all this middle-aged Hamleting come? “I was having a midlife existential identity crisis thing when Raymond ended [in 2005],” he says. “I was 47 and didn’t know what I was going to do with the rest of my life.” He wanted to try movies; he’d missed out on the Greg Kinnear role in Little Miss Sunshine thanks to his sitcom schedule. “I would have loved to do that,” he says. Instead, the studios kept sending Raymond roles. “Cheaper by the Dozen, that kind of character,” he says. So he and longtime writing partner Mike Royce began working on a movie, which then became a TV series. “There’s a sense we both had after Raymond of, Are we done?” says Royce. “Have we peaked? Is it all downhill from here?”
The casting of Men wasn’t as savvy as it looks now. Their first pick for Owen was the actor Wendell Pierce, who played a foul-mouthed detective on The Wire; they even started writing the part for him. “But he ended up doing some show called Treme,” says Romano, intentionally mangling the pronunciation. “So, good luck with that.” He almost turned down Braugher for what Romano facetiously calls the “overweight-black-friend part” because “we searched YouTube and couldn’t find anything funny he did. But he’s perfect. What amazes me is that he doesn’t push it—he doesn’t even read it like we write it or with the rhythms in our head.” (Braugher was nominated for an Emmy for the show’s first season.) Bakula says he got his part because he had just done the dark comedy The Informant! “They wanted to know what it was like working with [director Steven] Soderbergh,” says Bakula. “They said, ‘We want to shoot fast like him.’ ”
Romano and Royce intended to get as far from the four-camera, laugh-track world of Raymond as possible. The two do much of the editing, music mixing, and casting as well. “It’s like putting together a 40-minute film every week,” says Romano. “I’m not complaining. I’m less miserable doing it than if I wasn’t doing it.”
Critics love the show, but it struggles to capture more than 2 million viewers a week. The studio has yet to pick it up for a third season, which means this could be it. The network “likes us” Romano says. “But they need to wait until the season ends to do the numbers. It’s television, so who knows.”
In the meantime, he’s got therapy twice a week. “We don’t have enough time for the big stuff,” he says. “Just my little neuroses. We don’t want to fix too many things because then we don’t have a show.” He’s also “pretending” to write a screenplay at the Warner Bros. office he’s had for close to eight years. Two of his four children, the twins, are graduating from high school. “And then there’s my wife,” he says, laughing at how the afterthought mention must sound.
While Romano admits he’s numerically older than his role (53 to be exact), he won’t classify himself as middle-aged. “I will say this: When I’m flipping channels on Saturday morning and those half-hour commercials come on for the neck thing? You know the— where they fix your neck, the turkey neck? In like only an hour? And they show the before and after? I’m not stupid, I know the tricks, with the lighting and the makeup and the … But I watch the whole thing. I go online afterward to look up more. Ten years ago, it would have been straight to porn.”