RAY ROMANO SHUFFLES CAUTIOUSLY across the child-made minefield that is his rented Los Angeles apartment. Toys are everywhere, and two giggling little boys are hanging like anchors to his legs. "Great for my calves," murmurs Romano, here temporarily during the first weeks of his new CBS sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond. It's a rare day off from the set, and his wife, Anna, has flown out from their home in New York City with twins Matthew and Gregory, 3, and daughter Alexandra, 6, who suddenly stops gnawing a sweet roll and starts squealing—either in delight at her brothers' antics or from sugar overload. "You see my life here," Romano says with a tired smile.

Everyone else can just watch Raymond. During his 13-year career as a standup comedian, Romano built his act on stories about his relatives. Moving to CBS hasn't changed that. The TV Raymond, a suburban Long Island sportswriter, has a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old twin boys. And his parents (played by Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts) live right across the street with their eldest son, a cop named Robert. In fact, Romano's folks, who raised not two but three sons in Queens, are his neighbors there, their house just a two-minute drive from Romano's three-bedroom abode. And his older brother, Richard—wanna guess his job?—lives with them. (Romano's younger brother, Robert, is a publicist in New York City.)

"Very rarely does a funny joke come to me that hasn't happened to me first," admits Romano, 38. The way Grandpa Boyle sniffs the boys' heads to "smell" their youth? Albert Romano, a retired architectural engineer who's a part-time real estate broker, inspired that—as well as a bit about cracking the code on his son's answering machine so he could listen to the messages. As for the joke about Grandma scratching one of the twins to be able to tell them apart, that one Romano made up, says his mother, Lucie, a piano teacher.

Not that she minds. For the Romanos, seeing their lives played out in a sitcom is a lark. "If he can benefit by what we do, that's fine," says his father. "Although I do mention to him occasionally that it would be nice to see a few dollars from all this."

Growing up, Romano wasn't always sure standup was his goal. While a student at Hillcrest High (where The Nanny's Fran Drescher was a classmate), he performed in a comedy troupe at church. After graduating in 1975, he'd pop into local comedy clubs between jobs pumping gas and studying accounting. In 1983, during a stint at a bank in Queens, he met fellow teller Anna Scarpulla. Romano quickly became the unofficial staff satirist, dashing off poems sending up "everyone and everything," says Anna. "He kept the job funny and fun."

It wasn't until they married, in 1987, that Romano decided to switch to standup full-time. As the gigs multiplied (Romano appeared on The Tonight Show and HBO), his family kept pace. Alexandra was born in 1990. Three years later, when Anna, now 33, announced she was pregnant again, Romano hoped for a son. "Anna called me after a sonogram," he recalls, "and said, 'Well, we're having twins.' I was like, 'Come on!' She said, 'Yes. Twin girls.' I tried to sound happy, going, 'Oh. Good. Good.' Finally she told me, 'They're boys, you jerk!' That's when I knew I loved her."

Romano's big break came last year with an appearance on Letterman. Dave liked what he heard and hitched Romano up with his production company Worldwide Pants. "We wanted to produce a show with Ray," says Letterman, "because he's smart, funny—and my nephew." Now Romano is waiting to see whether CBS will pick up the show beyond its first 13 episodes. He's also adjusting to withdrawal from all the other Romanos. With only a week off a month to spend with his family, and 14-hour days on the set, a daily call home is often the best he can manage. But the oddest part of bicoastal life, says Anna, is tuning in and seeing him pillow-talking with another wife (Patricia Heaton). "There's not that much lovey-dovey stuff going on in our house," she says, laughing.

The dad thing, though, is the genuine article. Standing on the concrete apron of his L.A. apartment-complex pool, Romano proudly watches his kids splash in the shallow end. "Notice how the twins have different colored bathing suits?" he asks. "That's so if we can't tell them apart, we can just say, 'Hey, Blue, outta the pool!' "

TOM GLIATTO
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff.