THE INTENSE YOUNG COUPLE IN THE RESTAURANT is enjoying one of those Kodak moments of marital bliss: trying to balance spoons on the tips of their noses. On hers, the utensil dangles as delicately as a Christmas tree ornament. On his, well, balancing the federal budget would be easier. "What can you possibly have on your nose that I don't have?" actor-comedian Paul Reiser asks his Mad About You costar Helen Hunt. The actress smirks and fires a couple of sugar packets his way, knocking Reiser's spoon off its precarious proboscidian perch. This means war. To and fro the packets fly, until director Tom Moore steps in and snaps, "Okay, we're ready. Let's try it." As Hunt calmly sets her spoon down, Reiser turns to her and says, drolly, "I'm very impressed with you, Helen."
With that, Reiser (pronounced WRY-zer), 38, and Hunt, 30, better known to TV audiences as married Manhattanites Paul and Jamie Buchman, prepare to shoot this scene in the restaurant—actually, a passable replica of a neighborhood eater)' on the Culver City soundstage, where the second-season finale of their NBC sitcom (airing May 19) is being filmed.
It's the teasing, intimate interplay between Reiser and Hunt that has helped make Mad not only a Top 30 Nielsen hit but a shrewd commentary on yuppie wedlock, '90s-style—as well as other stales of the union. "I get stopped by 65-year-olds who say they can relate to the show," says Reiser (who, like his friend and Thursday-night neighbor Jerry Seinfeld, is also a producer and writer of his own show). "Gay couples say, 'Boy, is that us!' When you do something small and honest, everybody can relate to it."
No one can relate better than Reiser's real-life wife of nearly six years, Paula, a psychotherapist with whom he shares a three-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills. In one early episode, Hunt, in character, imitated Reiser's mildly manic delivery. "I remember hearing Paula laughing out in the audience," says Hunt, who, never wed herself, was a friend of Paula's even before Paul asked her to audition at their home. Paula readily admits there are similarities between her two Pauls. "They are both witty and thoughtful, and both get confused a lot," she says. Well, the mixture of life and art does get confusing. One night the Reisers lay in bed discussing an episode about an argument between the Buchmans. "I can't believe you thought he wasn't wrong!" Paula said. "Suddenly," says Reiser, "we laughed, because our argument was like literally page 22 of the script."
Reiser's life might have followed an entirely different script. He could have wound up as the world's funniest health-food distributor. That was his father Sam's profession—and career goal for Paul, who grew up in New York City's Stuyvesant Town with three older sisters. The whole family, says Reiser, including his mother, Helen, a homemaker, had a wry sense of humor. Paul thought he could make a living from it on the standup circuit. But as the dutiful son, after graduating from the State University of New York at Binghamton with a BFA in music in 1977, he spent the next hectic year working for his father hustling sprouts and granola while moonlighting in Manhattan's comedy clubs—and, he admits, "doing both badly."
So despite the misgivings of his father (who died in 1989), Reiser left the family business and began performing full-time. Over the next two years, he honed his act while hanging out with Seinfeld and two other young comics, Larry Miller and Mark Schiff, both of whom occasionally appear on Mad About You. Dubbed by reporters the Funniest Men in the World Club, the foursome made a ritual—which they still observe—of having lunch together every New Year's Day for the past 14 years. For auld lang syne they even moved the lunch to London in 1985, when Reiser was on location there filming Aliens.
Acting hadn't been in the script either. But one day in 1981, Reiser and an actor friend had set out to buy socks at Macy's. On the way, his pal dropped off some portrait shots at a casting director's office. Reiser began to banter with the secretary, who was so impressed she got him an appointment with her boss. He, in turn, brought Reiser to the attention of director Barry Levinson. Together they fashioned the plummy role of Modell, the moodier clown in Levinson's acclaimed 1983 buddy comedy, Diner. Still, he kept his night job, and during a tour in Pittsburgh in 1982, he met Paula, who was waiting tables at a local comedy club while studying for her psychology degree. They hit it off instantly. After Aliens (in which he played a slick yuppie villain) and Beverly Hills Cop I and II, Reiser moved to Los Angeles in 1983. Paula soon followed and completed her advanced degree in Los Angeles. They married in 1988. Meanwhile, Reiser had landed a TV series, My Two Dads, in which he and Greg Evigan played bachelor fathers to teenager Staci Keanan. The NBC sitcom lasted three seasons—long enough for Reiser, who had fans come up and say, "My 9-year-old daughter loves your show."
His aim was to do a series for an older audience. Paired at Tri-Star with writer-producer Danny Jacobson (Roseanne), Reiser began pitching a show to the networks that he described as "thirtysomething, only shorter and funnier." The result: Mad About You, about which Reiser remains manifestly maniacal. So much so that, even with a busy summer ahead (he is finishing a book akin to Seinfeld's best-seller Seinlanguage and filming Bye Bye Love, a big-screen romantic comedy about three divorcing fathers), it's hard for Reiser—and consequently Paula—to escape from the Buchmans for long. "Even when we're relaxing and rejuvenating," says Reiser, "I'm sitting there thinking, 'Wow! What about an episode where a couple is so tired, they can't talk to each other!' "
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles
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