Walking into the Everybody Loves Raymond living room at Warner Bros. studios, I quickly realized one reason why many Americans relate to Ray Romano’s family comedy.
The clutter of stuffed animals, Nerf balls, backpacks, books, Matchbox cars, markers, crayons and cassette tapes looked like my house.
“We all have this junk everywhere,” said Philip Rosenthal, Raymond executive producer and father of two preschoolers, after a recent taping in Burbank, Calif.
“You try to keep the living room nice, but once you have kids, forget about it! They take over.”
Yet the sheer joy of Everybody Loves Raymond is that the children of Ray and Debra Barone (Mr. Romano, Patricia Heaton) haven’t taken over the show, which has replaced Seinfeld on many viewers’ Must See TV lists.
In its third year, Raymond has grown into CBS’ top-rated comedy ！ No. 8 last week, No. 14 for the season, beating Ally McBeal at 9 p.m. Mondays ！ because it remained focused on the marriage of Ray and Debra, complicated by Ray’s nosy parents (Doris Roberts, Peter Boyle) who live across the street.
Raymond has tapped a nerve with baby boomers increasingly parenting their parents, while trying to raise a family of their own. Watching Raymond is like eavesdropping on the typical American family.
“People say they’re seeing themselves on the TV,” Mr. Rosenthal, 38, said after the taping of the episode to air Monday.
“I can’t tell you how many times people have said, “Hey, that’s my husband! That’s my mother!’ Or “Were you listening outside our bedroom window last night?'”
Mr. Romano, father of four, explained that the writers “know this is a show about parents with kids, not a show about the kids. We try to involve the fact that we’re parents, but not involve the kids too much, to be a quirky, edgy, adult show.”
Much of the comedy was based on Mr. Romano’s stand-up routines about his overbearing parents in Queens. The rest were cut from Mr. Rosenthal’s family tree.
Mr. Romano’s dad actually played back answering machine messages at his son’s house. His mother really has favored the comedian over his older brother, a police officer (played on the show by Brad Garrett).
“We all can identify with some aspects of it ！ either the parents who choose one child against another one, or the mother who is so protective that she becomes so intrusive and a control freak,” said Ms. Roberts, who plays Ray’s mother, Marie.
Mr. Rosenthal, also from Queens, bonded with Mr. Romano after the comedian delivered a knock-out six-minute stand-up routine on David Letterman’s Late Show in 1995.
“That six minutes, that’s all it took for David Letterman to say, “Someone should do a show with this guy,'” said Mr. Rosenthal. The former Coach writer was hired by Mr. Letterman’s Worldwide Pants Inc. to create the show with Mr. Romano and HBO Independent Productions.
“I thought it should be based on characters in his family, filled out with characters in my family,” Mr. Rosenthal said. (The hilarious Christmas episode, about Ray’s parents returning a monogramed toaster to a department store without looking at it, was based on Mr. Rosenthal’s parents returning their engraved Everybody Loves Raymond Christmasgift to a store a year ago.)
The result has been a truly magi cal mix of great characters, funny scripts and wonderful casting.
“We just really got lucky,” said Mr. Romano, 41. “It was about the third week (of the first season) when I said, “I really think we’ve got something here.'”
Sitcom veteran Will Mackenzie, who will direct half of the 26 episodes this year, compared Raymond to his experience on Family Ties, NBC’s award-winning Michael J. Fox family comedy.
“I have never received, since Family Ties, such good scripts. They’re basically about these five people, and their problems, which is what we did on Family Ties. Every family can relate to it,” said Mr. Mackenzie, who also has directed Taxi, Newhart, Moonlighting and Dharma & Greg.
“Most of the successful series, if you go back to the Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family, are all about that (TV) family. It’s not some funny guest star coming in and doing jokes about some person you don’t care about,” Mr. Mackenzie said.
Raymond is based on reality. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
“Yes, that’s the key,” Mr. Mackenzie said. “It is Ray’s life, and it’s a lot of Phil’s life, too, like the Christmas episode about the toaster getting returned.”
“We’re writing from character ！ and not just going for jokes ！ be cause if you do that, you’re only as good as your last joke. There are enough shows like that on TV,” Mr. Rosenthal said.
The commitment to the core adult characters dictated the decision to hide Ms. Heaton’s pregnancy this season. (She delivered her fourth son Jan. 20.) The beneficiary has been Mr. Garrett.
On Monday’s episode, “Robert’s Date,” Robert goes dancing with his police partner, Judy (Sherri Shepherd), an African-American. The highlight of the show is geeky 6-foot-8 Robert trying to dance with her friends. It’s the best physical comedy on TV since Seinfeld’s Michael Richards (Kramer).
“I danced on one show (last year) and that was a big mistake, because they remembered that,” Mr. Garrett said. “I’m not really athletic. I was 6-4 at 13, and I couldn’t make the junior varsity basketball team.”
Mr. Garrett, a stand-up comic who appeared often at Ray Combs’ Cincinnati comedy clubs in the late 1980s, praised Raymond writers for expanding his character. “They took a guy who’s one dimensional and written him to be very complex, and in turmoil, and have a life outside his work. It’s been a great season,” he said.
After watching the dance scene, Mr. Romano said: “We thought it was hysterical. We didn’t teach him that all week. That’s him. We knew he had it in him.”
Though the show has hardly suf fered, Mr. Romano can’t wait for Ms. Heaton to return after a three-week maternity break. The season will end in May with a flashback episode about how Ray and Debra met.
“My favorite scenes are with her in the bedroom. It’s a good dynamic that I miss,” Mr. Romano said.
But a bigger cloud looms over Raymond. Mr. Rosenthal will leave the show in summer to develop a new series for Disney.
“It’s in my deal that no matter what I do for Disney, that I can be a consultant on this show. I will be here as much as I possibly can,” he said.
Raymond fans should be worried, after seeing ER and Frasier suffer last fall when their creators left to launch Trinity and Encore! Encore!
“I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’ve kept 90 percent of the writers and producers on staff (since the debut), so they know it very well,” he said.
He’s confident that big ratings will continue for Raymond, a Top 10 series since ABC’s Monday Night Football season ended.
When Raymond replaced Murphy Brown last spring at 9 p.m. Mondays, Mr. Rosenthal “thought that our days of being in the Top 30 were over. And they are!”