'Everybody Loves Raymond's' bumpy trip to Russia: Why funny isn't always money
Phil Rosenthal, the creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” was delighted when Sony asked him if he wanted to go to Moscow to help oversee a Russian-language production of his long-running sitcom. He wasn’t so delighted when he discovered that his kind of middle-class American comedy doesn’t necessarily play in Russia. Luckily for us, he filmed the whole messy adventure, which he made into an engaging documentary, “Exporting Raymond,” which opens in Los Angeles on April 29.
Rosenthal’s journey began when Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Michael Lynton regaled him with tales of Sony’s pioneering efforts in Russian TV. The media conglomerate had almost single-handedly created the Russian sitcom, a comedy form that didn’t exist until a Russian-language version of “The Nanny” debuted in 2004. “Until perestroika in the 1980s, their state-run TV’s basic staple was agriculture shows,” explains Lynton. “Russian comedy has always been much darker. After all, when Chekhov wrote ‘The Seagull,’ he thought it was a comedy.”
After Sony’s success with “The Nanny,” it began adapting other shows, like “Married … With Children.” To make sure things went smoothly, Sony even brought over American sitcom talent to train Russian writers in the subtleties of the form.
Since Rosenthal has been looking for film projects to direct, he couldn’t resist Lynton’s offer to bankroll a documentary depicting Rosenthal’s experiences as a creative consultant on the Russian production of “Raymond.” A jumble of Woody Allen-like anxiety, Rosenthal casts himself in the familiar comic persona of a fish out of water, baffled by the cultural quirks of everyday Russian life.
Driving away from the airport in Moscow, his chauffeur suddenly stops, gets out of the car and disappears. Rosenthal is convinced he’s about to be kidnapped. But when the driver returns, he explains that he had to go into a building to pay for parking because apparently no one there has thought to install a parking kiosk.
It’s immediately obvious that working in Russian TV offers little prestige. The production studio, which looks like an abandoned factory, has so many dingy corridors that Rosenthal jokes: “Do you know which room they filmed the movie ‘Saw’ in?” When Rosenthal complains that the Russian comedy writers haven’t bothered to read a translation of a new “Raymond” script, he discovers that they are paid so little that they are always away, moonlighting on other shows to make ends meet.
“TV is definitely not a big business there,” Rosenthal told me over lunch at Umami Burger, one of the many L.A.-area restaurants that he’s an investor in. “When I told them how important it was to have an audience at the taping, they actually said, ‘But we’d have to get chairs.’ Their budget for the show, all in — meaning the pre- and post-production, along with all the salaries — was $80,000 [per episode]. They block and shoot a show every two days. Anything they don’t understand from the American script, they just throw it out.”
Every time the camera cuts away to Rosenthal, he looks puzzled, crestfallen or despondent. The cultural chasm often appears unbridgeable. In the original show, Raymond is regularly scolded by a disgruntled wife and overbearing parents, but the Russian writers grouse that Raymond is unlikable because he’s a weakling, too easily pushed around by women.
An imperious Russian costume designer argues that Raymond’s wife should dress elegantly, not like a drab housewife. When Rosenthal attempts to explain that “maybe her frustration is that she knows how to dress beautifully, but she doesn’t always get the opportunity,” the designer sniffs: “Then why don’t we give her the opportunity?”
Rosenthal says the low point of the experience — though perhaps one of the comic high points of the documentary — was when he tried to breathe life into the taping of the first episode by laughing at the jokes. The show’s director, who by then was deliberately ignoring him, told him to be quiet — his laugh would ruin the take. “That was pretty awful,” Rosenthal told me. “Being shushed for laughing at comedy. We have an old line in the writers room: Punished for caring. That’s what it felt like.”
Although Rosenthal doesn’t want to give away the end of his movie, despite all his travails, the Russian version of “Raymond” isn’t a total disaster. What seems especially intriguing to me is that American TV comedies, remade overseas in local languages, have fared so well almost everywhere around the globe while American comedy films rarely cross over to foreign audiences.
Action films and animated pictures make two or three times more money overseas than they do in the U.S., but live-action comedies rarely do as well internationally. “Dinner for Schmucks,” for example, took in $73 million in the States but only $13.7 million in foreign territories. “Date Night” grossed $98.7 million at the U.S. box office, almost twice what it made overseas. Like most American comedy stars, Will Ferrell has almost no international following. Judd Apatow may be the king of comedy here, but abroad he’s barely registered.
Rosenthal’s theory is that action movies are more relatable. “You can understand a car chase in any language,” he says. “But why a particular guy is funny — that’s harder to easily understand. My guess is that movie stars like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler are parodying a very specific kind of American type — the man-child who’s never grown up — which just may not be relatable in other cultures.”
TV comedies have the advantage of being remade in a native language. Film comedies feature dubbed dialogue, where it’s possible that some of a comic’s unique personality is lost in translation.
On the other hand, we have to thank God for American comedies, since they reveal far more about our national character than any of our special-effects-studded action films, which are so bland and generic they could be made anywhere. They have no American point of origin, the way films of the past like “The Godfather,” “Taxi Driver” or “Easy Rider” did.
“When I was a kid, growing up in Holland, Hollywood movies served as a huge beacon of public diplomacy — you saw American life through its movies,” says Lynton. “But in our efforts to make franchises that play everywhere around the globe, we’ve lost what made our films distinctive. It’s only through our sitcoms and TV dramas that you still see a reflection of American values and lifestyle.”
You almost get the feeling that in their quest for global domination, American action films have left us behind. They’re aimed at people in Madrid and Mumbai, not Des Moines and Detroit.
Rosenthal wryly admits there was a certain universal quality to his confounding experience with turning “Raymond” into a Russian TV show. “When something wasn’t working, I would try to explain my position by using logic. But logic never seemed to work, which I guess I can’t blame on Russia, since it happens at home with my wife and with all too many network executives.”
He laughs. “I went to Russia worried about being kidnapped, but I have to admit that my fear of kidnapping was quickly replaced by my fear of what they were doing to my TV show.”
Here's the trailer for the new film:
Photo: "Exporting Raymond" director Phil Rosenthal at his home in Hancock Park in 2005. Credit: Los Angeles Times