Interview: Phil Rosenthal on Feeding Elaine May and How Tony 'n Tina's Wedding Started His Career
Elaine May doesn't do interviews. Everyone who works in entertainment media knows this. The closest we collectively got during the season she was on Broadway in The Waverly Gallery was her Tony Awards acceptance speech.
In the latest episode of the podcast Naked Lunch, audiences have a rare opportunity to hear May on the record, over pastrami sandwiches with her friend Phil Rosenthal and his cohost, David Wild. Rosenthal, of course, is the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond and the host of Netflix's Somebody Feed Phil (and he was also an original cast member of off-Broadway's legendary Tony 'n Tina's Wedding, which was produced by one of TheaterMania's founders, Joe Corcoran).
Because May so rarely does publicity, Rosenthal was very excited to talk about the coup of getting her to agree to a spirited Q&A. And I just wanted to talk about food (which we did, off camera).
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I know you and Elaine May go back a while. Did you meet her through the Hollywood and television and comedy circles?
No, actually. Do you remember that evening of three one-acts on Broadway? There was Woody Allen, Ethan Coen, and Elaine May. So my wife and I go to the theter, and we have pretty good seats, I'm going to sit down and behind me is Elaine May, and she's sitting with her daughter, Jeannie Berlin, and on the other side is her boyfriend, Stanley Donen. And I freak out a little and I go "Oh my goodness, can I say hello to you?" And she said "Sure." I said, "My name is Phil Rosenthal" and she wouldn't even let me finish. She goes "I know that name. Why do I know that name?" I said, "Well, I created a TV show." Which one? Everybody Loves Raymond. She goes "We watch it every night. That's our favorite show."
She went on and on and on and I was just like, "This isn't happening." I said "I'd love to talk to you more, but your play is about to start. Can we have lunch?" She goes "How's tomorrow?" We had lunch and we've been having meals ever since. It's been pretty fantastic for me. I can't speak for her, but for me, it's been absolutely unbelievable. And if you listen to the podcast, you'll see that at 90 years old, she is sharp as a tack. I'm a dull butterknife that has trouble with butter compared to her.
She does absolutely no press, no interviews, so getting to agree to do a podcast —
I know it's an exclusive because when I asked her "Would you do my podcast?" she said "What's a podcast?"
What was it like to interview her?
My partner, David Wild, is a real journalist like you, so he has more professional questions, where mine tend to be "How do you like this pastrami compared to Katz's?" I'm such a fan I come off a little bit like Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live. I know a lot about her because I'm a student of her work. She's completely unpredictable and she can get a laugh at will. Meanwhile, in my mind, I'm going "Holy shit! Elaine May is talking to me!" She's one of my idols. She's one of the funniest people who's ever lived. That's not an exaggeration. She's superhuman in terms of smarts and comedy chops.
How did you prepare to talk to her for an interview like this?
I had a bit of an advantage, knowing her for so long now and she was staying with me. We did it in my backyard and I got Langer's sandwiches, which she had never tried and was delighted to try. Half the interview, her mouth is very full, which is hilarious too.
You and I share a connection that we're both Hofstra University alums. Not many people know that Tony n' Tina's Wedding was created by a group of Hofstra graduates, and that you were in the original cast. Tell me about that whole experience.
It was crazy, but it was tremendous. You know, nobody knows their own power. I used to say that I graduated with a degree that was good for nothing. I was such a big star in high school and then at Hofstra, and then I moved into New York and they hadn't heard about that, so I kicked around for years. We all did. Everyone had these terrible jobs that we have to have in New York to survive. Before me, some of the group members wrote sketches, and the first time they asked me to be in one, I was a little afraid. I didn't know what kind of chance I was taking. So I said no, but then when it was ready for a slightly bigger production of one of the shows, I had to stop being afraid and jump in. We were literally writing our own ticket, which is, of course, the key to everything, and you're so young and stupid you don't realize that that's the key to everything. That's how I got here, pretty much.
With Tony and Tina, I was going to be the priest off-Broadway. They gave me a blonde wig and I Gentiled it up and it became what it became.
Was it a crazy time?
Yes, because we were interacting with the audience. It was an audience participation show, and as if that wasn't bad enough, the audience was drinking. I don't know if this would ever fly today. People are so unpredictable now that you can't risk that kind of thing. Imagine actors interacting with an audience that's drunk. One of my bits was the Priest would get drunk and fall asleep during the reception. The priest is passed out in a chair in the corner, and the audience would come over to take pictures with me. But some didn't stop there. I would be groped. One woman French kissed me. That was unpleasant, because she smoked. Another woman, I believe to see if I was really sleeping, put a cigarette out on my back. So there's dangers involved. But overall, I remember that year being absolutely wonderful, because we were the toast of the town.
But it did not end well. I did not enjoy how it ended. It's too bad, but it got me here. The way that ended was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life, but if that didn't happen, I wouldn't have moved to Hollywood, I wouldn't have become a sitcom writer, and I wouldn't be talking to you right now.
And you wouldn't have become friends with Elaine May.
And I want you to listen to Elaine May! You don't know what you're missing if you don't.