Mike Royce and Ray Romano are the co-creators of TNT comedic drama Men of a Certain Age. The show stars Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula as three friends grappling with the unsettling realities of middle age. They've worked together previously on the hit sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, with Ray as the titular character and Mike as writer and eventually executive producer.
They both come from a stand up comedy background, and Mike has also produced Louis CK's HBO series Lucky Louie.
New episodes of the show air this summer on TNT on Wednesdays at 10/9 Central, beginning May 25th.
JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guests on the program are Mike Royce and Ray Romano; they're the co-creators of the somewhat funny TNT drama, Men of a Certain Age. Of course you know Ray Romano as the immensely successful stand up comic and star of Everybody Loves Raymond. Mike Royce was also a stand up comic and writer on that program for many years, among others. He also worked on Lucky Louie on HBO among other shows. Mike, Ray, welcome to The Sound of Young America.
RAY ROMANO: Thank you.
Click here for a full transcript of this interview.
MIKE ROYCE: Thank you.
RAY ROMANO: I just want to clear one thing up; when you say somewhat funny, people may think, why, he's taking a shot at them already.
JESSE THORN: I'm just working hard to try and figure out what the right thing is to say.
RAY ROMANO: No, you're right!
MIKE ROYCE: That's the best description I've ever heard.
RAY ROMANO: What I want to clear up is that it's a drama with comedy in it, so saying somewhat funny is correct.
MIKE ROYCE: It's exactly right.
JESSE THORN: It does sound kind of mean though. As soon as I said it - - the two things in that introduction that I felt bad about right after I said it was when I said immensely successful stand up comic for Ray, and then I was like, well, Mike was also a successful stand up comic, but it would be disingenuous for me to say immensely successful. Reasonably successful.
MIKE ROYCE: It's also accurate to describe me as a somewhat funny stand up comic.
RAY ROMANO: Yeah.
JESSE THORN: But you had a lot of dramatic undertones in your act, of course.
MIKE ROYCE: That's right, I was always doing a dramedy when I was performing.
JESSE THORN: You always brought the audience along on a journey.
MIKE ROYCE: That's right, that's right.
JESSE THORN: I want to ask you guys, Men of a Certain Age is a show that is about middle age, and I want to ask you about whether you ever thought of what your life would be like as a 40 and 50 year old when you were starting in stand up comedy as a 25 year old?
RAY ROMANO: No. No. It sneaks up on you. I still to this day get a little, not bummed out, but when I suddenly realize when I do the numbers in my head, and I go, 53...wow. It's happening. Time just moves on. As a stand up coming up - - first of all, I never looked to the future, that was my problem. That's why I went to three different high schools and seven years of college; I was irresponsible anyway. I never thought I would get old. All comedians are kind of, you know, they have that Peter Pan syndrome. They just think they're kids. I still feel like it, but I look in the mirror and I'm like, who's this old fuck?
MIKE ROYCE: Jerk.
RAY ROMANO: Jerk.
MIKE ROYCE: Sorry, it was a second too late. I think I'm one of those people who - - I grew into myself and kept growing.
RAY ROMANO: Is that because you were bald early? That's what helped you out.
MIKE ROYCE: That is correct. I set the bar low early on so that for years and years I could look, oh, he's going to look that old now?
RAY ROMANO: But what's great about that is that somebody sees you, they haven't seen you since you were 30, they see you now you're close to 50, you look the same! Because you were bald at 30.
MIKE ROYCE: You looked shitty back then! Thanks for being consistent.
JESSE THORN: I've got to admit that as a 29 year old in a necktie with a receding hairline, that's very comforting to me.
RAY ROMANO: Yes, you age more gracefully when you lose your hair early.
MIKE ROYCE: That's right. You have a good 50 years of this look.
JESSE THORN: One of the things about being a stand up comedian is that it's a very - - in some ways it's a job that, because it requires only a couple of hours of work each day and a couple of hours of writing if you happen to be really diligent, it's an easy job; but in other ways, it's a very difficult job because of the fact that you can't really make money in one place. No matter where you are in your career, you have to have this nomadic lifestyle that's hard even when you're 25.
MIKE ROYCE: Yeah, that's true. I would always survive as a warm-up comic, that was how I made my money. As I went along I MC'd a lot of shows. It was always like, okay, where's the next check coming from?
RAY ROMANO: I was a little bit lucky because I was in Manhattan, that's where I was working. I was living in Queens, so I didn't have to go on the road constantly. I could make money, not a lot of money, but I could make enough staying in Manhattan. I was lucky also that I was one of the comics who could call my shots; like, I could tell the Comic Strip, I'm available Friday night, I could tell the Cellar I'm available Saturday, and they would give me the shows. So I would do five shows Friday, my record is seven, I did seven shows on a Saturday, no kidding. You get like, 60 bucks a pop for each one. When I stayed in town I could still make enough, and I was married and we were starting to have kids, so I didn't have to go on the road. I would still go on the road at least once a month.
JESSE THORN: When did you start to think about that and wonder whether that was something that you would be able to do when you were 55?
RAY ROMANO: I was doing it for about 11 years, and I said, I love what I'm doing, I'm lucky enough to do that, but I'm 37 now, is there a next step? Or maybe this is it. Not that it's bad that this is it, but this is as high as it goes. All the other comics were kind of getting, not all the other comics, but the guys that had been at that level were getting development deals and the potential chances for a sitcom or whatever. Nobody really was biting. I'd done all the shows, I'd done everything. I'd done Leno, Carson, all the HBO specials, everything. So it wasn't like I wasn't there, it's just nobody was doing it. Then I did Letterman, and Letterman was the only one who responded.
JESSE THORN: A little bit of tape from Ray Romano's career-altering appearance on David Letterman. Shortly after that spot, Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, approached Romano to do a sitcom. That show became Everybody Loves Raymond.
RAY ROMANO: When I did it, I knew I had a good set. Even though I'm hard on myself, even I had to give it up, wow, that was a pretty good set. Then I just thought, hey, if anybody is interested, if anybody sees something, if they don't see it now, then whatever, maybe it isn't going to happen. They literally called a week later. They called my house, I was living in Queens, and it was a Saturday. Rob Burnett, who was the executive producer, called my house, and my wife came in the backyard, we had a small little attached house, and I was hosing one of the kids off, and she said Rob Burnett's on the phone from Letterman. I got on, and he said listen, we like what we saw, and we're interested in a possible development deal. We'll talk, but don't sign with anybody else because we're interested. I told him, there's nobody else. I know this is bad business, but you're it. And that's it, that's how it came to be.
JESSE THORN: Phil Rosenthal was recently a guest on The Sound of Young America, he's got a documentary about translating Everybody Loves Raymond for the Russian audience, it's a real interesting thing. I was talking with him a little bit about how once Raymond became a success, and once Raymond reached that magical level that sitcoms get to where you have enough episodes for syndication, and thus, as I understand it as a public radio host, everyone magically gets rich somehow.
MIKE ROYCE: Yes.
JESSE THORN: Then what it was that motivated the show, and also led the show to end before it needed to end. It was still a huge success when it ended. Both of you guys were working on the show.
RAY ROMANO: Yeah.
JESSE THORN: During that time.
RAY ROMANO: Well, the public doesn't think it needed to end, but if you were inside, we knew that –
MIKE ROYCE: It was over.
RAY ROMANO: It could have went, but it really - -
MIKE ROYCE: It really all came down to, as far as Phil and Ray went, do we have more stories to tell?
RAY ROMANO: But also more stories - - yes, the main issue was stories. The other issue was Peter wasn't healthy.
MIKE ROYCE: Peter's health, yeah.
RAY ROMANO: But mostly it was, do we feel like we're cheating? We're stealing from ourselves, just making up themes that are variations of something we did, and we just felt like we used it all up, and we wanted to go out on a high note instead of just feeling like we stayed one season too long and have that bad taste in your mouth.
JESSE THORN: When that happened, Ray, specifically for you, since you had been the star of the show and also had helped conceive of the show and had a producer role on the show the whole time, you were in an interesting position, which is to say that you didn't have to work for money reasons; you were an extraordinarily successful television star and a huge television star, but not a movie star. I wonder how you decided what you wanted to do. Was it just a matter of just, I want to take a break, I want to be a dramatic actor, I want to direct?
RAY ROMANO: It was a matter of - - well, yeah. First it was just, let's just see where I land; where my passion takes me or what I decide. There was no rush, and it was kind of exciting to think - - nine years of being in that bubble and I was wearing a lot of hats, and it was all very consuming. All of a sudden to have this financial success and, yeah. The show was a success, I had a little bit of that fame if you want to call it that.
JESSE THORN: I'll probably call it that, it's the word for what it was.
RAY ROMANO: But it felt like this, oh boy, I'll golf and I'll whatever I want to do; I'll just have fun. It was a couple months, you know, if a great movie script came by I would do it. I know now, because we're on the inside for the casting of the show we do, it's hard for a guy who the public has seen for nine years, it's hard to think of him as something else. So the movie offers were not coming, the ones that I wanted. It was about three or four months, and it hit me pretty hard; this empty creative spiritual void; kind of a who am I crisis, what am I doing? Wake up and go to the office for what? Is it over? Have I done everything? That's when I talked to Mike and we had lunch and he was kind of going through the same thing on different levels, and we said, let's do this. Let's do this show.
JESSE THORN: What was that conversation like when you two first got together? What did you talk about?
MIKE ROYCE: We just started talking because we're friends, and started talking about, in a big way, we had both come to Los Angeles and got plopped down and started working on this thing. And then it ends, and you're sitting around going, okay, I'm in this fake place, I don't know anybody here except because of the job, I don't know where I am anymore. I don't know what I'm doing here.
RAY ROMANO: All of a sudden it's like, ten years of your life, and you're like, I'm 47, and I live here; I live in LA? You're so consumed with the show that you're not aware of what's going on.
MIKE ROYCE: Yeah, and so it was just this immediate, yeah, I'm feeling that way too. I'm feeling that way too. I was reading articles about peak oil, I'm worried about the world ending.
RAY ROMANO: I started taking Pilates, I started hiking. Something's gotta help me fill the void.
MIKE ROYCE: Right, right.
JESSE THORN: It feels to me, and you guys can tell me if I'm crazy, but it feels to me, both on the show and to some extent what you're describing, it's like what if those teenage existential problems had stakes. What if they were really, like, when you're a teenager there's nothing you can do that's so bad that you can't fix it within two months.
MIKE ROYCE: I wish you told that to my 17 year old self.
JESSE THORN: Who murdered someone.
MIKE ROYCE: Who murdered my 16 year old self.
JESSE THORN: What's really impressive is that your 17 year old self built that time machine.
MIKE ROYCE: He was a smart one.
JESSE THORN: You gotta hand it to that fella.
MIKE ROYCE: I think it's very, and this is a parallel in the show, that his son in the show, there's sort of a tying together of Joe, Ray's character, and his son, Albert. I really think that mid-life, or when you get into your 40s, there is a sort of weird second teenager-hood that takes over. It can manifest itself just like teenagers do, total craziness, or nothing, or somewhere in between. I think there's a lot of - - when you're a teenager you see adulthood coming; you maybe don't see it clearly, but your body and your mind feel it coming and you're going through a lot of changes, and you're dealing with it moment to moment. There's just so much thrashing around and turmoil.
I think in the same way when you're in your 40s, you see death coming. You may not crystallize it in your mind that way, but that's what's happening, and you start to run out the clock. Okay, if I still do what I'm doing, what happens then? If I change my whole life what happens then? Should I go back and do the thing that I always wanted to do? It all just naturally takes hold no matter who you are, where you are in your life, how successful.
RAY ROMANO: For me the key is to find something to do that takes your mind off of that.
MIKE ROYCE: That's true, yes.
RAY ROMANO: If you're passionate about your work, if you think you're doing something that you love to do, if you can just live in that moment and not think about where you are and how old you are and all that, that doesn't happen when you're sitting at home looking at the lamp.
MIKE ROYCE: It's like a mobius strip then, because you're doing a show about taking your mind off - - you see what I'm saying?
RAY ROMANO: I guess, yeah.
MIKE ROYCE: Somebody do the math on that, but you know what I'm saying.
RAY ROMANO: I'm not saying take medication also. It's a combo.
JESSE THORN: Here's a clip from Men of a Certain Age. The show is very funny, but it also has a lot of very effective drama. Romano's character in the show, Joe, owns a party supply store. In this clip he's approached at work by the mother of his bookie, who's also become his friend.
MIKE ROYCE: When we started doing this show, a lot of people were like, is it hard to make the transition into drama, and how did the writing go, and all that stuff. We just kind of did whatever felt right. For better or for worse, we refused to classify it. We just said, this is what it feels like. It's dramatic, we're also comedians so there's always going to be a sense of these characters being funny, because they're coming out of us, and we sometimes feel like we're funny; sometimes we're wrong.
RAY ROMANO: Somewhat funny, as you said.
MIKE ROYCE: Somewhat funny. But the notion that he would somehow have to make some kind of jarring transition - - he's making something look incredibly natural, which is the hardest thing to do. So that can go comedically, and I think you see that on Everybody Loves Raymond, and something that I think gets forgotten, he does the same thing on this show, it's just that he's playing a different character.
JESSE THORN: It's a different thing though. Stand up, especially, even with, I think Ray has a really remarkable ability to ground things. I'm thinking of a favorite bit that I remember from watching him on Dr. Katz about his wife sending him to go get yogurt - - to check out a horrible noise, and then she adds on to it, and could you also get me yogurt.
RAY ROMANO: Bring up the yogurt if it's nothing.
JESSE THORN: And that goes to - - the third beat of that joke is, actually, either way could you bring me some yogurt.
And that is, obviously, that's absurd. But it's Ray's ability to ground that that grounds it and makes it feel honest, even though it's completely ridiculous. That act of creating that is about finding moments that will get laughs. It's about building for externalities, for the audience. When you're developing that skill for performing for laughter, you learn about the way that your rhythm can get that laugh, and the way that you can punch a joke. Like, what part you emphasize to make the joke seem funny and so on and so forth.
All those things are like layers on top of, especially if you're a good stand up, a certain core emotional truth. Doing Meisner's technique, for example, is essentially an effort to strip all artifice away to the point where your responses are so automatic that they're naturally honest. I wonder if it was ever scary for you, Ray, as someone who had spent so much time getting so good at being able to sell humor, to actually take all that away; start over without those skills.
RAY ROMANO: I gotta tell you, it didn't come naturally right away. When I watch Everybody Loves Raymond, as an example, I see the difference between year one and year two, and I see - - it's the same with stand up. Exactly what you're talking about took years of stand up to get. But that's why when this show came along, I feel like I had already done the work, and I felt I was at that place where it all felt like it could just come out naturally. I still have to work at it, but it felt very organic to me; the dramatic moments as well as the comedic moments.
It's funny, you are right, it's true, you can take a bit and exaggerate it and yet - - I find when I watch 30 Rock, that what appeals to me the most is the real comedy, and something I can relate to. 30 Rock, they go, you know, some of those characters are crazy cartoons, yet somehow it works for me. She does that both, too. Goes off into Broadville and Cartoonland, but there's something grounded underneath it all that works for me. There aren't many shows like that where they can be cartoony characters and I still - -
MIKE ROYCE: Believe the world.
RAY ROMANO: Yeah, yeah.
JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guests are Ray Romano and Mike Royce, the co-creators of Men of a Certain Age. The second part of the second season premiers on TNT June 1st. Ray, your character on the show is named Joe, and he's a recent divorcee, he's recently separated from his wife who's sleeping with another guy. You realize from looking at him how lost he is, not just in terms of who am I and what is my life, but that divorce really drives home how socially lost he is. There's a few scenes where he's at parties, and you just see this bafflement.
RAY ROMANO: I wanted that character to be single, I mean, divorced, not married. I'd done the married thing for nine years. I thought, how are we going to write this, we don't really know what the single life is, but that's perfect, because neither does this character. That's exactly what he should be, he's lost all of a sudden. He's married 20 years, now he's 49 years old and he's suddenly in this world where he has to figure out, how do I meet somebody else? I wasn't even good at it back then. It's fun. It's fun to play, and it's organic because that's how I would be.
JESSE THORN: Has that ever been an issue for you? Not the divorce part, but that element of feeling like you're not standing comfortably in social world.
RAY ROMANO: Of course!
MIKE ROYCE: That's why you're a performer.
RAY ROMANO: Yeah, yeah. You feel comfortable on stage, and then - - I mean, I've felt more comfortable talking to a room of a thousand people than one on one, of course.
MIKE ROYCE: I always thought that was amazing. People would go, you must have been the class clown, and I'd go, no. Those people in class trying to be funny, those people kill me.
JESSE THORN: Those people become successful insurance salesman.
MIKE ROYCE: Yes, yes.
RAY ROMANO: Only sometimes, that's not the rule though.
MIKE ROYCE: There's all different types of comedians. I went to my high school reunion, and the guy who used to sit across from me in seventh grade and punch me and kick me and rub boogers on my locker if I remember correctly, he's like, what have you been doing? I think he might have known I worked on Everybody Loves Raymond. “How'd that happen?” I said, I was actually a stand up comic up until just about now, I've been a stand up comic ever since I left college. He just looked at me, you've never seen a more perplexed face, and I just let him stare for awhile. I go, I guess that's a little hard to believe, and he goes, yeah, I'm still chewin' on that. So 13 years of successful stand up comedy, disbelief from people I grew up with.
JESSE THORN: When you were casting these parts, the parts that are besides Ray's part, were Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher the kind of person that you were thinking of for those roles? These are two of among the most accomplished television actors in their peer group; both spectacularly gifted.
RAY ROMANO: I think the answer is, a little bit, and no. Scott was in the ballpark, Andre, no. We weren't thinking of Andre Braugher.
JESSE THORN: Andre Braugher was on the tv show Homicide. His character on Men of a Certain Age is a guy who, in the first season, is working for his father at his father's car dealership, he's kind of lousy at it. He's only there because when he tried to do something when he was in his 20s he failed, and he's just sort of biding time in an effort to hopefully eventually inherit it, but he doesn't seem to even have that much of a plan for that.
RAY ROMANO: He's not in charge, yeah.
JESSE THORN: Whereas in Homicide, all you see is this extraordinary, brilliant, competence. He just burns with competence. That has largely been what his career has been; look at this guy, you look behind his eyes and you see brilliance.
RAY ROMANO: That's why when he was pitched to us, we just said he's a great actor, but it's just not the guy we're thinking of. First of all, we wrote him as being overweight, diabetic, frumpy, put upon, downtrodden. Like you say, Andre Braugher is the last guy you think of in that way.
MIKE ROYCE: We just wanted a guy who the spark was gone, had let himself go probably much more than Andre, certainly more than we pictured Andre at. Andre had maybe put on a few more pounds than he had when he was in Homicide, which, by the way, he lost, so he's screwed us completely.
RAY ROMANO: He hasn't completely lost it.
JESSE THORN: He just gained that weight because he knew it would help him get parts.
MIKE ROYCE: I'll see if that's true. But when you think of Andre Braugher, yes, you think of a guy who is like you said, shining with competence. It just didn't seem like - - it seemed like Andre Braugher was A-type, and we were casting a B-type.
JESSE THORN: In a way the fact that he isn't a comic and he doesn't deliver a joke like a comic - -
RAY ROMANO: The greatest.
JESSE THORN: Really adds a lot to the show, because it adds, on the rare occasion that he makes a joke, even if he does what you might describe otherwise as a bad job of making the joke, it feels like the way a real person makes a joke when talking to a friend of theirs.
RAY ROMANO: Either he's really good at this, or you've done a lot of research. Have you done a lot of research of our interviews and stuff? I tell that exact story of him, about how we write something for him, and we know the comedic rhythm of this is this, and he goes in exactly the opposite, and it still works.
MIKE ROYCE: It works better.
RAY ROMANO: Should I tell the example?
MIKE ROYCE: Yeah.
RAY ROMANO: The example is, he said something to his wife that he shouldn't have said, something about how little she works during the day, he put his foot in his mouth, and we were saying “What are you going to do?” He says look, I'm going to go home tonight, and I'm going to tell her I said something, and I may not have meant it, but I work hard, and blah blah blah blah, and he's showing a little bit of bravado and whatever, and if she can't handle that, then, well, then I don't know what else to say. There's a long pause, and then Scott goes, “Scared?” And the way it's written he's supposed to jump right on it and say, “Little bit.” That's the way we wrote it.
MIKE ROYCE: The standard comedic timing that we'd expected.
RAY ROMANO: I say to Mike, you know there's no way that he's going to come right in on that, with the “little bit.” And sure enough, he waited so long. “You're scared?” And he just waited so long and said, “Little bit.” The way he did it it was still funny.
MIKE ROYCE: It was funnier, because the other way is - -
RAY ROMANO: Is kind of hacky, yeah.
JESSE THORN: You worked on Everybody Loves Raymond for so long, and this was a show that was drawing stories from the people that were working on it; the writers were bringing things in from their lives. How has it affected your life to be creating art about this challenging period in your lives that both of you were, and I presume are to some extent, going through?
MIKE ROYCE: That's an interesting question.
RAY ROMANO: How does it affect our life?
JESSE THORN: Yeah, does it change the way you think about how you're living?
MIKE ROYCE: I think I would pile on to what he was saying, in terms of, I have thought many times of what I would be feeling if I wasn't doing this particular show. This show is certainly as personal a show as you could hope to do. The stories come out of a whole bunch of different peoples lives, including mine, but the fact that we can kind of almost feel the show, I get so wrapped up in the stories when we're talking about them, and one time I cried in the writers room which is a nightmare.
RAY ROMANO: I don't remember that.
MIKE ROYCE: I don't think you were there. That's why I was crying, because you weren't there. I think about if I weren't doing this show I'd probably be doing something that i had a little less emotion about, a little less attachment to, so in that way I feel very fortunate. And it also, I think, makes me see a little bit, because I'm a writer and I'm a story vampire looking to take from anybody, I start looking at other peoples lives in that way. Like, oh, they’re about my age, what are they going through, what's their situation.
RAY ROMANO: So you sympathize maybe.
JESSE THORN: Ray, you've had some time to think about it.
RAY ROMANO: I don't know if it's affected me in a sense where I look at my life differently because of something I see in the show. I think I'm too wrapped up in it. I just know it helps me be happy. Working, doing it, and creating, and it's something I - - I've asked my shrink why do I need this to be happy, aren't normal people just happy? Do they have to be goal oriented? Do they have to have something? He said, time's up. That's what it is. I'm not saying my family is my life, and they're the most important in the world, but this is also part of what makes me happy, is doing this. In that sense, when I'm happy - - I'm a good father, I'm a good husband when I'm happy, and I'm a good boyfriend, but nobody needs to know that.
JESSE THORN: Mike Royce and Ray Romano are the co-creators of Men of a Certain Age, of which Ray Romano is one of the stars. The second half of the second season premieres June 1st on TNT.