How Paul Reiser Changed Film

Barry Levinson's Diner Changed movie dialogue, but it was a noodge from 14th Street that gave it that nuance.

When you think about Paul Reiser, if you think about Paul Reiser, you might not, he doesn’t really come up in a lot of conversations, he’s not doing a lot these days, maybe you talked about him the day after the Liberace movie on HBO, but you probably didn’t. You probably talked about Michael Douglas and oral sex or whatever you might have talked about, it probably wasn’t Paul Reiser. The last time anyone was talking about him was when NBC made him get out of the house and do a show and then pulled it after three episodes. And it was funny. Probably the funniest thing on at the time, Curb Your Enthusiasm on prime time. But even then, you weren’t thinking about him too much. Why would you? He’s not your cousin or anything. You don’t know him, why would he be on your mind?

So when you think about Paul Reiser, the first thing that pops into your mind is probably Mad About You, maybe My Two Dads or maybe you’ll remember that he was in Beverly Hills Cop or the douchebag in Alien, but it’s not. It’s Mad About You. He was pretty much playing a version of himself that he made up in his books, but it stuck and it was actually a very innovative show.

If you’re lucky, when you think about him, the first thing that pops up is Diner. That’s what does it for me. I loved Diner from the first time I saw it. I’ve followed the careers of everyone, well, okay, no. I agree with The Simpsons on Steve Guttenberg when the Stone Cutters taunted “Who made Steve Guttenberg a star?” So, I’ve followed Kevin Bacon, Tim Dailey, and Mickey Rourke. Mainly Mickey Rourke, I’ll admit. He made the most interesting movies and he made one that’s in my top whatever of all time, Angel Heart. But Kevin Bacon? What’s not to like? He’s a great actor who gets swallowed up in his parts, and, according to Tom Hanks, he always smells good doing it. Tim Daley? I didn’t really watch Wings, but I loved it when Christopher Moltisanti went upside his head with his own award on The Sopranos.

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These actors came together in 1981 to film 1982’s Diner. Diner changed film. It changed the way people talk to each other in film. John Travolta would never talk about French Big Macs in Pulp Fiction if it weren’t for Diner. With all these successful actors that I mentioned, the reason it became what it was, Diner that is, is Paul Reiser. He wasn’t even supposed to be in it. He just showed up one day on the set and started talking. They couldn’t shut him up. He was there to help out a friend audition for the movie, started a sentence and by the time he got to the period at the end, he had the part.

Then Barry Levinson, the director and one of the great great directors as far as I’m concerned, unleashes the inner standup in Paul Reiser by saying “improvise.” Improvise? Actors? Sure, they had some lessons. They took a workshop maybe in acting school, but Reiser, he’s been doing this all his life. I saw him three times doing standup and can attest to the fact that he can break the number one rule of improv, always say yes, and still make it work. And I am sorry that Steve Buscemi is still pissed at him, but that’s another article. So, this schmuck from 14th Street with the motor mouth breaks up whatever scene he’s working on and the other actors have to keep up. And they have to come up with emotional purity while they’re doing it. They’re actors. Guttenberg lets his own flubs work for him, snorting his lines back into his mouth like the fried baloney his mother’s making. Or not making, no bother, really. Barry Levinson started on the Marty Feldman and Carol Burnett Shows and wound up making such classics as And Justice For All, Sleepers, Bugsy, and Wag the Dog. He made some movies that are even better than those, but they’re my favorites.

Ellen Barkin and Daniel Stern, and for that matter her and Mickey Rourke, plumb improvisation for an almost uncomfortable paring of nerves. Sure, they get their laughs, but they go somewhere else. They take Diner out of the diner and Paul’s got to reel them in again within a scene or two. Then you get to see Mickey playfully pouring sugar down this throat or deadpanning Elvis, but he’s got to hit his serious marks with the same casual tapdance.  

So, Barry Levinson, he knows what he’s doing. He knows that by siccing the actors after each other, their sense of competition’s going to come out. They all want to shine. They’re actors. The standup is stealing the scenes. Gradually the scenes take on a whole new life beyond the screenplay because these actors have really got to be on their toes because they have to keep the screenplay in line with whatever comes into their heads and out of their mouths. And out of the other actors’ mouths. The competition becomes fun and it infects the rest of film.

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Here’s where it’s a shame that the Paul Reiser series got cancelled. It was taking off from where Larry David was having the most fun of his career, improvising within scenes. Diner is a serious, serious what? Coming of age movie? Not really. It’s a movie about nothing. Like Seinfeld. Who ordered his cereal in a diner. Paul Reiser invented Jerry Seinfeld. Put him together at some diner they’d hang out at on New Year’s Day every year. So, the chance that Diner, or Curb Your Enthusiasm, was going to be on network TV would have been a real innovation. Reiser had done it before.

If you were going to describe that Diner is actually about, in a sentence, you’d have to say it’s about a wedding. That’s what the movie is leading up to, that is the purported arc and center of the film. Everybody gets together at the diner to make the wedding. But when you’re actually watching it, the wedding is just garnish. It’s there with all the other ingredients, the pickles, the fries, the ketchup, the sugar and the coffee. It’s not the food that brings you to the diner, it’s the company. It’s all a load of late night bullshit that really means nothing, but it’s an earthy and eloquent nothing, with cole slaw.

Mad About You was innovative. It wasn’t all that risky, but it flirted, it gestured. It had that nuance that, did I say nuance? I’ve always had a problem with nuance. But Mad About You played with the form as much as NBC would let them. Until they made an episode that didn’t have little blackouts for commercial breaks. Then the network started moving the show around so it would never be found and they’d have an excuse to get rid of it. Reiser’s character, I admit, was the first time I saw a guy playing the husband on a TV show that didn’t make me change the channel. Every TV dad or husband has to be an idiot or something. I never once looked at a sitcom and saw myself in their place. But with Reiser, that was comfortable. That was someone I knew and could identify with. He wasn’t the smartest guy in the room, but really, it depended on the room. This guy did a throwaway joke in season one, about having a thing in his fifties, and committed to the joke in the final episode. He’s not the best actor in Diner, but he was the one who made it swing. He made it about nothing.

That nothing has found its way into film and television and made those characters real. That nothing is the conversations everyone has when they’re with the people they’re comfortable enough with to just ramble. That’s how people talk. They just do. It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about. Most people don’t care when they’re with friends, they’re just talking. When Quentin Tarantino tells a joke about Madonna getting fucked by a guy with the biggest dick she’s ever seen in her life in Reservoir Dogs, he is playing Modell in Diner. When Roberto Benini starts a riot in a cellblock in Down By Law, he is Boogie in Diner, getting his bill paid by Bagel. When Paul Newman gets pissed off at Tom Cruise for scratching his car in Color of Money he’s playing Shrevie. And on TV, when Michael Imperioli is postulating about the inviolability of individual fingerprints at Tony Soprano’s mother’s wake, he’s Fenwick on dope. Martin Scorsese, who’d already plumbed improv in Mean Streets and Raging Bull, let himself loose in Goodfellas and King of Comedy because Diner had opened the floodgates.

But it was Paul Reiser who opened the floodgates in Diner. He changed film. 1, because his ramblings couldn’t be ignored and B. because it was good filmmaking.

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He’s doing a stand-up tour, by the way, go see him. I am.


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