Almost a decade ago, stand-up comedian Ray Romano came into our living rooms playing himself. He was the husband who could've done better, and the brother and son who could do no wrong -- a lot like he was in real life.
And television audiences in the United States -- and now in 169 countries -- have been yukking it up ever since with the dysfunctional Barone family from CBS's "Everybody Loves Raymond."
On Monday night, Ray and Debra, Frank and Marie, and Robert and Amy say good-bye after nine seasons on the air and 12 Emmys. Before the series finale, CBS will air an hour-long retrospective.
Romano, the show's star and one of its writers and executive producers, isn't sure what he'll do next besides be his "stupid me" and play more golf.
He recently spoke to TV Week from Los Angeles:
Is "Everybody Loves Raymond" really based on your own family?
My situation was almost exactly the same as the show's. I was living not across the street from my parents but a few blocks away. My brother was divorced, a police sergeant who moved back in with my parents. I had a wife, twin boys and a daughter. Then we went from there. It's sad, isn't it?
Are you the same kind of husband in real-life that you are on TV?
Unfortunately, 90 percent yes. He's a dumbed-down, more selfish version of myself, but not by much.
Why stop now?
We did 210 episodes. Toward the end of the last two years, it was getting harder and harder to storyboard the next year. We wanted to leave before we started stealing material from ourselves and disguising old ideas as fresh new ones. We wanted to leave on top, because the quality end was right around the corner. No one believes that, but nobody is there every day in the writer's room seeing how how hard it is. So leave us alone!
One of the criticisms of the show was that you and your wife Debra were always fighting. Were you aware of that as a potential problem while you were writing the episodes?
We wanted to show it real. We wrote what we knew. But you have to show both sides of it. I was always a proponent of that, of showing the sweetness and love that has to be there, too. So we did it in certain select spots. We would show Ray being sweet once, so he could get away with what he was doing all the other times. Conflict is where humor is. Love isn't that funny.
Is it true you've always hated the name of the show?
I'm not crazy about it, even now. It came from a sarcastic comment my brother used to make: "I go out and fight crime for a living and people shoot at me every day, but look at Raymond, everybody loves Raymond." A title like that can only breed contempt, which is the last thing a comic with low self-esteem needs. It dares people to not like you. Every review, every article about it did a play on the title. Les Moonves [president of CBS] said that if the show became Top 10, I could change it to whatever I wanted. At Year 3, when it did, he said, "You can't change it now!" I wanted to call it, "That Raymond Guy" or "Um, Raymond."
I'm reading scripts and I'm doing stand-up. I won't do another sitcom, I know that. You hit that home run, and that ends the game. You want to walk off that homer.
If something different came along, I might consider that, like a single-camera show on cable maybe, or something like "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And if those "Desperate Housewives" want a real guy in there, not some gardener guy with pec implants, I'd be up for that. I'd love to do movies. But I need a successful one.
What will you miss the most?
The writer's room was a very unique experience, to be in there and bond with those guys and just spill your guts every day trying to come up with stories, saving money on therapy. Nothing was sacred in the writer's room. We talked about everything. They would tell me, "Ray, we don't need to hear about that. Get some cream and go see a doctor."
The show is about an Italian American family in Long Island. Is being Italian American important to you?
Yeah, but I'm not on the bandwagon about it. My family is Italian, my wife's family is Italian. But I don't think the show was thick with it. We could've easily been Jewish. The mother is the same, the food is just as important. I do appreciate my heritage. But the tightness of the family, I see that in a lot of nationalities.
Is it true that CBS initially thought the show was too ethnic and didn't want Patricia Heaton to play your wife, Debra?
First they didn't want us to be from New York. For them, it was all about how middle America would relate to it, which was ridiculous. So we compromised. We told them we wouldn't leave New York, but we'd give them Long Island. As far as Debra, Phil [Rosenthal, the show's creator] put up a big fight when they wanted to cast a blond country girl in the role. Phil drew a line in the sand. Thank God they didn't cross it.
What's the finale about? Do the Barones solve any of their problems?
It's a funny show and has a little finale-ism about it. Nothing big, though, nothing cliff-hanger-ish. We don't solve anything.
Why do you think the show became so popular?
People identified with it. It's a sad statement, I guess. A statement that there is a bit of dysfunction in a lot of families. But hey, that's okay, as long as there's love.