Paul Reiser is having a moment. Look for him on Amazon Prime and you’ll find him in the final season of his ‘80s-themed coming-of-age comedy Red Oaks, where he’s the alpha male at a New Jersey country club. Look for him on Netflix and you’ll find him in a completely separate ‘80s-themed coming-of-age story, as the avuncular scientist Dr. Owens on the second season of Stranger Things. Look for him on Hulu and you’ll find his new baby — a new show he’s created as a love letter to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, called There’s … Johnny.
Whichever streaming platform you try, there he is, ready and retro. Does this make this the year of Paul Reiser? Quite possibly! Reiser entertained the idea when he called up SYFY WIRE to chat about his projects, the hidden depths of his Stranger Things scientist, and why getting fake blood all over you is not as fun as it sounds.
Paul Reiser: Hi! Where are you? Are you in New York?
Yep! The West Village.
Cool, cool. Not to get too creepy, but what street?
Very cool. Well, now that we’ve settled that, I’m going to hang up now. [Laughs]
No! We have so much to talk about. Do you realize that you have shows on each of the three major streaming platforms right now?
Doesn’t that make me special? So special. I planned it so meticulously years ago. I had this plan, before these technologies were even available, that someday I would be on three of those things that I don’t know what they are yet. It’s very synchronicitous timing, but yes — I’d like to think I’m the king of all that streams. I could watch myself on all three, but I haven’t. [Laughs] I kind of surf and then I come across an old thing that I meant to catch up on. That’s the world we live in now. It does get confusing, because you can go, “Oooh, I heard about that. Which of these 72 possible platforms is that on now?”
Had you already started production on There’s … Johnny when Stranger Things happened?
I met with the Duffer brothers really early, like a few days after the first season ended. These guys are smart, the way they were going. They had this character in mind, and they were calling him the Dr. Reiser character! [Chuckles] And they said, “We should probably get Paul Reiser to play Dr. Reiser.” And so that was just a lovely coincidence. It’s the easiest decision I’ve ever made in my career!
“Would you like to be in this big, fat, creatively juicy show?” “Okay, yeah.” “In a part we wrote for you?” “Sure. Yes.” [Chuckles] It was one of those times where at the end of the meeting, they went, “So … yes, you’re in?” and I went, “Oh, you need a yes? Yeah. I came in here already thinking yes. But yes. Count me in.”
My only concern was I knew we were soon going to be making There’s … Johnny, and I was hoping it wasn’t going to conflict, schedule-wise. It did overlap, but they were really very gracious in trying to work around my schedule. They were an enormous schedule, and we were a tiny, compact schedule. I would fly into Atlanta every two weeks or so, we would shoot two days, and then I’d go away for two weeks. We shot all of the entire season of There’s … Johnny, and when I went back to Atlanta, they said, “How’s that show coming along?” “I finished it.” And they were still on the same episode as when I left! So that’s how big of a production they are. I was like a little tiny boat on a big cruiser, and they went, “Oh, how’s your little boat?” “My boat’s good.”
And then you switched boats, so to speak – from Seeso to Hulu?
So we made There’s … Johnny for Seeso, we premiered it at the Tribeca Film Festival in April earlier this year, it got great reviews, and we were real excited, and then, a few days later, independently, not because of us, the head of Seeso was let go, Evan Shapiro. He was the guy who bought the show, and developed it, and really championed it. But he was gone! And we were like, “Oh! That’s … not helpful.” There was a three- or four-month period where we were in limbo, with nowhere to air it.
Then the executives for NBC Comcast said, “Yeah, we are going to close Seeso.” I have to commend them, though, because they said, “We’re not going to let it die. We’re going to find the right home for it.” And so they ended up giving it to Hulu, which was perfect, and perfect timing, because it happened right after Hulu won the Emmys for The Handmaid’s Tale. It was such a funny ending, because this show is an idea I’ve been developing for 15 years, so the fact that it came out the same month -- within weeks -- of these other two shows on streaming platforms, it’s just a silly coincidence that I had nothing to do with! It’s just luck of the draw.
Has this period of maximum exposure created some kind of momentum for you? Because now there’s even talk of a Mad About You revival …
I don’t know if that’s what created it, or the fact that there are other revivals that are happening. I don’t think it has anything to do with … But maybe it does. Maybe now that there are platforms elsewhere, now people can do shows, so people started asking … In every interview, people ask, “Do you talk about it?” And I only talk about it because people keep asking about it! It’s not something I was thinking about or was planning. The one thing I learned about show business, you can’t really anticipate … You can make your plans, and at game time, they all change. You throw out your playbook, and you start dancing as fast as you can.
Not that Stranger Things was throwing out their playbook per se, but they also make plans and then things change on set, because they’re writing as they’re shooting.
Bob was going to die earlier on, but they loved Sean Astin, so they extended the character. And the bromance with Steve and Dustin, that was sort of, “Hmmm, we have these two guys, let’s put them together.” So they were very much writing and creating on the fly, by what they needed and what they saw in the early episodes.
How did that affect your character?
[Chuckles] They never told me where they were going with Owens. I didn’t know the answer, until towards the end. But if I knew I was a good guy, I’d be a nice guy. If I knew I was going to be a bad guy, I would still try to pretend I was a nice guy. So in a sense, my task was the same. My goal was to get these people to trust me. Whether I turned out to be good or bad, my objective was still the same. But it was fun to entertain the idea in the back of my head, “I’m saying this sincerely, but I actually might be screwing with you.”
In the beginning, we talked about his backstory. Does he have a family? We took a picture of me with some kids, and it was going to be featured in a subtle way, like, “Oh, okay, he has a wife and kids,” as a piece of information to make you sort of trust him. That got cut. We decided he had eight degrees. He was sort of the go-to genius at the lab, because he’s a paranormal doctor, plus an actual medical doctor, plus he can do research, plus he can talk to people and assuage their concerns, plus he works with kids. It was really a juicy role.
So with Winona’s character, Joyce, you have a mother who is justifiably distraught and frustrated that nobody seems to know what the issue is with her son Will, or if they do, they’re not telling her. But I also think he didn’t know. As well-intended as he was, they’re still surprised, like, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! This is life or death. This is real.”
How’s your leg?
[Laughs] You know, it was just a quick shot of the leg, but that was a long time in the making. This guy picks out this piece of foam and puts in on your thigh, and in the beginning, it just looked like a baguette. “Okay, I think, he’s making Italian bread here.” And then he starts putting in the blood, and then he added some to my chest, because there was a lot more blood that you don’t see.
It was the least pleasant part of the shoot. They would keep coming over and pouring more sticky fake blood, because in between each shot, it would dry up. And so basically you’re like a bum, lying against a wall, while somebody comes over and just pours crap on you. [Laughs] They took a break at one point, and I was like, “You know what? I’m not even going to get up, because I’m going to have 12 pounds of fluid going down my pants. It’s not a dignified feeling. So I’ll just sit here and hold a cup and maybe someone can throw me some change.”
Since Dr. Owens did not die, can we hope for a return in Season 3?
Sure, sure. I’m sitting by the phone. I will happily show up, should the Duffer brothers call. Isn’t the lab gone? Didn’t we blow it up? I don’t know what’s happening next. Maybe I open a pizza shop down there. I could retire down there.