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'Everybody Loves Raymond' creator takes show to Russia

Dale Roe
'Exporting Raymond' director Phil Rosenthal works with the director of the Russian version of 'Everybody Loves Raymond.' Russians had never seen a sitcom until 2004 when the Russian version of 'The Nanny' aired.

There's got to be an easier way to figure out if everybody does, in fact, love Raymond.

Yet, there's Phil Rosenthal, the creator of the long-running CBS sitcom, arguing with Elena Staradubtseva, a Russian wardrobe consultant who wants to dress that country's version of "Everybody Loves Raymond's" decidedly frumpy characters in fashionable frocks.

"I would like it to look more trendy," Staradubtseva conveys through a translator, "to educate people; let them understand more about clothes and fashion and style."

Rosenthal can't understand why anybody would suggest something so un-"Raymond."

"I don't know if you want to change the show to fit fashion," he replies. He tries to make the point — as diplomatically as possible so as to avoid international incident — that these are average people and they need to dress accordingly.

"Won't it be boring?" Staradubtseva replies.

The documentary "Exporting Raymond," Rosenthal's film chronicling his efforts to create a version of the popular American show for Russian television, is anything but. The Sony Pictures film opened the Austin Film Festival on Thursday, Oct. 21, at the Paramount Theatre.

One of the movie's early scenes shows Rosenthal escorted down a Los Angeles corridor by Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who points to the posters lining the walls. He indicates the Russian version of "The Nanny." And the version that plays in Argentina. There are Indonesian and Chilean versions, too.

"Sony created the sitcom business in Russia," Rosenthal tells me. "The sitcom did not exist as a form in Russia before Sony brought over ‘The Nanny' in 2004. Imagine! They never saw a sitcom."

The Russian version became a huge hit, and the translation process intrigued Sony, which suggested that Rosenthal travel to Russia, observe the sitcom conversion process (this is not mere language dubbing — the shows are recast with native actors and rewritten for each country's sensibilities) and pen a fictional motion picture comedy based on the experience.

"I said, ‘Oh, that sounds funny,' " Rosenthal recalls. "But if these people really exist and the situation really exists, why not do a documentary?" Sony executives suggested that they try exporting "Raymond."

The idea of re-creating the show around the world appealed to Rosenthal, who had initially found it difficult to get "Raymond" on the air here in the States.

"It wasn't hip and edgy, and they wanted hip and edgy. I remember this conversation. I said, ‘I'm trying to do an old-fashioned, traditional, well-made sitcom.' And the studio said to me, ‘All words which should be avoided.' "

"Raymond" was slow to catch on here but became a bona fide hit, running for nine seasons and winning 13 Emmy awards. But maybe that shouldn't be a surprising accomplishment for somebody who grew up glued to the tube. "My parents used to say, ‘What are you going to do, get a job watching television?' So, the minute I made any money in TV at all, I went out and bought them the biggest TV I could find and I sent it to them with a note that said ‘Ha ha,' " he says with a laugh.

Rosenthal began his career as an actor but found little success. "I ate tuna fish every night as an actor. Then I became a writer and now I eat whatever I want," he says. Still, he has an engaging presence and serves well as "Exporting Raymond's" erstwhile narrator and lead character. That doesn't mean he doesn't get upstaged in the film, though.

Rosenthal's parents (the elders in "Everybody Loves Raymond" were based upon the couple) appear in two scenes in the film and walk away with both of them. In the first, the director visits his boyhood home ("This is where I got rejected by many, many women. Many of the scenes from ‘Raymond' happened right here in this house of horrors," he tells the camera as he approaches the house) to view a slideshow of snapshots from a trip they'd taken to Russia.

"We put microphones on them, there are lights, there's two camera guys ... this is not what they're used to. And within five minutes, they're fighting with each other as if no one is there. Unbelievable. It's like you couldn't ask for better actors in a movie," Rosenthal says. As he leaves, the couple hopelessly attempts to say goodbye in Russian. "I'm dead," he deadpans.

Later in the film, while visiting a multigenerational Russian family, Rosenthal sets up a video chat between the two households that goes off the rails when his parents mistakenly believe that they've been disconnected, drop their manners and begin bickering.

Initially bemused, later frustrated and, finally, closing in on desperation (his anguish made my stomach hurt), Rosenthal tries to bridge the gap between languages, comic sensibilities and cultures. Sometimes it's difficult to ascertain exactly which of these chasms is at the root of the ongoing problems.

In one scene, the Ray character enrolls his mother in a fruit-of-the-month club. But those don't exist in Russia, so the Russian writers changed the conceit to water-of-the-week.

In another scene, the actor playing the Russian Raymond is supposed to fall out of bed in agony after being kicked in the middle of the night. We're shown scenes of the American version, in which Ray Romano plays it pretty straight; he seemed to be actually hurt and it was funny because it seemed real. The Russian Ray, though, hops around, making odd sounds and grimacing in a broad caricature of pain. Was something lost in translation? Or does he understand Rosenthal's notes, but just think it's funnier his way? What if his way would be funnier to Russian audiences?

Rosenthal, with a show grounded in reality, was fighting an uphill battle. After all, a Russian version of "Married with Children" had joined "The Nanny" as the country's most popular sitcoms.

"They thought that was the style," the director says. "And they looked at ‘Raymond' and they said, ‘Well, this isn't funny. There are people talking and fighting. How is that funny?' " he recalls. "But, of course, they only realized it when they started to execute it that these are character laughs and relatable laughs and like real life. It was kind of a step in a different direction for them towards naturalism and realism.

"And, you know, did I make a difference? I hope so. I think so, because the show ultimately works there," he says.

"Exporting Raymond" opens nationwide in March, and Rosenthal has high hopes.

"The movie is very important to me, because it's a transition for me from television to movies as a director. I'm thrilled that people like it already, because it may mean that I have a future."

Also in Rosenthal's future are an animated series, a reality show, two screenplays and a Broadway musical. "I don't know if you've heard, but the business is terrible. So, like everyone else, I've had to diversify," he says. "I tell people I have a hundred different projects that are in varying states of ‘nothing happening.' "

droe@statesman.com; 912-5923