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Interview: SOMEBODY FEED PHIL Creator Phil Rosenthal Shines a Bright Light on a Difficult Year

He talks about food, friends, cultural exchange, and Broadway in the 1970s.

Interview: SOMEBODY FEED PHIL Creator Phil Rosenthal Shines a Bright Light on a Difficult Year

Not much was cause for celebration in 2020 - excluding the release of season four of "Somebody Feed Phil," the hilarious, heartfelt food and travel series from "Everybody Loves Raymond" creator Phil Rosenthal.

BroadwayWorld spoke to Phil about being a light in the darkness of the past year. He told us all about how "Somebody Feed Phil" came to be, his work behind and in front of the camera, his love of the theatre, and his charity, "Somebody Feed the People."

For the "Somebody Feed the People Holiday Dance Challenge," Rosenthal encourages fans to donate to World Central Kitchen and other food charities through his charitable organization, Somebody Feed the People - dance to their favorite holiday song, post it to their socials, and challenge at least one other friend to participate. Phil will also select one lucky dancer to have a Zoom dinner with him in the new year. Proceeds will benefit COVID relief and feeding those waiting in line at the Georgia Senate runoff in January.

Read the whole interview below!

I wanted to talk to you because "Somebody Feed Phil" has been just the brightest spot in this endless year, so thank you.

It's my pleasure. I just wish I wasn't that the lights on Broadway were lit. I come from New York and I started in theater. I majored in theater, in school. And I owe all my success to being in THE AFTER school plays in high school.

That's that's where it all started for me. I could tell you stories about taking the bus for an hour and a half from Rockland County into Times Square when I was 15 years old in the '70s. I would go and wait at TKTS. I'd get there 10 a.m. and I'd wait a couple hours, and I loved it. Even if I had no one to go with, I still did it and I would get a ticket at that time. You could get a ticket to a Broadway show. Eleven dollars I remember paying! That was for a big musical, you know, like a Stephen Sondheim musical or something.

And then I would go and I would eat at Nathan's, which used to be in Times Square. I mean, this was on 43rd Street and Broadway. And I loved it so much and it got in real deep. I got that love. But I owe everything to the New York theater scene. And that's all I ever wanted to do, was to be in plays and have fun.

What's the best thing you saw back then?

Well, I remember when I was 16, this was 1976, so that's how old I am. [Sondheim] had a new show come out and it was called Pacific Overtures.

Now, that was the same year as Chorus Line. I thought Pacific Overtures was better! I thought it was way more interesting and way more ambitious. And even at 16, I thought this.

And I learned so much about the history of Japan through this very wild and entertaining musical. You know, they had borrowed a lot of stuff from Japanese theater, the production and all. They had a runway that you would be next to shoulder level or head level - a runway that went on a diagonal through the theater. And the actors would come down onto the stage from it and exit through it. I thought this was fantastic. And it incorporated all this Japanese music and all these art forms and everything. And that made such an impression on me.

But there have been other very memorable productions. I saw literally everything I could see. This is way more recent, but I think the most riveting play I ever saw was Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway with the original cast. So that was phenomenal. And then I've had friends who work in the theater, and so I go and see their shows. You know, I'm very good friends with Jerry Zaks, so I see all his stuff.

And I didn't know back in the 80s when I was seeing. What a time that was! And it'll come back, I believe it. Of course it will, now that the vaccine is out. You know, I think we have a lost year. Right? But that's about it. And we're going to survive and we're going to recover. And I know the world is going to be returned to us.

And this is what I tell everybody. We're going to be so happy and grateful when it does. And that feeling of gratitude and happiness? That's going to last about two weeks.

Oh, yeah.

And then we'll complain. My coffee's cold.

I love your shows because I love watching what you learn from cultures you're less familiar with, but I also love watching you bring parts of yourself to those other cultures. Speaking of Japan, I'm thinking about the moment where you made egg creams in Tokyo, which is literally my family's favorite TV moment they've maybe ever seen. What has that cultural exchange felt like for you?

You're referring to the Tokyo episode of "I'll Have What Phil's Having," which was the series I did on PBS a few years ago before we moved over to Netflix and did "Somebody Feed Phil." It's available on iTunes and Amazon Prime now.

You're referring to this moment in Tokyo. And it was a very - for me - odd restaurant, because the only thing they served in this family restaurant was eel cooked different ways. And not just any eel, a very specific eel called a pond loach, which is a little, squiggly, weird looking eel, maybe about three inches, right? Who thought of this as the thing to design a restaurant around? I don't know, but they're very specific there, which may be why they're so great, because there's no more food Centric place on earth than Tokyo.

So I'm with this family, and I have to be honest, I didn't think the scene was going very well. You know, when you have a rapport with someone and you're easily laughing and you're easily talking, this wasn't happening. And it wasn't because they weren't sweet and nice people. It was because of the language barrier. This doesn't happen in most of the scenes, but everything I said and they said had to go through an interpreter, so it slows down the conversation. It was difficult for me. And to be honest, I thought we're not getting it. Like, this will be one of those scenes that's nice, but probably won't make it in the show.

So I say to my brother, who's also the producer, when we have a little break, "I don't know if we're connecting. I don't know if we're clicking. Why don't I just say goodbye and we'll wrap it up and we'll count this as not one of the best moments?"

And I sit back down, and we're just waiting for the cameras to go again, and I say to the grandfather at the table, "So what do you do for fun?" Just making conversation. And he says, "We have champagne night." I said, "What's that?" He said, "I collect champagne, and every Wednesday I take a bottle down and we share the champagne, and we enjoy that champagne."

And I say, "Oh, that's nice. In our house, we have egg creams." It was just a joke. Yeah. And they all lean forward. "What is this? Egg cream?" And I started laughing because I never heard Japanese people say the words "egg cream," sure. And I looked at the crew and I just said, "Oh, my God, if I wish I could make them for you right now. Because if you've never had it, you have to." And the crew goes, my brother goes, "You know, we're not in the jungle. There's a supermarket across the street. We could probably get the ingredients," which is milk, seltzer, and chocolate sauce.

And they do, and they get it, and I make these things for them. And I'm telling you - to see their faces, to see the women in their kimonos, right. This is a proper Japanese matriarchy, and a daughter and a grandfather and a father and a son. It's the whole formal family, and they're drinking these things and the bubbles are going up their noses and they're laughing.

And all of a sudden this was an epiphany for me. Because we all think, especially when we visit somewhere else, "I'm just there to take in their culture. I have no culture, what do I have? Nothing. I'm just some bum from America who's lucky to be here." That's really my attitude, right. What happened there was the realization that we all have something to share. Just as they're strangers to us, I'm a stranger to them, and I bring stuff.

Maybe we all have that thing. We all have that egg cream that we could share with somebody. Right? Find your egg cream. What's your egg cream?

What have you missed most about traveling?

I've got to be honest. Everything. And people ask me, where's the first place you're going to go when this is over? And I say my local diner. Yeah, my local coffee shop, because I don't think I'm alone. We just want to return to normal. And we're never going to take that for granted again, except for two weeks later.

But we're going to be able to go to the diner and meet you and give you a hug and then sit and eat like this. That's the most terrible thing, after the death and the suffering, is that it took people away from us. And our social lives are gone. This is not a social life. I enjoy meeting you on the Zoom, but this is there's nothing to compare to if we were sitting at a diner and having a coffee or a sandwich or an egg cream. And we'll do it! It'll happen. But, wow, we're waiting a long time. We're waiting a long time. And you really shouldn't travel - I know we're tired, but it's only going to make it last longer. And God forbid you get someone sick or God forbid you get sick or worse. There's no going back from that. There's no oops, I made a mistake. Right? There's very, very big consequences. So we have to be careful, take every precaution. The vaccines are there. Wouldn't it be wouldn't it be terrible to make a life-changing mistake that ruins everything when the vaccine is right here, ready?

Yes, there are countries I haven't visited yet that I'm going to get back there. I can't wait to get back to Italy - is a big one for me. I'm making plans, though, and that's what I advise everybody to do, because we know this is ending. I think it's safe to make plans for next fall! Yeah, we will have had the vaccine.

Make your plans if you watch my show. Don't be sad that, "Oh, look how it used to be." No, look at it the way you would always look at it. That place looks cool. Let's go there. Yeah. Let's plan to go there. I'm telling you to make those plans. I'm doing it!

Listen, I had my 30th anniversary trip postponed. Because it was supposed to be in April, I was going to take Monica to Venice and Marrakech, where I got to shoot the show, but she didn't get to come with me. And I made friends there now. And that's an exotic, beautiful, incredible place. I can't wait to go back and introduce her to the place and my friends and have this wonderful, you know, maybe four or five nights there and then go to Paris. Wow. Come on. So that was all planned. Canceled, of course. But now I'm planning again.

Half the fun is planning, hmm?

Because we all love stuff to have to look forward to, right? Just like with Broadway. You can't wait to see the Music Man with Hugh Jackman. Sure. I'll be first in line, right? All of us will.

I just recently watched your 2018 episode in New York - you ate artisinal ice cream with Elaine May, and deli with Tracey Morgan, and other deli with Judy Gold, and Daniel Boloud ate your mother's matzo ball soup. Can you tell me about making friends everywhere you go?

t's the best part of traveling. Having the show makes me a tiny bit more outgoing than I would have been otherwise, because there's something about feeling like you're on stage a little bit and it's not that I'm acting, but there's just because there's cameras waiting for something to happen, you feel obligated to make something happen. So my advice to everyone who feels a little introverted is pretend you have a show, right?

And doing the show has made me actually more that way where I would have been a little more shy. When I'm filming, I have no compunction about turning to the person next to me and saying, "What are you eating? What's that?" And now because of that, I realized there's nothing to be afraid of. There really isn't. It's very rare that somebody says, "Who the hell are you talking to? Get away from me," right? If you're friendly and nice, most people are friendly and nice.

There was a study. Did you know this? That people who say hi, just say hi when they sit down on a bus or on a subway, they just say hi, not expecting anything in return, because most people are afraid to interact because you might be a murderer. And especially if you're a young woman, I could understand not wanting to engage, but the person that just says hello, just like that, just friendly, knowing that, yes, of course there are boundaries. But that person who says hi is the happier person.

Yeah, right, that's something I advise everyone to do, and then what would happen? The world would be a little bit nicer if everybody did that, right? It would just elevate everything.

A couple weeks ago, one of my friends said to me, "I miss acquaintances!" I feel like the world would be a lot better right now if people were more open to making acquaintances.

Yeah! Just coming from New York, my favorite thing about New York is walking down the street in New York, and just the random eye contact that you could have with a person that either has a sparkle in their eyes, particularly beautiful, or just some get any kind of acknowledgment back.

Now, I'm a tiny, tiny bit of a celebrity. So people come up to me - I wish everyone had this level of celebrity. Everyone should. Because people don't bother me. I'm not Justin Bieber. They're not trying to rip me apart. They just want to say hi, or "we like your show." Everyone should know what that feels like. Do it in your house. Tell your wife, "I like your work!"

I grew up watching "Everybody Loves Raymond" - for my Bubby, it's "All in the Family" and "Raymond," and that's gospel.

I love that. "All in the Family" was that for my family. That was the thing. That was what we tried to even emulate, you know, that kind of feeling of a real family, of what it really felt like, right?

My grandparents are totally Marie and Frank. I'm sure you've heard that a thousand times.

We get letters from Sri Lanka saying, that's my mother. And I'm like, oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know your mother. I was writing my mother.

So, you have this incredible legacy of writing scripted comedy, but you've also acted, and now you have this beloved show where you're front and center. How are both of these roles - work behind and in front of the camera - rewarding for you?

So, I told you I was in all the school plays. I really wanted to do that. I was encouraged to do it because I got a wonderful reception. I got girlfriends because of it. I got stuff. I got, you know, all the best stuff. I felt like a real celebrity in high school. I was a big star. And then I went to college, I was a big star. And then I moved into Manhattan and I was nothing.

Oh, yeah.

I was nothing for many years. I mean, less than nothing is how I felt, until my friends and I wrote a show together for ourselves to be in. And that was our ticket.

I tell everybody, if you want to be an actor, take a writing class. If you want to be a writer, take an acting class or a directing class. You want to be as knowledgeable as you can in all the disciplines ,because you never know where the break is going to come from. For me, it was writing. Now, I wrote on shows and I was very happy to get a job writing. Why? Because I went from eating tuna fish as an actor to eating whatever I wanted to a writer. And it didn't matter. I was in the game. I was in show business. I was in Hollywood now. I was in the dream factory. I was living the life, right?

And not to say it's all wonderful because, believe me, if you have any standards at all, they're going to get crushed. But I had fun and I was doing it. I would always say, even if we were working at 3:00 in the morning. Right. Staying up late, trying to fix a scene of a terrible sitcom. I would say to the other guys, as we would be miserable like this, I said, "This is still better than working." Right? People out there, real people have real jobs. We get to literally laugh all day for a living.

The writers room of a sitcom is this magical fairy land of, you know, menus. Whatever you want! Laughs with the world's funniest people creating something that then is shot in front of an audience, hearing those laughs and then seeing it on television. It never for one minute occurred to me when we were doing Raymond and that was going well that I should be in the show. It never occurred to me.

First of all, I didn't want to ruin the show. The actors we had were very, very good at what they did and there was no place for me and I didn't want there to be a place for me. I was very busy making sure it was running, writing, directing, producing every. If you're the showrunner of a show, you're doing all those things, right? Every single creative decision is made by the showrunner, from the person's hair, to their costume, to what the food is going to be like backstage for the people. So, that's a big job. And it was the love of my life at that time. And I ran it for nine years, I couldn't ask for more, on top of which it was then successful. It's like hitting the jackpot not once, but over and over and over again. That's what it felt like. So I was never like, "oh, I should be acting."

And then little acting stuff started happening! I was speaking at a seminar and Jim Brooks comes to us, he comes to a seminar. Why is he at a seminar that I'm speaking at? There were other writers on there, too. Maybe he knew one of them. But Jim Brooks comes up to me after the thing and says, "Hey, man, you ever do any acting?" I said, "What?" He says, "Give me your number, I might have something for you."

I'm like, "Don't mess with me, Jim Brooks!" I've only, you know, dreamed about this moment, right? Something like this happening. I say, "If we just go to lunch, that'll be enough for me, Jim Brooks." Right. And we go to lunch, we hit it off, and it's fun, and he says he's really writing something that I'd be perfect for. And I'm like, I'm going to forget you said, and let's just be friends. And when we became friends, we would have lunch and dinner. He never mentioned this movie again for a year or two. And then he calls me. He goes, "OK, remember that thing I mentioned?" I'm like, "Yeah." He goes, "Are you still interested?" I said, "Yeah but, you know, I'm running running Raymond. I'm still doing that." He goes, "Right, right. I think it's weird because we're friends. You shouldn't read for it in person. Do you think someone there could put you on tape?" Oh, wow. I'm like, "Okay." Now I'm running the show, and I call our casting director for Raymond. I say, "Lisa, can you come in with your video camera?" "Yeah. Why?" "I need you to put me on tape."

And I explain, and they come in and they film me. I did the scene twice. I said, "Lisa, you pick it, you pick the take, because I can't remember one. I'm not going to think about this anymore, because I'm a showrunner. I'm not an actor, and I don't want to be an actor." One of the reasons I didn't just keep pursuing acting was because I couldn't take the rejection. I didn't have the stomach for it. And now I'm a writer and that's what I am.

Well, of course, for the next three days, all I think about is why hasn't Jim Brooks called? Oh, wow, I must be terrible, right? And then the phone rings. It's Jim Brooks. And he goes, "Hey, how are you doing?" And I know because he says, "Hey, how you doing?" that's he's being nice. And he's going to tell me, you know, it just didn't work out. But we'll still have dinner next week. Right. And we make some more chitchat. No longer chit chatting, I'm thinking. Terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible. And there's a moment and he goes, "So. Listen, you're good, you're really good. Do you want to do this?" And I go, "Only since I'm five."

And he goes, "Great!" And so, in the movie Spanglish, I am the sous chef to Adam Sandler's character. It's a little part, but oh, my God. Now I'm in a major Jim Brooks movie! It was so much fun. And since then I've had guest shots on lots of things. Because one thing, you know, if they like you, one thing leads to another. So I've been in three or four movies in little parts and guest shots on TV shows like CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM and 30 Rock.

And then, you know, during that time I made a movie, I did my own movie, a documentary called "Exporting Raymond." They wanted me to make "Everybody Loves Kostya" in Russia. Wanted me to help them make that show. And I said I would do that if I could bring a documentary film crew and document the process. And that came out funny because I was tortured during that. They said they wanted me to help, and then I got there and they didn't want my help. Oh my God. And it was very funny.

And that was, you know, my real first experience carrying the movie without intending to write. It's a documentary, and I'm just doing my job. But they're filming me. And this whole time, I was thinking, ever since we filmed this episode of Raymond, where we went to Italy, I want to do a travel show, right? In addition to everything else I was doing, that was my dream. And so because I couldn't really score again in sitcoms, they didn't want what I was peddling and I didn't want what they were trying to get me to do. So, I thought, if I'm going to knock my head against this wall of show business, right, why don't I pick this spot in THE WALL that I really like? This kind of travel thing.

And I thought, you know, Anthony Bourdain has kind of reinvented this genre. He is a great superhero. In a serious way, he is. He's elevated the form up here, right?

But couldn't there be a show for a guy who loves Bourdain but is never going to do that stuff? The way I pitched the show was: I'm exactly like Anthony Bourdain, if he was afraid of everything. Because that defines then who the character is, the tone of the show, that it might have some humor in it, which is the only thing I could bring to this genre - was that, my comedy background. And I just thought it would be putting something nice out into the world and wouldn't the world be better if we all could experience a little bit of other people's experiences?

So I thought I could bring heart to it. I thought I could bring a sitcom to it. Meaning? This kind of character, understanding who I am in the world, and understanding who my parents are.

The first time I ever Skyped with them, by the way, was from Moscow in the "Exporting Raymond" documentary, just by chance. I was having dinner with a Russian family in the movie because I wanted to show what a Russian family look like. So they allowed cameras in their house.

And during the conversation, the grandparents, I was talking to them and I asked what they did for fun. "Yeah, we like watching movies. We do this. We play on the computer." I said, "You know how the computer works?"

They said, "Oh, yes, we're very good." I said, "This, I have to see." They said, "What would you like us to show?" I said, "Let's Skype my parents." I just thought right then and there, that'll be a funny contrast. And it was that was the hit of the movie, was that scene right? Yeah. So when I got the food and travel show, I remembered, first of all, they're funny. Put funny things in the show second. The Skype or the Zoom now is the modern day equivalent of the postcard, no matter where you are, you can check in with your family and say, hey, I'm doing good. Hey, you should come here. Wish you were here. Right. So that's how that happened.

Can you talk to me a little about your charity Somebody Feed the People and this dance challenge you have going on?

Somebody Feed the People started with the election. I saw that people were being disenfranchised, and they were closing their polls, and American citizens were being denied their right to vote or being forced to wait on very long lines. And so I thought, why don't we feed the people who are forced to wait on these long lines? Then I saw that World Central Kitchen was also planning on doing something, and something called Pizza to the Polls was also doing it, too. I set up this portal and I said, and I still am doing it. If you donate to somebody, if you donate to World Central Kitchen through, I'm matching your donations. And they're just the most wonderful organization. And of course, now that the election's over, there's still one more runoff in Georgia where they're going to make them wait on long lines. So I'm helping there.

And, obviously, during this time, especially, people are hungry, so Somebody Feed the People is going to continue.

And I want people to contribute a fun thing, I thought, as a way to get attention for it was a dance challenge. So if you go on my Instagram, you can see me dance like an idiot and then maybe you'll dance around and submit it and you'll win a Zoom dinner with me and you maybe will donate to

All four seasons of "Somebody Feed Phil" are available to stream on Netflix. You can stream "I'll Have What Phil's Having" on YouTube and iTunes, and "Exporting Raymond" on YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and more.

Watch the trailer for season four of "Somebody Feed Phil" here:


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