If the human condition is universal, shouldn’t comedy about it be universal as well? That’s the foundation of the documentary Exporting Raymond. But don’t let the weighty premise fool you. It’s actually quite hilarious.
Exporting Raymond screened last night as the opening night film of the 2011 Philadelphia CineFest.
Phil Rosenthal is the creator of the hit sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, which featured comedian Ray Romano dealing with the trials of married and family life. One day Rosenthal gets a call from Sony Entertainment, the studio for whom he created the show, saying that they want to produce a version of Everyone Loves Raymond for Russian television and would he be interested in going to Moscow to help guide the producers there in the translation. The studio has already had some success with Russian adaptations of The Nanny and Married With Children and is looking to see if his domestic comedy can replicate its success on the other side of the globe.
Rosenthal agrees, even after he learns that many businessmen who travel to the former Soviet Union get what is known as K and R (Kidnapping and Ransom) insurance. But he is not ready for the many problems he will run up against. And not all of them are strictly cultural differences.
Prior to Sony creating new versions of their hits for Russian audiences, the form of the sitcom never appeared on Russian television. Russian television comedy consisted of Saturday Night Live-style sketch shows, including one show that was Rosenthal explains was a sketch version of American Idol! Consequently, the Russian director, writers and producers hired for the project, titled Everybody Love Kostya, frequently have no frame of reference for the suggestions that Rosenthal gives them. The costume designer insists on dressing the lead female in the cast in high fashion outfits that are completely-at-odds with the casual, stay-at-home mom character of the show’s wife. And even when Rothenthal can get the costume designer to admit that those types of outfits would not be something she would wear at home while doing housework she still can’t see his point. When Rosenthal points out that he was inspired to create Everyone Loves Raymond by naturalistic theater, which had its start with Russian playwrights, the irony of his situation becomes even more apparent.
But Rosenthal doesn’t just try to impose his own views on comedy onto the Russian creative team; he tries to understand where they’re coming from. When he’s told that Russian husbands would never allow themselves to be henpecked by their wives in the way that Ramano’s character on the sitcom is, Rosenthal goes out into the streets to try and meet and talk to some average Russian men. Of course, the one encounter we see has him talking to a gentleman through an interpreter for a brief moment before his wife drags him away to help carry groceries home. Similarly, a trip to visit one of the production team’s own aging parents reveals that in many ways they are not that much different than Rosenthal’s parents whom he used as a model for the parents on Everybody Loves Raymond.
And while Everybody Loves Kostya, with a majority of Rosenthal’s suggestions in the final product, becomes one of the biggest hits in post-Soviet Russian television history, there’s never a moment of gloating or “I told you so,” from him. In fact, outside of the occasional voice over narration of Rosenthal expressing frustration over a particular meeting or encounter playing out on screen, he seldom makes any deeper analysis. Instead, like any good storyteller, he lets things unfold without comment and trusts his audience will see things in the same way that he does.
Side note – While Ray Romano was definitely the star of Everybody Loves Raymond, watching Rosenthal’s reactions to what he is facing definitely reveals that he was the show’s voice. His side comments and facial reactions will be very familiar to even casual viewers of the show. This was even more apparent in the post-screening question and answer session when Rosenthal addressed a few audience queries whose answers were clearly spelled out in the film.