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A Strange Juxtaposition

More than a mood shift, it was an emotional somersault.

During a visit to his hometown, Ray Romano's schedule called for him to tour the ruins of the World Trade Center with his brother, a retired New York City policeman, then be whisked uptown to tape a "Sesame Street" appearance.

Then again, the very purpose of his trip was a strange juxtaposition. The star of television's "Everybody Loves Raymond" was trying to drum up sales for a comedy CD to benefit victims of a tragedy.

Without that connection, he'd probably still be back in California.

Romano's first comedy CD, a recording of his appearance at Carnegie Hall on June 9, 1999, was scheduled to be released on Oct. 2 - timed to coincide with the opening of another TV season and to make sure it was in stores for the holiday shopping season.

Sept. 11 instantly made it all seem meaningless.

Romano canceled promotional appearances. The CD seemed likely to go unnoticed in store bins until Romano decided to donate all proceeds from any sales to the September 11th Fund.

"I really just want it to do well so I'm making a substantial contribution," Romano said.

So far, it's a modest one. In a market where comedy discs are a hard sell, Romano's "Live at Carnegie Hall" CD had sold about 16,000 copies in a little more than two months.

Romano's comedy is different from what people who watch Ray Barone every week on CBS might expect, even though "Everybody Loves Raymond" was born out of his standup act.

"Ray Barone is a PG guy," Romano said. "My standup is slightly more edgy. It's like PG-13."

It's hardly a shock, though. A fellow comic who was watching Romano once said he could sense the audience pulling back when Romano crossed a blue line. Similar reactions predated his television stardom.

"The stuff I joke about with my buddies, the Friar's Club stuff, I would never do on stage," he said. "It's a weird compromise. You don't want the audience to dictate what you do, but you also have to take into account what fits you."

In its sixth season, "Everybody Loves Raymond" has built into a dependable hit, the anchor to CBS' strong Monday schedule. Much was made of viewers turning to "Friends" for comfort post-Sept. 11. But "Raymond" has quietly rung up its best ratings this season, with the Nov. 26 episode the most-watched ever.

Romano has been nominated for three Emmy awards for lead actor in a comedy, but hasn't won. His co-star, Patricia Heaton, has won two straight Emmys for portraying Barone's long-suffering wife.

No tabloid jealousy stories here; Romano professes not to care about winning an Emmy. Not being nominated would get under his skin, though.

With pundits writing about how the old-fashioned situation comedy is a dying format, "Raymond" is as traditional as it comes. It's character-driven and is intentionally timeless, so it can play on in perpetuity in syndication.

Romano admitted he envisioned the show to be more about his character and his wifeand argued against his sitcom parents - played with great chemistry by Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts, who won this year's Emmy for comedic supporting actress - being prominently featured. He's thankful he lost that fight.

The downside of the format is that eventually the stories are tougher to come by. Romano said they were recently writing a flashback episode where Barone and his wife recall the first time they had sex, and realized that many of their ideas for the show had been done before.

"Last year you kind of sensed that it was getting harder," Romano said. "This year, it's really surprised me how we've been able to do it. I'm not saying it's our best year, but if it keeps up this way it will be."

He's signed for one more season of the show after this one, and said it's 50-50 whether he will stay for more.

In his mind are sitcoms - he won't name names - that Romano believes overstayed their welcome and had sour last years that spoiled memories of the show.

"Of course, they'll try to persuade me (to stay) with another reason, called money," Romano said. "They'll back up the truck, my wife is going to see it, and she's going to drive me to work."

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