Paul Reiser's comeback: Comedian reflects on career, "Stranger Things," return to standup


Season 2 of the hit Netflix series "Stranger Things" features a new character played by a familiar face: actor and comedian Paul Reiser. That's just one of the projects in a career resurgence for Reiser, who is getting his second act in show business after stepping out of the spotlight.

"I went to school and I was a music major only because I already played piano and I was pretty OK, and I thought, that will be the quickest way out of here and in the back of my head I'd go, 'I would love to be a comedian someday, but I don't know how to do that,'" Reiser told CBS News contributor Jamie Wax. 

It didn't take him long to figure it out. Reiser got a big break on the "Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." Around the same time his film career took off in 1981 when he landed a role in Barry Levinson's comedy "Diner."

"I didn't play the waiter in the background for four movies and then get a talking part, no, my first job was this incredibly artful, important movie but it also kind of opened up a lot of doors so suddenly people went, 'Who's that guy?'" he said.

That set Reiser on a path to blockbuster comedies, thrillers and TV roles including the series he's best known for, "Mad About You," which he co-created, produced and starred in for seven seasons. 


"It was really coming out of my own stand up. And at the time, my stand up was about what I was going through. I was newly married and I started doing it on stage sort of just as therapy for myself," he said. 

Reiser didn't just draw on his family for his TV material. He also used them as the basis for his three best-selling books, "Couplehood," "Babyhood" and "Familyhood."

With his family growing and "Mad About You" ending, Reiser decided to take some time off.

"A couple years ago, my son came home from school and there's dad at the door, and I'm thinking, how healthy is this for him? And he said, 'Dad, let me ask you something. What do you do? Because all the other dads, they do something. What do you do?' I gotta get out of the house. That's when I started doing stand up again and apparently that was the key," Reiser said. 

"I always meant to get back to stand up but it wasn't til a few years ago, about three or four years ago, that I said, I just missed it. And so I came to this club and I just said, 'Can I just, I don't know, just come on stage?' I really had like five minutes of material and the muscles were really atrophied and I was rusty, but it felt great. Of all the things that I get to do and I'm having a great time writing, I'm having a great time acting in other people's things, there's nothing that feels as good as this."

Getting back on stage wasn't just personally satisfying. It sparked a career renaissance. He's been starring in the Amazon series "Red Oaks," a coming-of-age comedy set at a New Jersey country club. And now, in what may be the biggest break of his second act in show business, he has a role in a true pop culture phenomenon:

Paul Reiser on the "Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson"

"The 'Stranger Things,' it's crazy. It's crazy, it's very rare to be part of something that you're aware of is in the moment. It really works on so many levels. It's family, it's suspense, it's nostalgia, but it really is very current feeling too," Reiser said.

But "Stranger Things" isn't even his latest project. Reiser has developed and written an inventive comedy series that takes him back to his first big break in stand up. The show is called "There's Johnny," inspired by longtime "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson, whose program was the holy grail for stand up comedians.

"So it's about this kid who's working backstage and then he affects the story of what happened with Johnny, or Johnny does something that affects him," he said. 

"What was really impactful was just how good Johnny Carson was. And also, it seems such a silly thing to say, but in '72 it was before there were even video recorders. So you could not watch the show when you wanted to, you watched when it was on, so you stayed up until 11:30 but it made it special. And even if the show wasn't great, Johnny was great," Reiser said. "The art of getting up and thinking of something funny and making it funny and continuing to make it funny has not changed."

"The first time I ever went onstage was freshman year of college. I was 18. And when I went on a couple years ago, it was like the same exact feeling. There aren't many things that you can replicate feeling like when you were 18. In fact, nothing except that. So to have something where you can go back and say that's like being 18 again, that's the only place you can get it," he said. 

The second season of "Stranger Things" is now available on Netflix. "There's Johnny" premieres next month on Hulu.