A version of this story first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
If Phil Rosenthal’s mother ever told him not to talk with his mouth full, he didn’t listen. From his shows “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” and “Somebody Feed Phil” to his new podcast “Naked Lunch,” the man who made his mark on TV producing 200-plus episodes of “Everybody Loves Raymond” has found a thriving second career as an Everyman who travels the world eating everything put in front of him and talking about it all along the way.
“Life is short, and talking with your mouth full saves time,” he said. “But be careful. You have to be good at it. You don’t want to choke and die.
Rosenthal, who just finished the fifth season of “Somebody Feed Phil,” is very good at it, as we learned during an interview that took place over a tray of small dishes from his favorite Oaxacan restaurant in Los Angeles.
Watching TV, you can see things and hear things, and if the volume is high enough you can feel them. But you can’t taste what you see on TV.
I’m working on that. Netflix and I are working on a new thing. Smell-o-vision, and then later taste-o-vision. You can lick the TV.
Until that arrives, why are food shows so popular?
That’s a great question. I think, and this might seem obvious, that everybody’s gotta eat and everybody loves food. Everywhere I go, every culture believes, “Nobody eats like we do.” This is what the whole world has in common: They love to eat. And for many people, food is not just sustenance, it’s the only nice break in their day. Food is a sanctuary. It’s comfort. It’s how we come together. I always say food is the great connector — and then for me, laughs are the cement.
“Somebody Feed Phil” was essentially spurred by something that happened during the run of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” right?
Right. What happened was I asked Ray Romano what he was going to do on his hiatus between Season 1 and 2. And he said he goes to the Jersey Shore. I said, “That’s nice. Have you ever been to Europe?” And he said, “No, I’m not really interested in other places.”
And I thought that was weird because I had discovered the joys of travel when I was 23, and I thought it was the greatest thing you could do with your extra money. So when he said he wasn’t really interested, I said, “Oh, we gotta do that episode. We’re gonna send you to Italy with that attitude, and you’re gonna come back as me.”
It took me three years to convince him to get on a plane, but he did it. And the arc of the character that you see in that Italy episode actually happened to Ray the person. When I saw that, I said right then and there, “What if I could do this for other people?” I’m using food and my stupid sense of humor to just get you in. The real meaning of the show is the connection with the people.
Was “Somebody Feed Phil” inevitable from that moment?
I didn’t realize it then, but I guess it was. I would stay on “Ray” another five years and then Ray and I decided to end the show on our terms, meaning we had run out of what we thought were good ideas. We did 210 episodes, nine years, which is enough of anything.
I was ready to continue doing other sitcoms, but the business had changed so much in those nine years that I don’t even think “Everybody Loves Raymond” would’ve gotten on the air the year it went off the air. Everybody wanted a younger, hipper show, not understanding that the family sitcom has been the building block of television since the very beginning. I don’t know if that’s all over now because of everything else people have to choose from. Maybe I got in and out of that business at the crest of it.
But after knocking around for 10 more years, I thought, why not try this? ‘Cause nothing else is working. I’m writing sitcoms that nobody wants, and they’re wanting me to run sitcoms that I don’t want to run. So what if I focused on this thing that I would really like? So I did.
The fifth season was done in the shadow of COVID. How did that affect things?
COVID ruined everybody’s plans, to say the least. But I have to tell you, maybe it’s the hidden blessing. I mean, if you’ve lost someone to COVID, this is not a blessing. But for those of us who didn’t, the worst thing that happened to us was we had to stay home. The hidden blessing is it makes you appreciate outside. It makes you appreciate being with other people.
I would imagine you had to plan more carefully, and test all the time…
Yes, we had to plan. Part of the world was still closed off, and we had one cancellation out of 10 places. We managed to get everything in that sweet spot after Delta, and then Omicron hit and we were supposed to go to Italy, but we had to postpone that.
The pandemic has affected our ability to go out — but also, the restaurant business has taken a huge hit.
A lot of them did, and a few of them did better because they were able to pivot into the takeout and delivery market on a dime. But a lot of places did terribly and a lot of places need help. As a government, we bail out the giant corporations when it’s really the mom and pops that need the most.
The first time we spoke was more than 10 years ago when you had made the documentary Exporting Raymond, about going to Russia to help them do their own version of Everybody Loves Raymond. And it strikes me that what you’re doing now is similar to what we saw in that film – which was you going to a foreign place and learning to accept what they were giving you rather than saying, “That’s not the way we do it.”
Yeah. Not trying to be the American tourist. Like, “Why don’t they have hamburgers in this city?” I know a lot of people, they’d go on a cruise and they wouldn’t go into Barcelona to eat because there’s food on the ship. Somebody said to me, “Why would you go into town when there’s food on the ship?” And I said, “Why would you go to Barcelona and not eat the food?” I don’t understand it. But a lot of people are like that because they’re afraid they won’t like it. I say the tasting is its own reward. And the biggest joy in my life is when people DM me and say, “I went there because of you.”
After we watched one of this season’s shows last night, my wife said, “Well, Finland’s on my list now.”
Good! Because you wouldn’t think of that off the bat. And I’m thrilled to be that guy. I’m no expert, I’m not Anthony Bourdain, who was a superhero. To sell the show, I said, “I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain, if he was afraid of everything.” He was incredibly brave and a daredevil. I thought, “There’s gotta be a show for the person that doesn’t even want to get off the couch, let alone travel.” And if they see a putz like me going out there, they’ll say, “Oh, maybe I can do that, too.”
I watch the show and think, “How does that skinny guy just keep eating?”
You want to know the secret? I’ll tell you. The secret is what you see is a week’s worth of filming condensed into less than an hour. So that scene that you’re looking at is probably all I ate that day. You know how they make a dog food commercial, right? They don’t feed the dog before the commercial. I’m the dog. I’m starving by the time I eat, because you can’t fake enthusiasm. I mean, I guess you can, but I don’t want to.
And when you see, “Oh, it looks like you love everything,” I loved everything that day that I’m showing you. I’m not showing you the stuff I’m not excited about, ‘cause I’m trying to get you to travel. And I’m using food and my stupid sense of humor to get you in.