How Travel (Even on TV) Can Change the World (Guest Column)

Left, CBS/Photofest; Right, courtesy of Netflix
Left: 'Everybody Loves Raymond' premiered its fifth season in 2000 with two Italy episodes. Right: 'Somebody Feed Phil.'

Emmy-winning producer Phil Rosenthal reveals why he lured Ray Romano to Italy — and the mission behind his Netflix foodie travelogue 'Somebody Feed Phil,' premiering new episodes at ATX.

At the end of our first season of Everybody Loves Raymond, I asked our star, Ray Romano, where he was going on his hiatus. And he said, "We go to the Jersey Shore." I said, "That's great. Ever been to Europe?" Ray said, "Nah." I asked, "Why not?" and Ray said, "I'm not really interested in other cultures." Even his own culture (Italian). And I thought, "There's an episode." We send him over to Italy as Ray, and he comes back as Roberto Benigni — transformed by the food, the people, the beauty, the joy of travel that I had found at age 23, on my first trip outside the U.S.: a cheap flight to Paris, a few magical nights there and an overnight rail ticket to Florence.

After some convincing of CBS and a reluctant Raymond, we filmed two episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond in Rome. And I saw what was happening to "Ray," the character that I wrote, actually happen to Ray the person. Every night we were shooting, he was so excited about trying all the pizza and gelato he could get, ricocheting across piazzas, spilling red sauce and then chocolate sauce all over himself. I saw my friend fall in love. And that changed my life. What if I could do this for other people? What if just a few more folks got what I got, what Raymond got, what millions of world travelers have always understood? And wouldn't the world be a little better if we all could experience a bit of someone else's experience?

This is what inspired me to make Somebody Feed Phil. It's part food and travel but also part sitcom and — to my surprise — today, part political statement. How did that happen? Since when did embracing other people and other cultures become a liberal cause?

Believe me, I don't look for trouble. The way I sold this show was by saying, "I'm exactly like Anthony Bourdain, if he was afraid of everything." But I do love people, and I think I have a normal curiosity. I use food and (hopefully) humor as the way in. It's the people I'm meeting around the world whom I really want to show off. I'm trying to make connections. That's all we do as human beings on the planet, isn't it? We try to connect. But suddenly, sadly, there are those of us who are all too willing to go the other way. To disconnect. Don't we know, in our guts, this feels wrong? I get up in the morning, feeling not like a Democrat or Republican, but that something is wrong, in the universe, in my stomach. Am I alone?

But I have found hope in travel. Most people, everywhere, are so much better than their governments. Your job is to go talk to them. I promise you'll feel better. Two-thirds of us in the U.S. don't have a passport. I'm here to say that travel is the best, most mind-expanding thing we can do with our hard-earned extra money. You can even travel in your own town. Look up the menu for that Peruvian place down the street and try it. Or next time you're on the street, simply give a hello to a passerby. What's the worst that could happen? We fear starting a conversation because of rejection, or who knows, something worse … but I'm betting your gamble will go well. Because most people like to connect. Most people enjoy other people. Most people are human beings first. And affiliated with political parties second.

This story first appeared in the May 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.