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When Phil Rosenthal was in Russia helping adapt the hit American situation comedy Everybody Loves Raymond into Everybody Loves Kostya (renamed Voroniny before it launched) for a Moscow-based network, he went to dinner most nights with the local producers.
“We would laugh and have a good time,” says Rosenthal, who recounts many of his experiences in the new feature documentary Exporting Raymond.
At dinner, they might laugh and toast with an endless stream of vodka, but the next day the Russians still insisted on changing the original scripts. “They just didn’t trust it would make their audience laugh,” he says.
Raymond is a “naturalistic” comedy, meaning the humor came out of life and the relationships of the characters. “You can’t tell me there aren’t laughs in real life,” says Rosenthal, “but their attitude in Russia was, ‘Real life is terrible. Why would you want to put real life on the screen?’ ”
The few conversions of American sitcoms that have worked in Russia, most notably The Nanny and Married … With Children, were more like sketch shows in which the laughs came from broad gags. That wasn’t Raymond.
“We had one rule on our show, which was, ‘Could this really happen?’ ” Rosenthal says. “Once you break that rule, you’re only as good as your last joke. Now you’re doing broad shtick. That is a trap because you have to become broader and broader to keep satisfying that expectation.”
The problems were seemingly endless. The costumer, for instance, insisted on dressing the characters stylishly: “They wanted people cleaning the kitchen to wear evening clothes.”
When it came to casting, top Russian talent turned their noses up at doing a sitcom. “The best actors are in theater companies,” says Rosenthal, “and once they join, the theater master runs their lives. And he will rarely let them do TV or film work.”
Some plot lines didn’t translate. In one show, Raymond gives his parents a fruit-of-the-month club membership, but there’s no such thing in Russia. So it became the water-of-the-week club. “But that wasn’t funny,” Rosenthal deadpans.
About 75 percent of the original scripts survived. They shot each half-hour in two days. “They were burning through nine years of our show,” he says, “in a year and a half.”
Despite all this, the show actually beat the odds to become a bona fide hit in Russia. “It turns out our values on Raymond were universal,” Rosenthal says. “It worked when we became specific without being topical. We were character specific, psychologically specific, detail specific, without doing any jokes. It turns out if you do that, you have a bit of universal appeal.”
The original Raymond runs with subtitles or overdubbed in 148 countries. Now the format is also being adapted in the Netherlands, England, Israel and elsewhere.
“In case you’re wondering,” Rosenthal says, “no, I won’t be going to every country.”
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