So Why Did Everybody Love Raymond?
Kelli Marshall / University of Toledo
Since Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005) premiered, critics have compared it to Seinfeld (1989-1998). ((Warren Berger, “Looks Like ‘Seinfeld,’ But Call It ‘Raymond,’ New York Times (1 Feb. 1998): AR41 (ProQuest); Neal Gabler, “Loving ‘Raymond,’ A Sitcom for Our Times,” New York Times (21 Oct. 2001): AR30 (ProQuest); David Wild, “The Cult of Ray,” Rolling Stone 17 Oct. 1996 (Academic Search Premier); Peter M. Nichols, “Raymond Is Loved. What’s Not to Love?” New York Times (17 Nov. 1996): TE3, (ProQuest); Bret Watson, Entertainment Weekly (13 Dec. 1996): 34; Tom Gliatto, “Picks and Pans: Everybody Loves Raymond,” People 46.11 (9 Sept. 1996): 14.)) At first glance, this association seems ridiculous given that the characters, structure, and themes of the two sitcoms ostensibly have little in common. For example, Seinfeld is a decidedly postmodern program featuring four unabashedly single Manhattanites; it is usually structured via short narrative segments, many self-reflexive in nature, that often interlock to form a tight yet complex whole; recurring themes include casual dating and sex, toilet habits, and political correctness. Conversely, Raymond is a conventional, middle-class family sitcom set in the suburbs; it employs a traditional, uncomplicated three-act structure; repeated topics include sexless marriages, in-law troubles, and sibling rivalry. ((Gabler describes Raymond’s three-act structure as a “roundelay of rationalization, recrimination, and remorse.” For example, Ray begins the episode doing something “juvenile or selfish or both.” Then, he attempts to defend himself to his wife or other family members. Finally, Ray’s “guilt sets in, and the remorse, but only very occasionally the wisdom.”))
Still, those critics who’ve looked closely at Everybody Loves Raymond and Seinfeld locate several similarities, even suggesting that fans of one program will readily become fans of the other. For instance, both sitcoms center on fortysomething stand-up comedians from New York who lack acting experience and whose comedy is grounded in the mundane observations of daily life. Moreover, both shows are very much ensemble efforts, distinctly ethnic (Italian-American and Jewish), and feature dysfunctional supporting characters “who barge through the door and into [each other’s] chaotic lives.” ((Nichols; Berger.)) While these conclusions are legitimate — and in hindsight, rather obvious — I’m not sure they are the main reasons that viewers of Seinfeld, roughly 18 million during its heyday, would theoretically gravitate toward Everybody Loves Raymond, which also drew about 18 million during its prime. ((Ratings for Raymond and ratings for Seinfeld.)) After all, King of Queens (1998-2007), Yes Dear (2000-2006), My Wife and Kids (2000-2005), The Bernie Mac Show (2001-2006) and According to Jim (2001-2009) also incorporated most of the above attributes, but they never had the ratings of Raymond or Seinfeld, not to mention the awards or critical success. Rather, I propose that so many Americans embraced Everybody Loves Raymond because it repositioned yet sustained the qualities that viewers (for better or worse) appreciated in Seinfeld: well-crafted, narcissistic characters suspended in adolescence, a consistent and humorous focus on the minutiae of human existence, and a guiding mantra of “no hugging, no learning.”
In “Seinfeld‘s Humor Noir,” Irwin Hirsch and Cara Hirsch maintain that Seinfeld stands out among sitcoms because its adult characters function as adolescents, celebrate narcissism, and take pleasure in their own venal behavior. ((Irwin Hirsch and Cara Hirsch, “Seinfeld‘s Humor Noir: A Look at Our Dark Side.” Journal of Popular Film & Television (Fall 2000): 116-123.)) The four possess no “redeeming, positive, humanistic values,” Hirsch and Hirsch point out. ((Ibid, 123.)) Indeed, as all Seinfeld devotees know, Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), George (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Kramer (Michael Richards) value games over rules of propriety (e.g., masturbation contests, Trivial Pursuit with the Bubble Boy, Kramer’s gambling), break commitments over the smallest flaws (e.g., “low-talkers,” “bad breaker-uppers,” “man-hands,” “Jimmy legs”), obsess over bodily functions (e.g., reading on the toilet, “shrinkage,” nose-picking), scoff at traditional rites of passage like marriage or pregnancy (e.g., “Ugh, it’s been done to death”), and take pride in their emotional barrenness (e.g., George opts for coffee after the death of his fiancée, Kramer giddily videos an obese man who’s being mugged). Ultimately, all of this relentless cynicism and corrupt characterization is encapsulated in Seinfeld‘s guiding philosophy “no hugging, no learning,” i.e., the show will offer no moral lessons, and the characters will never become sentimental with each other. ((On Larry David’s cardinal rule “no hugging, no learning,” see Lisa Schwartzbaum, “Much Ado about Nothing,” Entertainment Weekly 9 (April 1993); Albert Auster, “Much Ado about Nothing: Some Final Thoughts on Seinfeld,” Television Quarterly 19 (1998): 24-33; and Matthew Bond, “Do you think they’re having babies just so people will visit them? Parents and Children in Seinfeld” Seinfeld: Master of Its Domain: Revisiting Television’s Greatest Sitcom, Eds. David Lavery and Sara Lewis Dunne, New York: Continuum, 108-150.))
Although its setting and characters may have relocated — from Manhattan to the suburbs of Long Island, from singlehood to married life — Everybody Loves Raymond maintains these distinctly Seinfeldian traits. First, like Seinfeld‘s characters, the Barone family approaches life as a game, rivaling each other within their own little dysfunctional “clubhouse atmosphere.” ((Hirsch and Hirsch use this phrase to describe Seinfeld‘s locations, Jerry’s apartment and Monk’s Cafe, 119.)) While each family member exhibits this trait, ((Other family members compete as well. For example, Ray and Debra battle over who is the better test-taker (1.4), children’s-book writer (2.30), checkbook-balancer (2.38), gift-giver (5.108), and disciplinarian (7.162). Frank challenges Ray to ping-pong (3.60), and Marie sabotages Debra’s food just so she can remain the favorite matriarch (2.37). Furthermore, Ray pits himself against his more sexually active father (4.77), Debra’s attractive aerobics teacher (4.78), his daughter’s outspoken Girl Scout leader (6.137, 7.166), and an annoying 8-year-old kid (7.155). Finally, the entire family tries to one-up each other over about which member is the angriest (6.123), the worthiest to represent them in a Christmas-letter (6.134), the most fun (6.136), the best marriage counselor (8.175), the best liar (8.178), and the most religious (7.164).)) it is perhaps most evident in the competition that takes place between Ray Romano’s Raymond — a sports writer, husband to Debra (Patricia Heaton), and favorite son of Frank (Peter Boyle) and Marie (Doris Roberts) — and his older brother, Robert (Brad Garrett) — a morose NYC policeman who still lives with his parents and openly resents virtually everything about his younger brother. For instance, the two have competed over the title basketball captain (1.11), a prize in a box of cereal (1.7), their appearances (1.14), gift purchases (2.31, 3.59, 4.84, 7.158), a Civil War reenactment (2.35), a toothbrush (3.55), dancing partners (3.71), the affection of children and future in-laws (5.119, 7.161), their names (6.132), tending bar (9.203), and overall, their parents’ attention. The brothers have also fought physically, wrestling each other to the ground like spoiled children because Robert’s promotion to lieutenant garnered more attention than Ray’s simultaneous announcement that he might publish a book (5.103). ((Also like Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, Raymond‘s characters engage in general juvenile behavior. For instance, Debra dumps food on Raymond’s crotch (1.4); Ray wants to keep an old rundown car only because he “got lucky” in it (1.15); Ray, Robert, and Frank devour an entire chocolate cake before Marie catches them (3.52); Ray places a blow-up clown in the bed so Debra will have something other than him to cuddle with (3.67); Frank uses Ray’s sports insight to gamble (4.76); Raymond tapes a football game over his and Debra’s wedding (4.89); and Robert is gored by a bull (4.88).))
Second, also like Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond scrutinizes the insignificant details of daily life and reveals how such analyses directly and humorously affect its characters. It is now common knowledge that Seinfeld procured the title “a show about nothing” because it created segments and sometimes entire episodes around such typically mundane topics as waiting in line at a restaurant, re-gifting a present, finding a hair on one’s food, and double-dipping a potato chip. In the same way, Raymond regularly makes something out of nothing. For example, episodes unfold around a fruit-of-the-month club (1.1), an engraved toaster (3.59), a can opener (4.76), P.M.S. (4.95), sneezing (5.107), choking (5.109), a vacuum cleaner (5.115), the wrong brand of Kleenex (6.135), sighing (7.154), the placement of a suitcase (7.196), tardiness (8.185), eating habits (8.189), and smoking (9.209).
Finally, not unlike Jerry et al, the Barones refuse to “hug” or “learn,” consistently shooting down moral lessons and possible moments of genuineness with insensitive or spiteful dialogue. ((A handful of shows do not subscribe to this “no hugging, no learning” motto. Most of them are season finales, which are often told via flashbacks (e.g., Ray and Debra’s wedding, the birth of their daughter, etc.) and usually take on a slightly more sentimental tone.)) For instance, in “Jealous Robert” (6.129), Frank recounts how, when he was younger, he was so envious Marie cooked for another man that he “punched the headlights off of [the guy’s] car” and then “spent the night in the hospital, picking glass out of [his] arm.” Here, the viewer seemingly believes that even the most hardened, unemotional man once had strong feelings for his wife. But this notion is quickly shattered with the next exchange:
Raymond: Wow, dad, I never thought there was a story like that behind you and mom. It’s almost romantic.
Frank Barone: Yeah, I know. I don’t tell that story a lot.
Ray Barone: How come?
Frank Barone: Because it doesn’t have a happy ending. ((Later in “Robert’s Jealous,” Frank still fumes that he let Marie’s food get the best of him (and his jealous nature) so many years ago: “Chuck Pacarello [the man for whom Marie was cooking]. Where the hell is he? That son of a bitch owes me. I’m serving his life sentence!))
Similarly, in “The Plan” (7.165), Robert and his fiancée, Amy (Monica Horan), reconcile after fighting over misspelled wedding invitations. Before the entire Barone clan, Amy confides, “Robert and I are getting married, and I want us to be honest and trusting. […] I want to get married because I know how great it can be. Maybe it isn’t easy, but I think it’s worth going for.” Robert lovingly concurs, and then the couple exits, leaving the viewer with a potential lesson about love, marriage, and forgiveness. Yet within seconds, that message is cut down with Debra’s dialogue, “Wow. Remember when we were that stupid?” The frame fades to black.
One of the most interesting uses of Seinfeld‘s “no hugging, no learning” mantra is found in “The Lone Barone” (3.56), an episode in which Ray vents to Robert how miserable married life can be, e.g., waiting “all day for Debra’s damn curtains” to be delivered, being “held hostage, trapped inside all of these walls,” being “happy as she lets me be, sleeping when she lets me sleep, eating when she lets me eat,” and finally, seeing the movie she wants to see, “the one where the mother has the disease and the daughter who learns to care about the mother who has the disease.” When these declarations (allegedly) cause Robert to break up with Amy, Ray is forced to reexamine married life and deliver a revised speech. Here it is, paired with a similar one from Seinfeld:
The resemblances here are uncanny. Not only does some of the language match word for word, but also the (long-standing) philosophy that marriage is a prison and that once a man enters it, he is never alone or allowed to do what he wants to do. Indeed, married life can be, both shows argue, “a sad state of affairs.” No hugging, no learning.
One reason that this family sitcom gets away with such traditionally non-familyish qualities is that the Barone children (played by real-life siblings Madylin, Sullivan, and Sawyer Sweeten) rarely appear; they are usually, one critic notes, “tucked out of sight, leaving the adults to have at each other.” ((Berger.)) This setup differs dramatically from similarly constructed family sitcoms of the last couple of decades like Family Ties, Growing Pains, Full House, The Cosby Show, and Home Improvement — series in which “the situation was typically a problem involving one of the children” and the parents would “guide the child through a solution, providing a moral lesson along the way.” ((Richard Butsch, “A Half Century of Class and Gender in American TV Domestic Sitcoms,” Cercles 8 (2003): 16-34.)) But again, this break from the norm is probably something viewers of Raymond should expect. After all, despite its surface appearances and traditional three-act structure, Everybody Loves Raymond is not like other family sitcoms. Rather, its juvenile characters with virtually no redeeming qualities and its almost complete rejection of moral lessons place it closer to its predecessor and short-lived contemporary Seinfeld than those which featured the always loveable Bill Cosby or Tim Allen.
1. Cast Promo Shots of Everybody Loves Raymond and Seinfeld
2. George undergoes “shrinkage”
3. Jerry’s date grips him with “man hands”
4. Robert and Raymond engage in literal game-playing
5. All hell breaks loose over a new can opener
6. Image by author
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