Phil Rosenthal

Phil Rosenthal (@PhilRosenthal) was on Brian Koppelman’s (@BrianKoppelman) podcast, The Moment. The pair talk about Everybody Loves Raymond, work at a deli, and food (lots of food).

Koppelman’s interviews have been here before. He had a great double interview with Seth Godin and he’s been interviewed twice by James Altucher, #98 and #59. Here’s the menu for this meal, and remember, the episode is worth listening to on it’s own.

– Dayenu.

– Idiots and honesty.

– You’ll work at a deli, and you’ll like it!

– About writing.

– Phil’s new show.


Dayenu means, “it would have been enough,” and is a Jewish song sung at Passover. Rosenthal stresses that anything in show business would have been enough, and he’s felt this a long time. “You’re a writer, you write alone in a room,” he tells Koppelman, “you’re hoping that the one person at the studio who reads it might like it enough to pass it forward.” Then all you want is a pilot. “What’s better than that?” Rosenthal asks.

Koppelman says, you seem pretty happy and Rosenthal says, what’s not to be happy about? “If all your dreams come true, shouldn’t it make you nicer?”

Rosenthal echoes Wayne Dyer’s thoughts on an attitude of gratitude. Why not be grateful? If you can read this, hear birds, and feel the warm sun, what else do you need?

Dyer was inspired by ancient eastern philosophy, but the Romans figured it out too. Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote:

“When a shipwreck was reported and he heard that all his possessions had sunk, our founder Zeno said, ‘Fortune bids me be a less encumbered philosopher.’”

Rosenthal knows this and more. He quotes Bill Murray:

“I always want to say to people who want to be rich and famous: ‘try being rich first’. See if that doesn’t cover most of it. There’s not much downside to being rich, other than paying taxes and having your relatives ask you for money. But when you become famous, you end up with a 24-hour job.”

But Rosenthal doesn’t mind the job. He also recognizes that money isn’t everything. Tom Shadyac sold nearly everything he owned, and only then became happy. T. Harv Eker thought that if he had a successful business, his life would be better. It wasn’t.

“It would have been enough,” has been proved true in ancient and modern times. From Roman Stoics and ancient Jews to Wayne Dyer and Phil Rosenthal – appreciate what you have. But we often don’t. Why?

We don’t think enough is enough because we aren’t disposed to. Our genes want more because more means multiplying. “We must learn why our genes benefit from building people who have trouble finding happiness yet remain confident that it is within reach, writes Terry Burnham in Mean Genes. “Allowing us to rest on our laurels would be a genetic mistake.” We are biologically programmed to say “it’s not enough.”

Our ancestors were people who craved more than others. They survived because of this. Modern times mean modified rules, and we can divert our genetic desires like a train track switch. We can sing dayenu.

Idiots and honesty.

Before sharing Rosenthal’s ideas on honesty, let me introduce layers. When I was making lunch for my daughter one day, I went to put her sandwich in a zip top bag. It had a slider rather than the traditional pinch and seal. The slider was broken, and the bag was unusable.

Later that week I was shopping for luggage and the salesperson showed me a bag with “ski boot closure.” What’s wrong with a zipper, I asked. Nothing, she said, but this has been used by skiers for a long time. But not on luggage, I thought.

This is the idea of layers.

The more layers there are between something and its natural state the worse it is. The more people involved in a business deal, the more it will cost. The more steps in an exercise program, the harder it will be to do. It’s true for plastic bags, carry-on luggage, and it’s true for the truth.

Ray Dalio writes about this. His investment aims are to find truths:

“Principles are concepts that can be applied over and over again in similar circumstances as distinct from narrow answers to specific questions. Every game has principles that successful players master to achieve winning results. So does life. Principles are ways of successfully dealing with the laws of nature or the laws of life.”

Principles are optimal ways to handle truth. Layers obstruct truths.

Layers don’t need to be shrouded. Each piece of glass is in a window is transparent, but not perfectly. Each piece of glass increases the distortions. In life we need to figure out when people have added too many layers. Figure out when people aren’t being honest (the natural state).

“You do have to recognize when someone is out to get you,” Rosenthal says. He recalls a story about Tom Hanks, who was in a meeting and about to get a bad deal. “Gentlemen,” Hanks said, “you can not take advantage of my good nature.”

When you see idiots in life, you have to call them on it says Rosenthal. Naval Ravikant said much the same thing. When there is the truth and the lie, there are two stories to remember. For Ravikant this keeps him from being in the moment, his best state.

Rosenthal thinks that Avatar was successful, in part, because the Na’vi teach the protagonist to say, “I see you.”

Amanda Palmer had this experience as a street perfomer. In her TED talk, she says:

“So I had the most profound encounters with people, especially lonely people who looked like they hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks, and we would get this beautiful moment of prolonged eye contact being allowed in a city street, and we would sort of fall in love a little bit. And my eyes would say — “Thank you.I see you.” And their eyes would say — “Nobody ever sees me. Thank you.””

Palmer ends her talk with this:

“My music career has been spent trying to encounter people on the Internet the way I could on the box (where she stood as a street performer). So blogging and tweeting not just about my tour dates and my new video but about our work and our art and our fears and our hangovers, our mistakes, and we see each other. And I think when we really see each other, we want to help each other.”

This includes seeing yourself. Rosenthal says he can’t finish the play he’s working on now. “I don’t know how truthful I can be without hurting people and I have to be truthful.” Rosenthal’s honesty exists where he has to be true to the art but also love others. Remove layers and aim for the truth. 

The need to work at a Deli.

Rosenthal says that NYC in the 1980’s wasn’t a great place to be. Even worse if you didn’t have a good job. Both were true for him. He got fired from museum for falling asleep on a 300-year-old bed. His next job was in a deli. One day he showed up for work, but the owner had closed for good.

It didn’t matter (dayenu, remember?). Rosenthal loved his life. “How lucky I am,” he says, “where I’m free to pursue happiness.” A lot of this comes from our point of view. Rosenthal didn’t look down on opportunities to have small roles. It meant he was in show business! In Flash Boys, Michael Lewis writes about what Irish immigrant Ronan Ryan thought about school:

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Ronan. “The kids had their own cars at sixteen! Kids would complain they had to ride on a school bus. I’d say, ‘This fucking thing actually takes you to school! And it’s free! I used to walk three miles.’”

A lot of high achievers frame things to their advantage. Evan Goldberg said writing block is just a term for a bad week, not a persmanent stoppage. Richard Thaler created his entire career on the idea that the way people frame something changes how they see it. Jason Zweig wrote that after people poured out half of a full glass of water, 31% describe it as “half full.” Do the opposite, fill an empty glass halfway, and 88% will now say it’s half full. Two different ways to end at the same place but different answers. The same was true for Ryan, two different ways to become a sixteen-year-old getting to school. So too for Rosenthal. By some standards he was failing, but not by his.  He had the chance to make it in show business, and that was enough. And, he also took the chance.

“You have to get rid of the ‘but I can’t’ and be willing to take the job at the deli that you lose,” Koppelman says. You have to be happy to be an extra in a movie. You have to appreciate those moments. And, you have to learn from them.

“Working at the deli was a lesson in show running,” Rosenthal says, “I was responsible for everything.” His boss never showed up, so he did the work. Decades later those skills were valuable when it was time to make the show Everyone Loves Raymond.

Scott Adams used years of bureaucratic debauchery as inspiration for Dilbert. Mark Cuban slept on a couch so he could funnel his extra time and resources into his business. 


Here we’ll take a break to jump to another podcast and back in time. While Koppelman and Rosenthal do talk about writing, there’s an even better one. In April, 2013, Rosenthal was on J.R. Havlan’s Writer’s Bloc podcast. There, Rosenthal shared 4 steps to becoming a successful writer.

1. Learn the basics. “I tell everyone to take a writing class,” Rosenthal says, “you can’t learn how to be funny but you can learn the structure.”  Scott Adams says there are six elements to a good joke. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg said they watched tons of movies to learn what makes a good one. You have to figure out the basic things in whatever craft you pursue.

2. Be patient. Besides the deli and museum, Rosenthal says, “I worked on a number of terrible shows for years.” Chris Hadfield trekked, swam, flew, sat, and worked all over the world for a chance to be an astronaut. Hadfield says that when people saw him playing guitar on the space station or speaking in Russian, they asked if he learned those things while there. Ha, Hadfield chuckles, he’s been doing those things for decades. 

3. You have to be you and you have to be new. Rosenthal recalls a conversation he had early on with Ray Romano when they were working on the show. “He (Romano) asked me, ‘Does there have to be a story every week. Can’t we just sit in the diner and make jokes?’ That’s perfectly fine for the show that’s doing that right now,” Rosenthal says, but not for them. He goes on to say that he couldn’t write Seinfeld if he wanted. It’s a good thing he didn’t. Any Seinfeld clone would fail. It’s why Penn Jillette says that if you hate supermarket music you should make supermarket music.

4. Learn something new. “Take a writing or directing class,” Rosenthal says, “you want to come at the problem from every angle.” Like Tren Griffin suggests mental models for business, Rosenthal suggests them for writing. The more filters, ideas, angles, domains, and formulas you can apply, the better your answer will be.

“I’ll have what Phil’s Having.”

Rosenthal describes his new show as, “I’m just like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything.”

It seems like there are two reason Rosenthal is making the new show. First, it’s a chance for him to connect. “Being on camera is just a way to connect,” Rosenthal says. “You hear my voice in Raymond,” but it’s filtered. Rosenthal and Koppelman comment that this thinking may be behind what made Larry David create Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Second, the new show serves a higher purpose. “I think this is the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Rosenthal says, “when you eat food you’re literally taking in another culture.” When Rosenthal exported Everybody Love Raymond to Russia, he saw that people aren’t that different.

One culture has a meddling – but well-intentioned mother – guess what, so does another. While Rosenthal travels around the world, he tells Koppelman that you don’t have to be worldly to do this. “You can even travel in your own town,” Rosenthal says. You can be a flaneur, which is popular in Paris this fall.

“Flânerie is still so important to the identity of Paris that Hermès has chosen it as its inspirational theme this year. The design house has created a pop-up museum celebrating the practice, on the Left Bank of the Seine at the port of Solférino.”

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

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