Question: I saw your April 1 answer about Larry David's wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm. That got me thinking about Mad About You. Weren't Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt married in real life, or did I hallucinate that? — Debbie S., Annapolis, Md.
Televisionary: I can't say where the notion came from, Debbie, but it's, well... wrong. Reiser's wife is named Paula and for the bulk of Mad About You's 1992-99 run on NBC, Hunt was with Hank Azaria (they eventually married and split up).
Perhaps your misconception sprung from the fact that from the show's launch, Reiser made no secret of mining his own life for material. (Hey, I'm trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here.) "[The show] is based on my own marriage and Helen's relationships.... We get together with the writers every day, tell them what's going on in our personal lives and try to be funny," he told TV Guide in '92, less than a month after the comedy debuted.
The trouble was, of course, that once they started down that road, it got tougher and tougher to figure out what was fair game for an episode and what should have been left in the privacy of the home. "A couple of weeks ago she took one of those afternoon naps. I was watching her sleep," the star said of his wife two years later. "The first thought was about how sweet she looked, and how beautiful. The next thought was, This could be something. This could be a scene."
As you might imagine, that sort of thing wears on the partner who's not under the gun to produce material for a weekly show. But luckily, that habit didn't stick around long. "In the very beginning I was aware that I was doing these things, and I made a concerted effort, for Paula's sake, to resist," Reiser said. "She would see me talking to her and see my eyes glaze over and she'd say, 'Alright, fine. Go get a pencil and write it down.' But by the second year, I had pretty much gotten over that. At some point you have to walk away from the show — it's very hard for me to do — and go and replenish."
Whether it was a good idea or not, I'll give the comedian this: In contrast to the celebs who try to paint a perfect picture of commitment and fidelity, Reiser didn't pretend marriage was easy and he wasn't afraid to open up about its little challenges. Take the little issue of fidelity, which certainly proved a challenge to Manhattanites Paul and Jamie Buchman on the show. Reiser never said he fell victim to a wandering eye, as both Paul and Jamie did, but he admitted to thinking about it, certainly. "[T]here are certain times that you go, 'Well, wouldn't it be nice to be single again? Wouldn't it be nice to be with somebody else for a day?'" he said. "We even did an episode about how nice it would be to feel what a first kiss is like — because a first kiss is always better than kissing somebody you've been kissing.... But here's the reality: What if a man says, 'You know what? I want to be with this woman tonight. Oh — you find that guy attractive? OK, I'll see you Wednesday.' The reality is no."
Perhaps the strong desire to keep it real came from Reiser's previous experiences on overly sweet NBC sitcom My Two Dads, on which he co-starred with Greg Evigan (B.J. and the Bear), sharing custody of young Nicole (Staci Keanan). "I had hoped, when we started, it was going to be something else," he said. "This unstoppable force moved it in the other direction. It became much more about the kid, much more saccharine and more child-oriented. What I came to terms with was that I was manufacturing a very nice product that I myself didn't use in the home."
Once again, we see the truth of the oft-quoted showbiz maxim about never working with kids or animals.
So when it came time for Mad About You, Reiser was determined to do it his way, saying he'd "rather fail at something that reflects my taste, instead of somebody else's."
Well, failure wasn't a big worry for a show which, while never blowing the Nielsen doors off, was certainly talked about, generated a faithful following for a time and was up there in the ratings for a few years. Of course, like many a successful series, by the time it left the air it had pretty much worn out its welcome. (When Mad left the air, our own Matt Roush wrote that the "once-intimate" series "should have been put to rest last year, when it was first running out of gas" and added that it had become "aimlessly annoying.")
But things still managed to end on an up note. In the series finale, which was narrated from a future point of view by Paul and Jamie's grown-up daughter Mabel (Janeane Garafolo), it was revealed that the couple went through their rocky times — they broke up for a while in 2021 — but survived and "lived happily ever after."
(Okay, so maybe by that time you didn't care, but I'm sure that somewhere there were still fans letting loose with a collective "awwwww.")