SOMEBODY FEED PHIL: Phil Rosenthal on Going Outside of His Comfort Zone - Give Me My Remote : Give Me My Remote

SOMEBODY FEED PHIL: Phil Rosenthal on Going Outside of His Comfort Zone

July 7, 2018 by  

Somebody Feed Phil

SOMEBODY FEED PHIL (The Second Course) Credit: Netflix

Phil Rosenthal made a mark on television with his comedy EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, but over the past three years, he’s established himself (in front of the camera) in a new way: as a food-loving traveler in the 2015 PBS documentary series I’LL HAVE WHAT PHIL’S HAVING, and Netflix’s ongoing SOMEBODY FEED PHIL. (The “second course” of SOMEBODY FEED PHIL is now streaming, and includes installments in Venice, Dublin, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Cape Town, and New York City.)

Rosenthal is unabashedly giddy about food, relishing the opportunity to try new things—and interact with new friends (chefs, restaurant owners, and locals) along the way. But, occasionally, the non-eating adventures give him pause. “There are times I’ve said no to stuff, because I’m afraid, and then I’ve changed my mind once I’m there because I realized that’s the job,” he notes. “I should do it because I’m afraid of it.”

SOMEBODY FEED PHIL is also unexpectedly moving, due partially to the timing of the Netflix release date. “I never meant to make a political show, but suddenly, because of the climate we’re in, embracing other people and other cultures is somehow a political statement,” Rosenthal admits.

(If you haven’t watched the show yet, you should. SOMEBODY FEED PHIL works well both as a love letter to food/travel and an antidote to the insanity of the world.)

But how did Rosenthal get all the right pieces together? He breaks down how he got the right tone for the show, the process of scouting each city, and more…

How much of the joy in SOMEBODY FEED PHIL was intentionally baked into the DNA of the show when you created it?
Using Bourdain as almost a model, I thought, “What can I bring to this genre I love? Only what I can bring.” Which is all we can ask of anyone. What I tell writers or actors or anyone who is trying anything, you can’t try to imitate someone else. And you can’t try to hit everybody. If you try to hit everybody, you’ll miss everybody. You can only bring the very specific experiences you have and the very specific thoughts that you have. So that’s what I do as someone with a comedy background. Comedy is generally happy time. Laughing! Turns out, these traits in human beings are universal. So that’s what I’ve been able to find in the world.

I feel like food is the great connector. Bourdain was great at that. But for me, personally, laughs are the cement. Sometimes people find other things to connect with. For me, that’s what I’m looking for, because that’s my currency. For me, that’s been the success story.

With ten days of filming in each city, what is your approach to planning that out before you get there?
I have a whole team in place that does a lot of prerequisite work for me. Usually we have about six weeks of pre-production. They’re researching, and I’m on the team. I have my phone—everybody does—and we can all look up the great places to go. Not just the places you eat, but what about the cultural locations, what’s special about that town, why is this place famous, what are they known for? Can we film there? Will they let us? There’s all that logistical stuff.

We have people on the ground from the production company who live there, and they tell us what the new cool stuff is, who has been there before. [We find out] what other TV shows [were there], because maybe you don’t want to imitate, or maybe this guy has been there before, but your take on it is going to be completely different because you’re not a chef; you’re a goofball, so you’re going to have some kind of other experience. Or has something changed about this place that is worth going again? The world is ever-changing. So there’s all that research.

But then when we’re in the town, something may happen. Someone may say, “Do you know about this place? It’s awesome.” Or on my night off, I may eat somewhere and go, “We have to go to here. It was incredible.” They want the place I’m excited about, because I’m excited about it.

What is your physical prep like? In addition to eating, you’re walking a fair amount, and you do things like rowing the gondola or taking the dance lessons—
That was the bravest thing I ever did, take that lesson!

A lot of things are out of my comfort zone, and that’s the key. There are times I’ve said no to stuff, because I’m afraid, and then I’ve changed my mind once I’m there because I realized that’s the job. I should do it because I’m afraid of it. Because I don’t want to do it. There’s the lesson right there, right? That’s the preparation.

As for how I prepare to eat that much…you know how they make a dog food commercial? They starve the dog before the shoot so the dog looks happy to eat the food. I’m the dog! I don’t eat much before I film, because I like to be excited about what I’m eating. The best appetite is hunger. I do that. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Why would I eat before I eat? A lot of us eat before we have to eat and that’s how we get fat. So pick your spots, is what I tell everyone. I work hard at it: I don’t eat the way I want to eat all of the time. If I know a steak dinner is coming up on Friday, I’ll go the whole week without having steak.

Somebody Feed Phil

Rosenthal, outside of his comfort zone, in the new episodes of SOMEBODY FEED PHIL. Credit: Netflix

After doing this for a number of years, how often do people reach out to you to come to their restaurant?
[At the ATX panel] someone slipped me their number and said, “Come eat, we have a restaurant, we’d love to have you.” Listen, there are worse things in life than to be offered meals. It’s very sweet. I don’t think I’ve done it, because I don’t feel right doing it; I can’t travel everywhere, as nice as it sounds. Every once in a while, if the restaurant owner happens to know who I am, they’ll send something over. It’s very sweet, very nice. It’s a great perk.

But the real perk to me is someone has seen the show, they come over, they say something nice. Or even better, they tell me they went because of this show. I see on Instagram, “Hey Phil, we’re at the ice cream place you went to. Here’s a picture of us. Here are our kids doing an imitation of you eating.” That’s my favorite thing: these little fans who like the show. That’s my favorite, favorite thing. Because they want to travel! I realized that Disneyland inspires children to travel. We don’t even realize it, but there’s a fantasy place. As you get older, you want to travel because you realize that some of the places in Disneyland and Disney World are real. And you can really go there.

I think most kids are naturally curious and somehow, over the course of however many years, we get that beaten out of us, we get afraid, or we’re too lazy, or we don’t want go, or we feel like that’s not what money is for. I’m here to say, no, your extra money—after food, rent, and education–travel! It’s the most mind-expanding thing you can do. I think the world would be better if we all did it. You can travel in your own town if you can’t afford [leaving]. Expand your mind. It stays with you the rest of your life.

How has this show changed your relationship with food?
I’m way more open to trying new things. I would have to be. I thought I’ll never eat a bug, I’m not interested. And then I ate a bug. Am I looking for ants now everywhere I go? No. But it was very interesting eating an ant in Tokyo. It was an ant that tastes like lemon…maybe I was a little braver because the cameras were on me. That makes you feel like you’re on a TV show and not in real life. So I did it. It crunched a little bit; it was very brave of me to bite down on that thing. But dammit if it didn’t taste like someone put a lemon drop on my tongue. What the hell? But those particular ants taste like lemons. I’m glad I did it.

One of the fun touches of the show is getting to see personal elements from your real-life, including your parents via Skype. What is the balance you try to strike with opening up your own life for cameras?
[Joking.] I’m honestly tired of my parents. I’m tired of people coming up to me, and they’re like, “We like your show, but we love your parents!” Why do I bother traveling? I can just sit in the kitchen with them. Save everyone some time and money. They are the stars! I know they’re the stars; they tell me they’re the stars. “You’re nothing without us,” they tell me.

[Seriously.] They are fantastic. I would be nothing without them, it’s true. I love that the audience gets what my brother and I have gotten for our whole lives. There’s nobody funnier than my dad. He’s this repository of the great Jewish humor of the world, going back to God knows when. In the blink of an eye, he’s got the joke. Always. And my mother is just as funny. And they’re funny together, bouncing off each other after 65 years of marriage. My father says, “I haven’t talked to your mother in 35 years—I don’t want to interrupt!”

With a few seasons under your belt, are there plans to return to any previous locations in a potential third installment of SOMEBODY FEED PHIL?
There’s too many places we haven’t hit yet. The shows that are lucky enough to last a long time, they get to go back; the place changed so much they want to revisit them. Do I want to go back to Paris? Of course, in a second. The places from I’LL HAVE WHAT PHIL’S HAVING, I want to go back to all of those places. I started with Earth’s greatest hits, because I wanted to travel. They’re the most famous spots on Earth for a reason. The answer is yes, I want to go back. I [went back] to Lisbon, because [my wife] Monica didn’t get to come with me when we filmed.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from SOMEBODY FEED PHIL, outside of making the episodes personal to your strengths?
We’re all the same, that’s the number one thing. The differences are obvious. I got to spend time with Will Smith, the actor, and he said a line I hadn’t heard before: diversity is America’s superpower. That really hit me. It’s one hundred percent true. Everybody tells you the opposite. It’s actually our greatest strength, how different we are and what we all have to bring to the table. If we bring it all to the table, we win. If all of that is welcomed instead of shunned, we win.

I never meant to make a political show, but suddenly, because of the climate we’re in, embracing other people and other cultures is somehow a political statement. “He must be a liberal. Look at him hugging people and shaking hands in different countries.” I thought I was being a human being. We’re interdependent. we need each other to survive.

Second of all, this is what makes life great: exploring and getting to know people from other places. We should be friends. Otherwise, what’s the alternative? Not so good. So I say, instead of a wall, why not a table?

SOMEBODY FEED PHIL, Now Streaming, Netflix

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