Rich Heldenfels

Paul Reiser never knew he had so many friends.

Oh, he knew he had an audience. Millions had followed him in movies and on TV, particularly from Mad About You, the 1992-99 NBC comedy starring Reiser and Helen Hunt. He knew people had bought his books: Couplehood, Familyhood and most recently Babyhood.

But it was when he recently went back on the stand-up road — including to Hilarities in Cleveland on Friday and Saturday — that he began finding all those unknown friends.

“What’s been very refreshing to me has been meeting the people,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I didn’t foresee that. Just signing the books after the show, and meeting people face to face, and getting to hear some people come over and say ‘what Mad About You meant to me, and gee, thanks,’ or the books.

“I don’t know about these people until I go to Cleveland, or I go to Salt Lake. I didn’t know these people were here. They didn’t call me at home, so how would I know? Oh, there’s people that want to come see me! I didn’t know that. It’s been a real blast.”

That sort of contact is more often than not missing in an age where folks are getting their comedy on TV or Twitter. Reiser has gone into the online world — there’s a barbed sketch on the Funny or Die website about the way NBC treated his Paul Reiser Show in 2011. But that’s not the same as what he calls “the low-techness” of being in front of an audience, something he began to rediscover only a year or so ago.

In the TV heyday of Reiser and Roseanne and Jerry Seinfeld and Tim Allen, stand-up comedy was a seemingly direct path to TV stardom — although that meant people devoted to stand-up were sharing stages with people who had a different view.

“There were always some guys who would only do stand-up as a way to get on TV, and then never to return,” Reiser said, “I was never that guy. I always knew I was gonna get back — but I just noticed year after year I wasn’t.

After a long stretch of writing and working at home, “about a year or two ago I did a charity event, and I was onstage and had a hot crowd and I was having the time of my life. I got offstage and said to my wife, ‘That’s fun. … Why am I not doing this?’ So I went to a local club here in L.A. … and for about a year, I just went onstage locally. And after I had enough material I said, let’s go on the road, let’s see what it’s like.

“It’s only been a few months, and I’m having such a good time.”

Being back in clubs — with the occasional theater thrown in — is “strikingly familiar to me — just the whole feel and the smell of going into a comedy club, and starting where I left off. … But what’s different is, they know me. The audiences know me, they’re familiar with what I do, and … I’m picking up a conversation where we left off.”

After all, Mad About You and its contemplation of marriage was derived from Reiser’s stand-up comedy. So he is continuing to think and talk about life and family, but from the more seasoned perspective of a 55-year-old family man with two children ages 17 and 12.

“Being married 25 years is different from being a newlywed,” he said, “Having teenagers is very different from having a baby.” He is thinking about “getting older, when you’re seeing that you can’t do things that you used to do, or things are happening that didn’t used to happen. … By and large my audience is my age. It’s funny, the club owner will say, ‘We’ve got an older crowd this week.’ Oh, all right. But by the same token I will meet people who only know me from my old stuff, but they’re in the 20s. And they come down and have a great time. … I see people laughing of all ages. I must be doing something right.”

The world has changed, Reiser said, “but stand-up has not. It’s exactly the same — getting out there, and the struggle to come up with material, and trying it, and it working one night but not the next. But it is fun. It is fun getting out of the house.”

Of course, some of the material has changed. Young comedians like Amy Schumer are brutally raw in language and topics; while they can be very funny, Comedy Central still seems more like Bleep Central in some of its stand-up shows.

“The material has changed but the sport of it, the art of it has not,” Reiser said. “There’s no shortcut. You can’t high-tech your way out of this. You can’t email it. There’s only getting out there and doing it night after night. The low-techness of it appealed to me. There’s nothing else to do but get up there and do a joke on Tuesday and make a note and watch the tape, and go up there on Wednesday, and … hopefully it gets better.”

Another benefit, especially compared to working in television: “It’s a very straight line from me to the audience,”

Mad About You had a good run, but its fans had to be alert to time-slot changes: nine different ones during the show’s run. More recently, The Paul Reiser Show “fell through the cracks of some corporate stuff [as NBC was being sold].”

“One of the best things about stand-up is you’re not going to get canceled. You’re not up against somebody else. I don’t care if 1,000 people came to see or 50. Here’s us, we’re locked in a room and we’re going to have fun. I don’t have to run the jokes by anybody first, I don’t have to get edited. … It’s very pure, unadulterated.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com/ .