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HOME IS WHERE THE PLOT IS FOR 'RAYMOND'
CBS HIT ENTERS FINAL SEASON OF FAMILY-INSPIRED COMEDY

Phil Rosenthal's marital philosophy is never going to be confused with that of "Dr. Phil."

The creator and head writer on "Everybody Loves Raymond" for the past eight seasons, Rosenthal relies on conflict at his home to entertain millions of American homes.

"We always say that whenever we run out of stories, we go home and get in a fight with our wives," Rosenthal said during a session here. "And we've been known to keep the fights going a little longer sometimes, because we need a second act."

He was kidding, I think. You never really could tell when Rosenthal and three other writers who have been on his staff for the entire run of the CBS show were joking and when they were, well, half-joking.

But Rosenthal is dead serious about one thing -- the most popular comedy remaining on television will end after an abbreviated season of 16 episodes next season.

"I'd like the audience to think of these 16 really as encores, you know, we're coming back a little bit," said Rosenthal "But it is over."

He wrote the half-hour series finale in time to film last season before CBS persuaded Rosenthal and star Ray Romano to take a victory lap a year after "Friends," "Frasier" and "Sex and the City" got all the attention.

While Romano was off filming a movie with Kevin James of "King of Queens," Rosenthal and his staff were left to explain how they want the series to end.

"I want Walter Cronkite to host it live," said Rosenthal. "At the end, I want Walter to take his glasses off and choke (up) and say, 'They're gone.' "

Rosenthal's reference to Cronkite's classic line after the death of President Kennedy might be viewed as tasteless to some people who didn't understand the spirit of the afternoon.

It was meant to be a self-deprecating remark to illustrate how unimpressed Rosenthal is with all the hoopla that CBS plans to say goodbye to the sitcom that has revolved around the relationship between sportswriter Ray Barone (Romano), his wife, Debra (Patricia Heaton), his brother, Robert (Brad Garrett), and his parents, Marie and Frank (Doris Roberts, Peter Boyle).

"I've heard the question asked, 'Does this mean the end of an era?' Does this mean the end of sitcoms on television?' " deadpanned Rosenthal. "And I think yes. I think not only on television, but comedy everywhere. In fact I don't see any more laughing coming anywhere."

He was kidding. I was sure of that even before he reversed himself and said the sitcom slump is just one of those inevitable cycles and something new and different will eventually come along. After all, when "Raymond" premiered, the family sitcom was in trouble, because all the new comedies were "Seinfeld" clones about single people and their insignificant problems.

Rosenthal and writers Tucker Cawley, Steve Skrovan and Jeremy Stevens have proven that single people don't have a patent on insignificant problems. The writers have been living off their marital and family annoyances for years.

Take the classic 2003 episode, "Baggage," in which Ray and Debra came home from a vacation and left a suitcase at the bottom of the stairs. It remained there for days because neither one of them would give in and put it away.

"I didn't even think of that as a story," said Cawley, who had that very experience. "It was just so inactive. . . . It was just me staring at the suitcase and grumbling to myself. I came in and just threw it out as an idea, and everyone really kind of seemed to spark to it."

"And we told him to wait," cracked Rosenthal. "Don't you lift that suitcase."

Then there was the memorable 2001 season premiere in which one of the Barone kids embarrassed his parents at a school event by titling an essay about his home life, "The Angry Family."

Credit first-grader Ben Rosenthal, who embarrassed his parents in real life.

"I was mortified, because everybody turned and looked to us," said Ben's dad. "But then in the next split second I thought how lucky I am to have a child who writes for my show."

Skrovan said he and his wife play a little game during arguments after she sees his eyes shift.

"That's immediately the cue for her to go, 'This is not for show,' " said Skrovan. "Then I remind her how much we get paid, and she goes, 'OK, it's for the show.' "

The classic moments inspired by Ben Rosenthal's essay and the Cawleys' suitcase could be voted among the 10 favorite shows that CBS will repeat next season to fill Monday nights because Rosenthal and company aren't making a full season of new ones. Asked what he would say to longtime fans who look forward to new episodes, Rosenthal was succinct and unsentimental: "Goodbye."

And I don't think he was kidding.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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