Like so many comic actors, Paul Reiser got his start in stand-up comedy. But his film and TV career took off so quickly, lots of folks are unaware that he considers stand-up his first love.
Between the hit sitcoms “My Two Dads” and “Mad About You” and acting jobs like his recurring role in the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise, Reiser went 20 years without a stand-up gig. When he returned to the stage a decade ago, he says, it wasn’t exactly like riding a bike.
“It was more like pushing a bike up a hill with your eye,” he jokes, on the phone ahead of his appearance Saturday at the Cabot in Beverly. “It was hard.”
By now, though, it’s mostly a downhill coast. He’s been as busy as ever, with a key part in the blockbuster sci-fi drama “Stranger Things,” a supporting role in “The Kominsky Method,” and the lead in Hulu’s recently released ensemble comedy “Reboot.” Still, he made time for a few dozen stand-up shows this fall and into the new year.
Though he’s grateful for his long career in front of the camera, Reiser finds live comedy more rewarding.
“There’s no waiting,” he explains. “You don’t have to wait six or 12 months to find out what the audience thinks. You don’t have to get approval from a studio to greenlight a show.
“It’s uncomplicated. It’s almost primitive. You show up at a preordained place, you talk, they laugh, then you all go home.”
At this point in his career, when someone recognizes him in public, it could be for any number of the credits on his resume. One fan might want to recite a line from “Diner,” the Barry Levinson film that launched his career in 1982. Another might want to talk about his role in “Whiplash” (2014); a younger fan probably knows him as Dr. Owens from “Stranger Things.”
Mostly, though, he says with a laugh, they know him, but can’t quite put a finger on just how. On his social media accounts, he identifies himself as “The guy from the thing with the thing.”
At a hockey game recently, several people approached him to say hello. None could recall which role they knew him from. He wanted to help, but “it’s very inelegant to start listing your credits,” he says with a laugh.
In “Reboot,” created by Steven Levitan (who also created “Modern Family”), Reiser plays Gordon Gelman, a veteran TV producer whose hacky hit show “Step Right Up” is being remade for a contemporary audience. It’s a sitcom about the cast of a revived sitcom.
With his daughter Hannah (played by Rachel Bloom) serving as showrunner, the reboot pits Gordon’s team of old-school gag writers against Hannah’s younger script doctors, who are proudly diverse and deeply attuned to the world’s injustices.
Making the show has been “a treat,” Reiser says. “That world is so uber familiar to me — the writers, that world of making a TV show. I’ve already lived it for 30 years.”
Given the premise, the cast gets to play with the changing nature of comedy. What’s funny to Gordon and his old colleagues often comes across to Hannah and her crew as deeply offensive. It’s a debate that’s been playing out in the comedy world in recent years. It’s real, Reiser says.
“There’s a big word with a V, which I hate. Verisimilitude? I can’t use it. It just sounds like a law firm.”
(Fans of “Diner” might recall Reiser’s character, Modell, taking issue with the word “nuance.” That’s now the name of his production company.)
Any writers’ room is by nature a combustible environment, he says. In this case, with the two groups having so little in common, “that’s four walls closed around a lot of tension. Everyone is trying to be funny, and there are a lot of differences. So it’s by definition really ripe for comedy.”
In his stand-up act, Reiser habitually avoids any hint of controversy.
“I don’t get a particular kick out of stirring the pot,” he says. “My natural inclination has always been, ‘Let’s make people comfortable.’ I myself don’t like being made uncomfortable.”
In a time so drenched in animosity, Reiser says he sometimes feels self-conscious about the fact that his own style of comedy is so innocuous. Then he reminds himself — whether he’s making light of being married for 30 years, or teaching and learning from his children, or how his 60s compare to his 20s — that taking the lighthearted approach can be a balm.
“With the world as taut and tense as it is,” he says, “there actually is value in just giving people an evening of laughing. People can relax. They’re not gonna get poked.”
If there’s a culture war between old and new ideas of what’s fair game for comedy, he’s diplomatic about it.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing for people to be sensitive,” he says. If an older person — Reiser is 66 — “misfires” with a joke, to him, the important thing is the conversation that follows.
“I don’t believe somebody should necessarily be canceled if they said the wrong thing,” he says. “What’s fun in ‘Reboot’ is you get to have the joke, you get to have the sensitivity flag raised, and then you get to have the conversation that follows.”
Levitan, he says, is a master at striking that kind of balancing act.
“You can have a genuine heartfelt moment, but it doesn’t get sappy. It can be written intelligently and truthfully. But then it pops with some funny.”
At the Cabot, 286 Cabot St., Beverly, Oct. 22 at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $29.50. 978-927-3100, thecabot.org
E-mail James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.