Paul Reiser on ‘Stranger Things 2,’ Working With Matt Weiner and ‘Mad About You’ Revival

Paul Reiser Variety Facetime
Patrick James Miller for Variety

There’s a new boss in charge of the lab in “Stranger Things”: Paul Reiser moves into the Netflix hit as Dr. Owens, in a role he says was written for him. He’s also producing the comedy “There’s … Johnny!,” set for a Nov. 16 launch on Hulu.

How did you get cast in “Stranger Things 2”?

This was the easiest casting thing I’ve ever done! I got a call two days after it premiered. My agent said, “Have you ever heard of this show? The Duffer Brothers want to meet you.” They couldn’t be more delightful. They said, “We wrote this thing with you in mind. We’ve kinda been calling the character Paul Reiser. Now that we’re casting, we should probably call Paul Reiser.” So I said, “Well, you’d be crazy to put someone else in it, wouldn’t you? And I’m free.”

It’s not bad being typecast as yourself.

Depends what they had in mind. They surprised me. How did they even know me? And then I realized they grew up on “Aliens.” They told me their father introduced them to “Diner” when they were really young. That’s a cool household. These guys are geniuses. They’re so pure in the best sense of it. They’re the best combo of inventiveness and the facility to execute it.

What questions did you have for them?

I had all the questions, but they had very few answers because I don’t think they had written anything. They just told me, “You’re a guy who is coming in to clean up the mess of Matthew Modine [Dr. Martin Brenner].” So the town is understandably suspicious. I asked, “Am I a good guy or just another government weasel?” They laughed and said, “You’ll have to see.” So I knew nothing going in. You’ll just have to watch it.

How much of your role is an homage to “Aliens”?

I don’t know if it’s an homage. I think they might have thought of me because that film was such an classic. That role, everybody knows that guy. That baggage is something that they wanted – to whatever extent it resonated 30 years later, I think they wanted that resonance in there. It’s playing off that vibe off that — the guy you’re not sure you can trust.

You’re also in Amazon’s “Red Oaks,” another show set in the 1980s. What is it about that decade?

I don’t know — it certainly wasn’t the shoulder pads or the mullets! (Laughs.) When you go back in time, you can enjoy it, there’s a nostalgia piece to it. I don’t know that the ’80s are particularly fascinating. I just think these creators loved those movies and what came out of that time and went back to it. There are people who write movies that take place in the ’60s and that’s their sweet spot. Woody Allen is still mining a certain part of his life even though he’s 70-something years in. In a lot of creative people, there’s a certain sweet spot they always go back to mine.

And you just worked with Matthew Weiner — how did the filming of “The Romanoffs” go?

I only got one script, I have no idea what the rest of the series looks like. It was a great script and a fun part. That was an easy thing. Two weeks with Matt Weiner, another creative genius and another meticulous artist. “Mad Men,” every box was checked. It was written well. It was shot well. It was set dressed exceptionally. When your set dressing becomes the talk of the town, someone is really guiding the ship. So I knew his talents. He’s a terrific writer. Go to Prague for two weeks and work with Christina Hendricks and Isabelle Huppert?  I don’t see the downside.

And now you’re producing your own show, too. 

I’ve been in this lucky position lately where I get sent some things. “Red Oaks” came along and I was like wow, this is an interesting part. The Duffers, that’s really easy. These guys are little boy geniuses and they’re inviting you to play in their sand box. I’m not in “There’s Johnny” but it’s a labor of love. I’m very proud of it. I love doing that. I love being on the set and guiding it through. And pushing it through to its completion. Which is a very different thing than being an actor in someone else’s thing. But to go back and forth is kind of fun.

Do you consider Johnny Carson a role model?

One of the fun things about doing the Johnny Carson piece “There’s Johnny” is watching the old clips. It was a great reawakening, watching footage I haven’t seen in 40 years. Reliving that and realizing how much I was inspired by him. That world was so inviting. Somewhere in my 15-year-old brain was, “That’s where I want to go. I want to be on that couch someday. And tell jokes to Johnny and make Johnny laugh.” So when I got to do it, it was very trippy. I actually did get on there and made Johnny laugh. It was a dream come true.

So the inevitable question: Would you be willing to do a “Mad About You” revival?

[Laughs.] I find myself less averse to the idea. For the last 17 years, I was so confident in saying I would never go back. It’s like I loved high school but you can’t quite go back. But I’m also seeing that there is a market. Part of what has softened my aversion to it is seeing what it’s meant to people. There is a resonance out there that I was not aware of. I know I’d have fun. Diving into a 30-page script, playing tennis with Helen Hunt — that’s going to be nothing but joy. But what’s the story? I’d have to be convinced there’s a great story to be told — if I felt that was what America needed, if it was a call to duty, if it would help the country. I blame “Will & Grace.”

Things You Didn’t Know About Paul Reiser

AGE: 61 HOMETOWN: New York LAST BOOK READ: “Giant of the Senate,” by Al Franken ON HIS DVR: “Fargo,” “Ray Donovan” and “The Rachel Maddow Show” ROLE MODEL: Johnny Carson