By and large, the key to a successful food and travel show is its host. Stanley Tucci’s Italian series, for example, is like being led around a city by someone charming enough to get you seats at all the best spots. Anthony Bourdain’s, meanwhile, could show you all the backstreet hole-in-the-wall places where local people actually eat.
And then there’s Somebody Feed Phil, on Netflix. For four years – or more if you count its PBS precursor, I’ll Have What Phil’s Having – the show has operated on a simple premise: dropping the world’s most delighted man into some of the best food towns on earth, and watching as he struggles to comprehend that he actually gets to do this for a living. It’s deliberately lightweight and mainstream and, thanks to its host, Philip Rosenthal, incredibly popular. Not for nothing is his production company called Lucky Bastards.
But then Rosenthal knows a lot about the power of the mainstream. Before his second career as a host took off, he was the creator and showrunner of Everybody Loves Raymond, a sitcom that may have occasionally baffled critics, but drew viewers in their tens of millions. Speaking over Zoom from a colossal spare room in his Los Angeles home – a teddy bear here, a guitar there – Rosenthal, 62, gives every impression of being exactly as delighted doing press interviews as he is wolfing down gambas al ajillo on a Madrid backstreet.
“I’m impressed a lot,” he says with a wide grin that almost never leaves his face. “People have even said to me: ‘It looks like you love everything.’ And the truth is, I do love everything, or at least everything I put in the show.”
In Somebody Feed Phil’s upcoming fifth season, Rosenthal very gently stretches the parameters of what he’s willing to put in the show. When he originally pitched it, his tagline was essentially: “Imagine if Bourdain was frightened of everything.” But now, in one episode, you can see him happily munching his way through a pile of bugs.
“I never want to be rude,” he says. “I never want to insult anybody’s culture or even their personal feelings. So generally, if it’s served to me, I’m going to taste it at the very least.”
I’ve interviewed people from food shows before and, without naming any names, the constant consumption that their job requires has a way of souring them a little. In person they’re often bloated and ungrateful and impossible to impress. But Rosenthal appears to be the precise opposite: trim, happy, almost vibrating with enthusiasm. Does he ever have to fake it on camera, I wonder.
Apparently not. “I want to be excited when I eat,” he says, explaining that on shooting days he’ll usually eat nothing but what he’s given for the show. “You know how they do dog food commercials? They don’t feed the dog until the camera rolls. So, I’m the dog.”
There’s a refreshing lack of edge to Rosenthal, and this has been his professional calling card for years. When he ran Everybody Loves Raymond, the series became renowned for being a genuinely nice place to work, which is completely at odds with the sea-of-sharks ambience of the wider television industry.
“We learned what not to do from working on other things,” he says. “I had been a little abused in the workplace. Niceties were done away with. We got a note once, when I was working on a popular show. It read: ‘We noticed some of you are coming in in the morning and putting milk on your cereal. The milk is for coffee. The cereal is for snacks. We do not provide breakfast for you.’ And I thought: ‘Wow, the mind it took to think of that memo and then write it and then distribute it to everyone in the company. Is that what you want to tell the people that work for you?’ And I thought there and then: if I’m ever lucky enough to have my own show, we’re gonna have milk on our cereal.”
It’s a decent life lesson, if nothing else. The way Rosenthal tells it, his niceness has a rigidity to it, a way of keeping things the way you want them to be. “There are always power plays, people who try to get your job, people who try to get you fired,” he says. “But once you know who you are and how you want it to be, it gets easy. Everything’s a choice. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get angry and frustrated, because it can be maddening. But as long as you put out ‘nice’, I find that you get ‘nice’ back most of the time.”
Perhaps my favourite Rosenthal project ever is Exporting Raymond, a 2010 documentary about his visit to Russia, which had just bought the rights to Everybody Loves Raymond. Throughout the film, we see his capacity for niceness get tested to its limits. He gives notes to the Russian producers, and he is blanked. The costume designer wants everyone dressed in couture. At one point – and this might qualify as the darkest Rosenthal has ever been on camera – he stands, forlorn, in a mouldy, dimly lit studio corridor. “Listen,” he sighs, motioning to a flickering fluorescent light. “You can actually hear the cancer.”
“That’s my family’s favourite film, because of how much I suffered,” he says with a smile when I bring it up. “I don’t know why the Russians invited me. The comedy of the film transcends that specific situation and becomes about how hard it is to get your ideas across to anyone else. I have that in my house.”
But, in a very Rosenthal way, the Russian series eventually attained wild success. “We’re in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful adaptation of a show in another country in history,” he tells me. “And I take no credit for this, because they didn’t listen to me at all. They did exactly what they wanted. I once saw a clip of the show on YouTube and, all of a sudden, the door opens and a nurse walks in. A cartoon of a nurse with big breasts and her blouse cut down to here, and big hips swivelling, like ‘whoo, whoo, whoo’. I called the company and I said, ‘What is this? We never had this in the show.’ And they said: ‘We like nurses.’ That’s it. You can’t fight it. And it worked. Good for them.”
With his front-of-camera career going better than ever, I ask if he still thinks about returning to writing sitcoms. And, just for a flicker, the Rosenthal smile drops. “I do write sitcoms, but nobody wants them,” he says. “Every year I write one or two scripts, usually with other people. I don’t have the time to run a show any more, but what I would do is supervise another younger person. I’m happy to co-create, I’m happy to mentor, I’m happy to help and fix. I know how to do that. But nobody wants them. I don’t know what it is. I’m gonna guess that it’s me. Maybe I don’t have it any more.”
Happily, at least, he still has his travel shows, and a new food podcast and book, to keep him going. And he is a passionate advocate of travel as a way to broaden minds. His eyes were first opened to travel in his early 20s, when he took a courier flight to Europe. “I was 23, and back then DHL would send their cargo as a passenger’s excess baggage. So they would buy you a coach ticket to one of their cities, and give you all the luggage tags for their cargo. And when you got off the plane in Frankfurt, there’s a man standing in the terminal with a DHL sign. You hand him the luggage tags, and you are free to go. You now have two weeks on your own to do whatever you want, and then come back and do the same thing on the return flight. I did that three times, and it changed my life.
“Here’s what I’ve learned in my travels,” he continues. “Most people are so much better than their governments. You meet sweet people everywhere, even in these countries that we’re supposed to hate. It’s not the people, it’s who’s in charge. And they’re the ones who are in the news. So we make these crazy generalisations about the people. It’s never the people. It’s these jerks.”
As we wrap up, Rosenthal’s talk turns to Covid. There are more episodes of Somebody Feed Phil to come after this run ends – “We filmed them in the sweet spot between Delta and Omicron” – but he is sincere in his belief that, now the world is starting to open up again, people should go and explore as much of it in person as they’re able to, rather than seeing it on screen.
“Isn’t it that much sweeter now?” he asks. “Just to go to a pub, to go to a restaurant, to get on a plane and travel, just to be with your friends and family or meet new people? It is something that you can never take for granted again. I never want to lose this feeling. So my message to people is very easy: go.”