Phil Rosenthal Mourns His Parents Helen and Max Through ‘Somebody Feed Phil’: ‘It’s Our Little Tribute We’ll Always Have’
In 2019, veteran TV writer and producer Phil Rosenthal realized he had to move forward without one half of what he thought was “the best part” of his show — but more devastating than that problem was the personal heartbreak that came with it.
In between Seasons 2 and 3 of “Somebody Feed Phil,” Rosenthal’s Netflix food and travel show, his mother, Helen, died from ALS. For the first two seasons, Rosenthal would dial Helen and his father, Max, on Skype to regale them with stories about each day’s adventure. The heart and humor of their responses was a large part of what kept viewers watching.
“They were the part that connected the audience to a family,” he says. “I know the audience loves them, because they write to me and tell me. Whenever I post a picture with them, I get the biggest response. I feel like I owe everything that’s good in my life to them.”
To honor Helen, Rosenthal wrote a companion cookbook and donated the proceeds to the nonprofit organization I Am ALS. In the show, they “found a way to carry on without my mom by having my dad tell a joke every episode,” Rosenthal explains. “Not only did it keep him in the show — it kept him in life. It gave him something to enjoy, because he was in his mid-90s already.”
In 2021, at age 95, Max died. Again, “Somebody Feed Phil” took a show-must-go-on approach while refusing to leave the spirits of Helen and Max behind.
Episodes of Season 5 concluded with “A Joke for Max,” a segment featuring a rotating cast, including collaborators from Rosenthal’s days as the creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” a show that featured Max in occasional guest shots. In Season 6 came “Tribute to Helen and Max,” an episode that diverged from the regular format, functioning instead as an oral history of Helen and Max’s relationship.
“There wasn’t a master plan. Just like any episode, we have scenes we think we’re going to do, and we leave room for serendipity,” Rosenthal says of how he and his brother, executive producer Rich Rosenthal, approached the episode. “So, I said, ‘What if we ordered Zabar’s and just talk over breakfast?
“We never articulated that this was our grieving process, to make this show. It just was,” Rosenthal says. “It’s only analysis with a professional or on your own when or someone asks you that you get reflective about it. We just thought we should do this. There was no question. If Netflix had said no, I think I would have paid for it myself anyway. It’s our little tribute that we’ll always have, and their grandchildren will always have.”
Rosenthal found space for discovery within his grief. Over bagels with his brother, their wives and their parents’ friends, he came to a realization about how his parents met for the first time, and how that impacted who he became.
As told by Lee Goodman, a friend of the family since 1947, Helen was drawn to Max after he made her laugh at a New Jersey nightclub — he was standing at the microphone, telling jokes just like he would on “Somebody Feed Phil” decades later.
“It was news to me. I honestly didn’t know that she first saw him doing stand-up on an amateur night,” Rosenthal says. “And then suddenly you realize: If he’s not funny that night, I’m not here.”
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