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When it comes to money, Ray Romano passes the bucks

Ray RomanoRay Romano has one of the best-loved sitcoms on television in "Everybody Loves Raymond." Pretty good for a guy who just 10 years ago, at age 29, was still living with his parents.

Romano hails from the Forest Hills section of Queens, and began his comic career at age 16, forming a troupe called "No Talent" with neighborhood friends. He went to college to major in accounting, but dropped out after two years to pursue comedy. He toiled for years developing his persona, while suffering through jobs including bank teller and futon delivery man. Romano finally got his big break in 1992 with an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." His work later impressed CBS late-night host David Letterman so much that he signed Romano (in a joint effort with CBS) to a development deal. Out of this, "Everybody Loves Raymond," a series not-so-loosely based on Romano's family, was born.

Many awards and a New York Times best-seller, Everything and a Kite, followed.

Bankrate.com spoke with Romano about the perks and pressures of stardom, including the slow rise to the top, and the bizarre circumstance of being an apolitical comedian performing at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

Bankrate.com: You struggled on the circuit for years. Did you ever reach a point when you felt like ditching it out of frustration?

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RAY ROMANO: It takes time to develop, to find your voice and hone your act, so it was hard in the beginning. But you stick at it, you devote your time to it, and if you have any talent at all for it, you'll find it. Then, once you find it, once you're making a living doing stand-up, then you get in a rut because things slow down. You reach a certain level and you can't get any further than that. That point for me came right before the show, actually. I was 11, 12 years in. And don't get me wrong, I was making a living doing stand-up, which for me was like a dream. I was married, I had one kid at the time, I was making a living. It was a modest living, but we were doing OK. But I had reached a level where it seemed that this was where I was going to stay. At one point, I thought, everyone around me is getting all this attention, and these chances, and no one was really knocking on my door. I had done everything, the Tonight Show, the HBO special, and no one expressed any interest in signing me to a development deal. The first time I did Letterman, they signed me to the deal, and that's how the show came.

B: What was it like performing for Clinton and the press at the Correspondents Dinner?

RR: That was as nervous as I get. It was in the second year of the show, and I wasn't even sure anyone knew who I was. I don't think Clinton did. When he came in to say hello, he said "I have family members who are very excited you are doing this," so he was basically saying "I've never heard of you, but my cousin has." It was very nerve racking because I wasn't going to do political humor. This dinner is traditionally all political humor. This was right in the middle of the Lewinsky thing, and Hillary was going to be there, everyone was going to be there, so they wanted to make a point of not having a political comedian, so they got me. When I first heard this, I said I can't do it, I don't do anything political, and they said, "We'll pay you double." It's the worst audience in the world because it's one-half Washington, one-half Hollywood. It's the worst audience you could perform for. There's no real people out there. But it went over well. I did my act, I did my family stuff. It was so surreal. Henry Kissinger came over to me afterward -- "veddy funny stuff." Wow. What is going on? I tried to picture an audience where I would be more nervous than that. How could I be more nervous than the most powerful people in the world, and Hollywood actors? I couldn't think of it. The only thing I could think of is when the first aliens come down and they have their press correspondents dinner. Otherwise, there's no other scenario.

B: You come from a middle-class family in Queens. Once success really kicked in with the show, was it difficult figuring out the best ways to manage the sudden wealth?

RR: Yeah, it still is. First of all, we moved out here, and we had to figure out where to live, and how big a house to buy, and is the show going to stick around, and now you have different problems. They're good problems, but you have problems. I want to help out this person and that person, but if I help this person out we have to help this person out, so you have the kind of problems that go along with that. You can sit around and complain about it, but then you sound like a jerk because you're complaining about having too much money.

B: Did you go stock market crazy like everyone else?

I don't know anything about it. My wife does all the finances. If she ever left me, I swear, I'd be selling futons again. I don't even know if I get paid on this job. I think it's all barter.

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