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Richard Lewis is No Longer in Pain … Well Sort of …

Updated: Feb 28

Richard Lewis is No Longer in Pain … Well Sort of …

by Ronald Sklar

“It wasn’t a very romantic proposal,” Richard Lewis tells me about how he offered to tie the knot with his wife. “It wasn’t in front of the Eiffel Tower. In fact, it was in the bedroom – I had tall black socks on and my boxer shorts. I mean, I don’t even want to sleep with myself! And my back was to her, and I was looking out the window and she was in bed reading some book of Yiddish expressions and I had my grandfather’s skinny white legs. I’m allergic to the sun, so they can’t be any whiter. It was like a bad Jewish porn movie. And I said, ‘I think I have to.’”

And he did. The ending is happy – an unlikely finish for a man who, for over thirty-five years, made a living out of parading on stage his dancing triplet act of id, ego and superego, showboating his deeply complicated misery, and just barely navigating himself through his stream of consciousness. In his fifties now but still youthful looking, Lewis is happily married and seriously sober.

“I got sober almost twelve years ago,” he says. “I wish I could just have a couple of drinks again, but I can’t. Now, though, I have so much more clarity about who I am and so much more gratitude about being alive. I was somehow able to accept the love of a great woman. I have found a really solid, wonderful, bright, spiritual, hip, rock and roll woman. I found someone perfect for me. My therapist, in some demonic voice that was directed right at me, said, ‘This is as good as it gets.’ And I just knew exactly what she meant.

“I’m living a much more principled life. I’m much more grateful and much more relaxed. This may sound a little grandiose, but I’m much more able to take praise. I’ve worked my ass off for thirty-five years. I basically dedicated my life to making millions of people laugh. I have a beautiful, lovely wife. I don’t have kids. I have some great friends. After I turned fifty, I said, I’m going to stay away from all the screw heads; I’m going to do as much as I can to help other people and stay fearless on stage. I was on my way out -- I was definitely on my way to check out. Once I got sober, I got another shot at doing all this again. I have such a clarity about things now that I go on stage and I’m crazier than I’ve ever been.”

Lucky for us that his bliss does not get in the way of our good time. He wears his newfound happiness well, even though it’s still in basic black. And with his recurring role on the wildly successful Curb Your Enthusiasm (playing himself), Lewis is being discovered by a whole new generation of fans. With this in mind, he has decided to release his classic, decades-old cable specials in a comprehensive DVD collection, called Richard Lewis: Concerts from Hell – the Vintage Years (Image Entertainment).

“I really did popularize that phrase ['…from hell']," he says of his creation that has latched onto pop culture like a demon on Linda Blair. “Forget about comics – I mean comics are notorious for stealing material and not being very ethical, but when I saw it on commercials and things like that, I couldn’t take it anymore. I realized that the best way to get credit is through Bartlett’s [the famous quotation reference resource] and I had a hell of a time getting it in there. I just couldn’t.”

The DVD features three of Lewis’ breakthrough cable specials, including Showtime’s I’m In Pain and the cable ACE-award-nominated HBO specials I’m Exhausted, and I’m Doomed.

He says, “After five years on Curb, I started to see the demographics of people coming into the concert halls, and I realize I have a whole new fan base. I’m so grateful for Larry.”

Curb creator Larry David, who knew Lewis since they were both twelve-years old, decided to take a chance on his friend to see if the chemistry was right to include him in his ground-breaking, post-Seinfeld series for HBO. Although Lewis doesn’t often sit well with an upbeat, optimistic outcome, the result was prognosis positive.

“People are fanatical about Curb, because Larry only does ten shows a year, and the anticipation level is so high that people know these shows backwards and forwards,” Lewis says. “One guy on the HBO site said that if you play the third episode of the third year backwards, like a Beatles album, Richard Lewis is dead.

“I call Larry Citizen David. I’ve known him since I was twelve, and yet people are very intimidated by him. He’s a genius in many regards. I show up, I yell at him, and I go home. It’s the most surreal acting job in history. We are absolutely being the way we are off camera. I often totally forget that I am miked up. I am often screaming about real life stuff. Then the scene will start, and we will use some of that in the show. Most people in the show aren’t playing themselves – they’re playing a character. But to know somebody for over forty years and then to hear, ‘action,’ it’s sort of thrilling. I’ve learned so much from Larry. Less is really more with him. When we’re being ourselves, that’s when we’re really scoring. My goal is to set him up and to irritate the hell out of him. When I annoy him, that’s when I know I’m doing my best work.”

It’s been a long, stress-induced, uncomfortable, rocky road for Lewis, so sitting pretty, as he is doing now, is a creature comfort he will have to ease into. He says, “I was born in Brooklyn and raised in Jersey -- raised is a stretch, but [my parents] tried. It was a little crowded in the womb. Once I came out and heard what was in store for me, I wanted to get back. I was the first baby who wanted to go back and stay there. I would have paid my mother rent. They meant well -- they had no tools.”

His first taste of fame was in high school, as a victim on Candid Camera, in a stunt that sounded like something out of his act. Candid host Allen Funt came to his New Jersey school and fooled him into taking a college entrance test concluding that he was best suited to be a shepherd.

He recounts the experience: “When I was in high school, I had to take all these exams to get into college. There were so many exams, my head was spinning. Yet I would do anything to get out of gym class, even taking another exam. I left gym frightened when I saw any gym equipment. When I saw ropes hanging. I would say, ‘I have a venereal disease.’ The gym coach hated me. I was terrified of anything but softball. When the wrestling mats were up, I would say, ‘I lost my tongue in a blender.’ So I got out of class so that I could take this test. When the test said that I would be best suited to be a shepherd. I absolutely freaked out. It turns out, twenty-five years later, [Allen Funt’s son and Candid Camera host] Peter had me reprise the stunt. I played the guidance counselor and talked to some students. I got paid a lot more from Peter than the ten dollars that Allen gave me.”

From there, it was naturally onto the comedy clubs of New York and LA (“I would have gone anywhere there were comedy clubs and television shows.”). It was there where he met and bonded with some fun-loving, life-long buds like David Letterman, Jay Leno, Andy Kaufman, Billy Crystal, Freddie Prinze and Jimmie “J.J.” Walker. Lewis calls his posse the Class of ’71.

“Larry David came in a year after,” he recalls. “He was an amazing standup, but he didn’t do the traditional thing that most of us did. We all tried to get to Carson, Carnegie Hall, HBO specials. Instead, Larry would storm off stage eighty per cent of the time when people weren’t listening or ordering food. He still won’t admit that he called me Mr. Lewis. [David] said, ‘Mr. Lewis, can you drive me across town?’ He won’t admit to it.

“I’m like a comic historian. I’m very proud to have started back then. When you see the kind of careers these people have, it’s remarkable. To sit opposite them on a talk show, at our age, it’s sort of like when Carson would have Rickles on -- cronies. Those were often times the greatest nights on those shows – when the friends would just get together.”

He would experience many nights like that – close to sixty of them – when David Letterman invited him to his revolutionary new series on NBC.

He says, “When Letterman got his show in ’82, I had been a comic for eleven years. I was doing okay but I didn’t have a real following. Dave was a tremendous fan of mine. He said, ‘Be on the show as often as you want, but only panel [not stand up]. Because of Dave, I have never done stand up on television for over twenty years. I became sort of like an Oscar Levant to his Jack Paar. Letterman has always been really great to his friends who he really cared about. As it turned out, I’ve done close to sixty shows.”

Although he would never cop to it, his best revenge against his demons was living well. His star began to rise and fans – in increasing numbers and in higher places – began to dig him.

“I’ve known the Clintons for a long time,” he says. “I’m a good friend of [Rolling Stone] Ronnie Wood’s. My shrink would tell me that it’s not that crazy that they’re fans. They see you and they like you. I used to batter myself because I didn’t believe it. I didn’t feel like I deserved to be liked by people I was a fan of – George Segal, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood. But I paid my dues. I’ve been doing this for thirty-five fucking years. Ronnie Howard wanted me for the role of an Irish newspaperman [in his film, The Paper. The role went to Randy Quaid], and I’m thinking, what am I doing here? My only goal in the audition was not to slip up and call him Opie. When the Stones are riffing to me about Lenny Bruce, and Bruce Springsteen is talking to me about Curb Your Enthusiasm, I’m thinking, is this happening to me? It became surreal.”

Not that he’s a name dropper or a star effer. He gets his highs now from the simple things in life: “Some guy got out of a cab and said, ‘Richard, thank you!’ It was as meaningful to me as if a celebrity said it.”

Although Lewis is still crazy after all these years, we are finally getting a chance to revisit the seeds of his instability in these three classic DVDs (complete with over 80 minutes of candid, intimate interviews about his life and career). We also get to witness one other thing he has given up besides alcohol – his Dead Sea Scrolls – or rather, his long, Beautiful-Mind-like pages of notes to which he would refer while on stage.

“For years, agents and managers wanted me to blow them off,” he says of his beloved on-stage notes. “They always thought I would be more effective performing without it, and you know what, they’re right. I spend weeks and weeks and weeks preparing for shows. What I used to put on these papers, now I have to try to remember in my head. When I hear ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Richard Lewis,’ I have no clue what’s going to happen. I’m free of the scrolls, I’m free of the big piano on the stage, and now I just let it rip. I’m so full of fear when I hit that stage, that I don’t think I’ve ever been better. And the only reason I say that is because I’ve been at the shows, watching myself!”

One more thing he has let drift away – and this may be the biggest release of all – are his regular therapy sessions, after fifteen years.

He says, “I figure, if I don’t go six or seven times, I can go to Armani and buy a suit. Why continue building [my therapist] a new den? As I left, she called after me, ‘consider me a resource.’ I do prefer a female therapist. I prefer talking about women with a woman. When I would tell a guy therapist, ‘we were up in a loft and she was doing this to me,’ their tongues were hanging out like wolves. I could not stand talking about sex with other guys. I would rather a woman think of me as a womanizer and a sexist than have some horny male shrink.”

That female therapist undoubtedly received an earful about one of Lewis’ favorite subjects: females. He says, “I went out with a lot of younger women, and a lot of them were brilliant, but they were ‘in-training’ to me. It would be like boot camp: ‘okay you have to see these Truffaut films this week, and then all the Kubricks.’ I had to bring them up to my age. It became so obvious to me that what was more important was to be understood. If I had to explain my humor, that was like the death – when someone would say to me, ‘what does that mean?’ I couldn’t take it. Being understood is really an important thing."

Lewis fans – all of whom understand him completely -- are still waiting for one more DVD collection featuring the legendary comedian: his four-year stint as Marty on the classic Jamie Lee Curtis sitcom, Anything But Love.

“It still took seventeen years into the business to be on a show with Jamie Lee Curtis,” he says. “I was so ready for it. They were having trouble finding a co-star and Jamie Lee was a fan of my standup. After the audition, she handed me a note that read, ‘you’re my Marty.’ And, of course, I figured, it’s over. I’ll never get it. Whenever they say, ‘you got it,’ you usually don’t get it. But there I am, watching Roseanne and I see a commercial [for Anything But Love] and 30 million people are seeing my face. I’m on Howard Stern for one minute and I’m selling out two six-thousand-seat venues. Once I hit, I was so ready.

“The problem was [concerning Anything But Love’s eventual cancellation], we were on after Roseanne, and her ratings were so insanely high. We had 23 million people watching and the network was upset, because Roseanne had 34 million people watching. But when I reflect upon it, it made me a household name.”

Richard Lewis – married man and household name – is still just getting used to his new-found inner peace and trying not to let it interfere with what he does best.

He reassures us, “Even though I’m sober, I still have a bottomless pit of dysfunctions and fears and phobias. I’m just more alert that they’re happening. For instance, I still spend five hours looking for my reading glasses, and why am I looking in the engine of my car? The last few years of my life touring have been the best years of my life touring. I don’t preach or moralize about anything. I know now that I am out of my mind -- when I was drunk, it was a way of avoiding knowing it. I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years and fortunately, it’s working out.”

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: October 1, 2005.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2005 Lance Staedler. Courtesy of Richard Lewis. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2005 William Claxton. Courtesy of Richard Lewis. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2005 William Claxton. Courtesy of Richard Lewis. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2005 Karin Martinez. Courtesy of Richard Lewis. All rights reserved.


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