Hope Sinks

Between optimism and despair, there's comic (and author) Richard Lewis

The only thing Lewis keeps to himself is the name of the woman he's been dating for a few years; all else is subject to scrutiny. Yes, the man's life is an open book--and it's available for $23 in the self-help section of your local bookstore. That said, he is also a recluse, afraid to even dine in the hotel's restaurant for fear of being spotted and, well, stalked. The man who recently completed a month-long book tour, who spoke with fans who now treat him like a totem of recovery as they spill their own tales of journeys to and from private hells, would prefer to shut out the world, to stay hidden. The extrovert is, in fact, a paranoid introvert, and he can't explain the paradox.

"I am not sure I know how," he says, head in hands. "On the surface, it seems like a lot of bullshit. I think, if I have to trace it to the origins, I felt so invisible as an adolescent and so misunderstood that I had this insatiable need for attention...I needed so much to talk about who I was, because I felt so unlistened to. There's a thin line between entertainment and narcissism, but I long past realized my problems are so much like everyone else's and I just had a certain way of saying it and that I had to talk about Richard.

"Observational humor has a place, and there are great observational comedians, but it was the last thing I ever wanted to do. I felt so judged. I never wanted to say, 'Hey, did you guys ever notice?' I didn't want to tell anyone how to feel. Maybe that's a little heavy-handed, but that's how I felt. I had to talk about, 'This is what Richard Lewis feels,' and fortunately, everybody has similar dysfunctions."

The Prince of Pain feels good: Richard Lewis’ sobriety has given him newfound clarity. He now hates himself even more.
William Claxton
The Prince of Pain feels good: Richard Lewis’ sobriety has given him newfound clarity. He now hates himself even more.

That Lewis is even on the road this summer, playing clubs and casinos, is hard to fathom. By his own admission, the book tour left him completely fried. He made the talk-show rounds, and he even did a 48 Hours, which completely devastated him. Watching Dan Rather talk about him made him feel at once proud and embarrassed. "I was going, 'What the fuck?'" Lewis recalls. "I am looking at Dan Rather talking about Richard Lewis--I was alone watching it--and I swear to God, I had no fuckin' idea who I was."

But Lewis is too restless to take a break; being sober has made him even more manic, if only because he's trying to make up for time lost at the bottom of a bottle. "I kid now: I say I have so much more clarity that I despise myself even more," he says, smiling. "The truth is, I do, in some regard, but on the other hand, in reality, I understand myself so much more that I have so much more I think I can say and I have to say." So he's pitching a couple of ideas for TV. He's writing a play, in which he'll likely appear as some recognizable version of himself. He's working on a screenplay, of which there are more than a few already sitting in a drawer. He wants to act. He wants to direct. In life, as onstage, he can't stand still for a single moment.

"I can't get him to take up any hobbies," says Larry David. "There's no relaxation for him. He's not outside doing anything that most normal people do. If I could impart one thing to him, it would be the importance of recreation, but I can't get that through to him...He's restless, but he's just pacing in his room."

Thirty years ago, Lewis became a comedian because the Catskills comics for whom he wrote jokes didn't like his material--too personal, they groused, too real. He finally leapt on the stage in 1971 only a few months after the death of his father, a successful New Jersey caterer. He wanted to prove his worth. The recovering addict in him knows he has. The neurotic comic in him can't be sure.

"I read a letter given to me by my mother, who passed away a year and a half ago," he says. "I wrote it to my father after one of his many heart attacks right before he died. It was very revealing. I was just out of college only a year, and I was giving him a rundown of everything I was trying to do, and it was astonishing to me. I had about 15 fuckin' things in the fire, and none of them really panned out, but I was really impressed with my work ethic. I wrote, 'They're starting cable television, and I'm doing this puppet show with this fuckin' guy, and I'm doing the voices...' I clearly wanted to impress upon him that I was going to try and make it. But I still didn't think I was going to be a comedian. I don't know when that hit me. I think it hit me very fast after he died that I had to go onstage.

"By that point, I was also pretty fed up with these comedians saying, 'That's not funny.' I was like, 'Hey, fuck you, it's hilarious.' To me it was, anyway. If I am talking about a wart on my dick, why should they talk about it?"

He pauses, as though looking around for a microphone. "Not that I've had many. That was a horrible image." He shrugs, sighs. "I could have said 'a rainbow over my house.' Well, 30 years of psychoanalysis, every now and then something like that comes out. What can ya do?"

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