Hope Sinks

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

For the next five days, Richard Lewis will seldom leave his North Dallas hotel room, hidden away at the far end of the top floor with a view of overpasses, office buildings and distant dark clouds. He will venture out only to visit a couple of radio and television stations, to plug his four-night stand at the Improv, and make the short trip to the club every night. But those rare sojourns aside, he will hole up with room service and his laptop, poring over hours' worth of stand-up material stored with such titles as "Mid-Life Crisis" and "Recovery." Lewis spends eight hours a day perusing the material, hoping to recall 10 to 15 minutes' worth of new stuff by the time he takes to the stage he stalks like a twitchy, trendy mental patient clad entirely in black--his clothes andhis mood. "I have categories of six dysfunctions," Lewis says, "and each one has God-knows-how-many hours of material in it." He is proud of this.

Occasionally, Lewis will need to take a break from staring at his own dysfunctions and addictions to bury himself in the phobias and pain of others--writer Richard Yates, for instance, whose new collection of short stories Lewis keeps beside him. "He's very dark, an alcoholic," he says of the dead author, whose writings are thick with gloom. Or maybe Lewis will pop into his portable CD player a disc by the late confessional folkie Tim Hardin, who wrote so viscerally of his anguish you could taste blood and tears on every track. "Heartbreaking shit." The comedian offers his highest praise.

By the way, Richard Lewis swearshe's never been happier.

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

For some three decades, the 53-year-old comic has gotten laughs by disclosing his sexual dysfunctions, his lonely childhood, his life in therapy and, most recently, his alcoholism and near-fatal cocaine overdose a few years back. Late last year, he even published a book about his boozing and subsequent recovery: The Other Great Depression: How I'm Overcoming on a Daily Basis at Least a Million Addictions and Dysfunctions and Finding a Spiritual (Sometimes) Life. Less a memoir than a series of essays, the book reads like his stand-up act: scattered, hyperbolic, melodramatic, anything for a laugh that catches in your throat. It begins with Lewis drowning out his parents' "horrifying noise" with a Mets-Dodgers game in 1962; he then flashes forward 33 years, as he's being rolled down a hospital corridor after a coke OD. An intern is asking him, "Why are you doing this?" Lewis looks up. At the time, he thought he was trying to kill himself. So did his friends.

"I think it was obvious to a lot of people, because I heard them talking about it," says Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeldand, most recently, the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, on which Richard Lewis appears regularly as Richard Lewis, best friend of Larry David. The two attended the same summer camp when they were 13, then became friends again on the comedy-club circuit in 1974; David cast Lewis because he's one of those friends "you can yell at and still remain friends."

The two didn't see much of each other through the '80s and '90s: David was working on Seinfeld, got married, had kids; Lewis remained single and lived some 40 minutes away--light years in Los Angeles. But David knew something was wrong with his old pal. "They said, 'He has a real problem, did you see what he did at this particular party?' There was some concern...Now that he's sober, I don't notice much of a change at all. Except he's not drinking. He's as funny now as he was then."

Lewis long ago crossed the line separating "entertainment and narcissism," as he likes to say. There exists little barrier between performer and paying crowd: To the audience that has felt his pain since 1974, when he made his first appearance on The Tonight Show, he's the best friend you never hear from, except when he comes bearing bad news. To the audience that has seen him sitting beside David Letterman some 50-plus times since 1982, he's the therapy patient who charges admission to his sessions. Spend a couple of hours alone with him, and it doesn't take long to realize he's not doing stand-up. He's doing lie-down.

"I have absolutely no need to write anything that doesn't help me understand why I am feeling the way I do when I wake up," he says. "As narcissistic as that sounds, I don't know if that really is. To pull it off and enlighten someone or have someone feel less alone, then it's not so much narcissistic as it is a talent, I dunno. The only reason I'm saying that out loud is it's odd to be always trying to figure out what makes you tick--literally."

Lewis, even out of the two-drink minimum spotlight, wears grays and blacks, and he looks slightly older in the flesh than he does sitting beside a talk-show host; his face, peppered with gray stubble, is gaunt. When he speaks to an audience of one, he still puts his hand to his forehead so often you'd think he was trying to staunch the bleeding. What you see onstage is but a slightly exaggerated version of the man sitting in this Marriott room. "I like guys who are twisted, who are the same onstage as they are offstage," he explains. "I like guys who are that way--honest."

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."

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 haveto 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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