Jewish Journal


March 13, 2008

Richard Lewis, comedian from heaven


Richard Lewis.  Photo by Karin Martinez

Richard Lewis. Photo by Karin Martinez

The husband from hell. The uncle from hell. The comedian from hell. Richard Lewis is fully aware he has problems. And by the end of his set, his stand-up audiences know he has problems.

Known as comedy's "Prince of Pain," he is a comedian who feeds off his own neuroses and is doing his best to keep stable. A recovering alcoholic, Lewis has been sober for 14 years -- an experience he wrote about in his 2000 memoir, "The Other Great Depression" (Public Affairs Books, $14.95), which has been reissued with a new afterword that reflects his progress as he continues to struggle with addiction.

Much has changed since the book's original release seven years ago. The 60-year-old comic has gotten married, and he's a regular on the HBO comedy series "Curb Your Enthusiasm." With younger audiences coming to see his stand-up, Lewis decided it was time to update the book for a generation that follows blog posts about Amy Winehouse's travails while blithely singing along to her hit "Rehab."

"My career in stand-up has mushroomed greatly, thanks to 'Curb,' and there are a million younger people who are now college age and drinking," Lewis said. "Being sober, I'm able to literally help other people save their lives."

Lewis's alcoholism surfaced in his 20s and 30s, driven by feelings of self-loathing. After completing several well-received TV comedy specials and landing a role opposite actress Jamie Lee Curtis on the sitcom "Anything But Love" in 1988, he was convinced he had his drinking and drug use under control.

"The more successful I got, the more convinced I felt that I could become even more successful if I had a few more drinks before I performed," he wrote.

The highs and lows that fed his comedy began to blur, and Lewis walked away from stand-up and acting for almost three years as he continued drinking.

"My career was in suspended animation. Nothing worthwhile was going on, and I was too depressed and too addicted to booze by this point to make things happen on my own," he wrote.

In 1994, he entered a hospital emergency room, hallucinating from a cocaine overdose. After interventions and rehab, Lewis sobered up and reached a turning point when he was able to stand in front of a roomful of addicts and admit, "I'm Richard, and I'm an alcoholic."

"I needed a higher power in my life to help me in sobriety, which led me to become more and more spiritual. I can't be the captain of my own ship," Lewis said in a phone interview.

In the book's new afterword, Lewis revealed that while he feels better about himself on a physical, emotional and spiritual level, his sobriety is still a day-to-day challenge. "The cold hard truth is that if I take for granted the progress I have made, I'm a goner," he wrote.

Born the same year as the infamous "UFO crash" in Roswell, N.M., Lewis insinuates that his psychological and emotional problems could have resulted from the fact that he's "not from this earth." But his sense of disconnect could just as easily be attributed to his Jewish upbringing in New Jersey.

Lewis' father worked as a kosher caterer, and the comedian said in an interview that the family's refrigerator was regularly stocked with leftover melon balls rather than cold cuts. His mother, an actress, played most of Neil Simon's Jewish mothers in the local community theater.

Lewis was the star of the youth basketball team at the local Jewish community center, and at sports camp in 1963, 12-year-old Lewis met a tall, gangly kid: Larry David.

The two became fast friends a decade later, after they recognized each other as struggling young comics at New York's famed Improv club.

Lewis says he became a comedian to fill the void left by his father's death in 1971. The more he talked about his neurotic family onstage, the more popular he became.

While he can't exorcize the memories of a childhood filled with emotional abuse and arguing parents, Lewis said he has learned he shouldn't dwell on things he cannot change.

"Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies," he said.

To complement the book's reissue, a DVD documentary follows Lewis during his original tour for "The Other Great Depression" in 2001. "Richard Lewis Naked" (Peaceful Chaos Productions Ltd., $19.95) offers a behind-the-scenes look at the stress and pressure of traveling from city to city for readings, signings and television interviews. Lewis said it was the hardest three or four months of his life.

"We were working on a bunch of stuff, almost unbearable, and she captured it," he said of longtime friend and publicist, Michelle Marx, who shot the footage.

And much like Lewis's stand-up routines, the documentary captures the humor that springs from the comedian's stress as he prepares for on-camera interviews with "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart and "Today" co-host Matt Lauer.

In addition to the documentary and the reissue of his biography, Lewis is also proud of another achievement. In October 2006, "The Yale Book of Quotations" recognized Lewis for creating the phrase, "the ______ from hell."

Lewis claims to have created the line in the 1970s, fitting it into his stand-up act as he complained about the many people in his life who have caused him grief and annoyance -- the waiter from hell, the doctor from hell, the landlord from hell.

However, "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" rejected Lewis' claim, which inspired his character's quest for immortality in Bartlett's in the third season "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode "The Nanny From Hell."

According to a 2002 Entertainment Weekly (EW) article after the episode aired, Bartlett's first began hearing from Lewis' camp about "the ______ from hell" quote in the early 1990s.

"He had his lawyer get in touch with me, and they sent a couple of tapes," Bartlett's general editor Justin Kaplan said. But "I spoke to people who had been at Yale before the time of his first taped broadcast, who said [the line] was a common idiom." In response, Lewis told EW that he traces popular usage of the line back to his early days on David Letterman's show.

"When I saw other comedians going 'the blank from hell,' it really bugged me," he said.

Lewis rarely uses the phrase today, but he confessed that as a sober comic he's more inclined to refer to himself as a "______ from hell."

His stand-up comedy remains a constant in his life, and Lewis is currently on his "Misery Loves Company" tour. Because he tries out new material on the road, he says he won't play Los Angeles unless it's a major concert venue.

"I like to come home and relax," he said.

In the coming years, Lewis said, he plans to write screenplays, pitch new shows and continue acting -- recent turns have included Rabbi Richard Glass in "7th Heaven" and the Golem in "The Simpsons." Of course, he also hopes he'll be back for another season of "Curb."

For now, the Prince of Pain plans to relax with his wife in Los Angeles, but said he'll be performing until he "physically can't do it anymore, and then I'll have to retire."

While the bar mitzvah of his sobriety passed last year without so much as a "Today I am a sober man," he said his faith plays a part in his life.

"Of all the changes in attitude I've experienced since putting down the drink, easily the most perplexing and intellectually mind-blowing is being able to acknowledge and accept my own ascent in spirituality," he wrote.

Lewis attributes part of that spiritual awakening to Judaism.

"I was born a Jew and shall be a Jew, and I can tap into that faith," he said.

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