March 15, 2001
The Joy of ‘Oy’
Richard Lewis mines a rich vein of mishegoss and hits gold.
Richard Lewis is a comedian who has perfected the art of the kvetch.
In his act, he paces the stage, plastering his palms to his temples to express the universal oy. Clad completely in black, he laments his hypochondria, his "dates from hell," his Jewish family. "My grandparents were 'depressed-again' Jews," he whines. "They had a bumper sticker that said, 'I'd rather be weeping.'"
Lewis' mother had a satellite dish that must have been Jewish, because it "picked up problems from other families," he suggests.
His family was so assimilated, their Chanukah menorah was on a dimmer.
But during a recent Journal interview at the Argyle Hotel, the "Prince of Pain's" anxiety seemed to have been turned down a notch. After almost seven years of sobriety, Lewis, a recovering alcoholic, has published a collection of autobiographical essays, "The Other Great Depression," and has a new comedy CD, "Live From Hell: Before and After." He is playing himself in a recurring role on Larry David's HBO show, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in which his touchy-feely, nervous Jewish persona is the perfect foil for the prickly, dyspeptic David.
Best of all, Lewis says, he had a Jewish spiritual reawakening during the blessing of a friend's adopted baby at a Los Angeles shul last year. "I felt like it was the 41st year in the desert, and all the other Jews had gotten out, and I was still wandering around like some poor schmuck looking for a rabbi or a decent pastrami sandwich, anything to make me feel like a Jew again," he wrote in his book. "I was hugging my tallis for dear life," he told The Journal.
Lewis jokes that he was "born and lowered" in New Jersey, where his workaholic father was "the king of kosher caterers," and his actress mom played most of Neil Simon's Jewish mothers in the community theater. Because his dad was booked solid the weekend of Lewis' bar mitzvah, Richard's coming-of-age simcha took place on a Tuesday night: "It was like an affair catered by Cecil B. DeMille," he recalls.
Nevertheless, he quips, his parents made him so crazy, he used to take his M & M's one at a time, with water. "Kennedy was just assassinated," his mother once said. "Go clean your room."
Young Lewis found relief at the local Jewish community center, where he was the star of the youth basketball team. At sports camp in 1963, 12-year-old Richard met a tall, sly, gangly kid who would become his arch-rival: future "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David. "Larry had hair then," Lewis marvels. 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. When a drunk heckler yelled, "He's a Jew!" during an early gig, Lewis embarrassed the man so badly that the heckler apologized profusely from his seat.
While playing dives during his broke, early years, Lewis took solace in knowing that a memento of his father's -- a tiepin in the shape of a cat -- was "in a little box in a drawer in [my] s----- little apartment in New Jersey ... meowing quietly to itself.'" Also helpful were the group-therapy sessions he continued even after moving to Los Angeles in 1976.
Every week, an audiocassette of the group's latest session arrived in the mailbox of his hole-in-the-wall Hollywood apartment, whereupon Lewis would race up the rickety stairwell, pour himself a glass of cheap white wine and listen to his old pals complain about their lives. Then came the day he heard the therapist say to a distraught group member, "Could you please sob closer into the mic
"That was the end of my group therapy career," recalls Lewis, who went on to spend more than a quarter-million dollars on private psychotherapy.
Yet his feelings of self-loathing did not dissipate, even after he had completed several well-received TV comedy specials and landed a coveted role on the TV sitcom "Anything But Love" in 1988. In fact, Lewis was so convinced he had failed his audition that he was shocked when actress Jamie Lee Curtis jumped up after his reading and yelled, "That's my Marty!"
The show featured an interfaith romance between Lewis' character, Marty Gold, and Curtis' Hannah Miller.
By the 1990s, Lewis was so addicted to alcohol that he quit therapy rather than turn in the weekly journal suggested by his doctor (a sample entry: "Monday morning, 7:45 a.m., five glasses of Moët & Chandon with a little orange juice"). He quit stand-up comedy, too, and in 1994 was wheeled through the doors of a hospital emergency room, hallucinating as the result of a cocaine overdose. A compassionate doctor brushed back the hair from his sweating brow and said, "You're so funny, Mr. Lewis. Why are you doing this to yourself? What are you going to do about it?" The comic says he replied with a one-word vow: "Live."
These days, Lewis is sober and back onstage; the famed commitmentphobe even has a longtime Jewish girlfriend, a dark-haired babe he playfully calls Gina Lolamatzobrie. She has urged him to attend her Torah classes and bought him a mezuzah that now hangs on his bedroom door.
The comedian still gets to dwell on his neuroses, however, especially on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." In a hysterical recent episode, he and David came to blows over a bracelet coveted by both characters' significant others. "All that rivalry from basketball camp came back to us, and we were really fighting," Lewis says of the ad-libbed scene. "I broke Larry's glasses, and I hurt his arm, but it was so funny he didn't mind he couldn't move his shoulder.'"