Richard Lewis wants us to know: He's here for a show
Talk about a change -- neurotic comedian Richard Lewis stopped going to therapy a few months ago after three decades.
By JOHN PATRICK GATTA
Over the years, there seemed to be one constant when Richard Lewis appeared on late night talk shows. The host barely had the chance to ask one, let alone the entire list of, questions.
I didn't even get that far.
At the scheduled interview time and with "Hello" barely out of my mouth, Lewis said, "Well, I've decided to change my name to The Vindicator; let's just start from there."
For the next 80 minutes, the standup comedian/actor/writer is at his normal mode, presenting a running commentary about his life and everything that surrounds it. Over that time, he touches upon his friendships with "Seinfeld" co-creator and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" creator Larry David and Lou Reed, his days attending Ohio State University, the inspirational figures in life (Lenny Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, Buster Keaton) and even why after three decades he stopped going to therapy.
Through it all, Lewis is a gracious subject, even calling back to wrap up a few unanswered queries. Immediately, he riffs on his appearances at Funny Farm Comedy Club.
Getting word out
"Thank you for taking the time to do this because if they don't know I'm in town, there's nothing more frustrating than going into a pharmacy and buying Sudafed and they go, 'What are you doing here!?!' 'When I get Sudafed, rather than get it in Hollywood, I fly to Youngstown.'"
He may need the over-the counter-medicine to prevent illness. Lewis explains that he's run down from lack of sleep because of a series of recent stand-up appearances coinciding with acting 12 scenes over four days on two television series (HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and WB's "7th Heaven").
"It's interesting being a recovered addict and being up for two days. There's a joke here somewhere but I don't know where the joke is," he said. "But staying up for two days, sober, it's a very interesting high. I'm more like Marley's Ghost than anything else."
What he doesn't need help with is comedic material. He's been mining his inner turmoil and frequent subjects -- the opposite sex, family, therapy -- to a hilarious degree since the early '70s. Through countless gigs at comedy clubs nationwide, Lewis' stream-of-consciousness style encompassed the rhetorical power of Lenny Bruce with the improvisational approach of Jimi Hendrix. He has shown that he can start off discussing one subject and find within it one tangent after another.
Talking about how his material has evolved, he explained: "I experiment wherever I go, be it Vegas or a nightclub or a concert hall. I used to bring notes onstage for years because it was all new material. For the last couple years, I've put everything on computer. Now I just scroll thousands and thousands of premises while I'm flying or in hotel rooms. I just try to think about 15-20 minutes of new stuff every night.
"I have no idea what I'm going to say on any show. I don't have the paper any more. Quite frankly, I'm glad I don't because it's impossible to memorize five hours of stuff. Now I'm like a wild man onstage because there's no table next to me, there's no notes next to me. It's just my brain is overflowing."
Sober since 1994, Lewis recounted his roller-coaster ride on and off the stage in the brutally honest analysis of his existence, "The OTHER Great Depression." The book read like a printed version of one of his performances.
Unlike past celebrity autobiographies, Lewis' doesn't proclaim that he now has his life in order. He still acknowledges that his formative years growing up in Englewood, N.J., left an indelible mark that's unlikely to fade away. Those thoughts have been chronicled for national audiences during more than 50 appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman" and "The Tonight Show" and other talk shows, plus his own award-winning cable specials ("I'm Exhausted," "I'm in Pain," "I'm Doomed")
"I went onstage because I felt sort of invisible at home growing up. They were in their own worlds; they had their own problems. Going onstage, I'm not a whiner, I just wanted to express my feelings. I resent when people call me a whiner. I like to talk about how I'm feeling. Fortunately for over 30 years, people feel very similar. Who wants to see a whiner? I'm sort of more fearless than anything else, but neurotic absolutely."
Although standup remains his passion, Lewis also branched out into acting roles with a television series, "Anything But Love," and a dozen films to his credit including "Drunks," "Leaving Las Vegas," "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" and "Wrong Guys."
Perhaps, buoyed by the commitment to his sobriety and all the activity in his career, Lewis did the unthinkable nearly two months ago. He stopped going to therapy.
In typically candid style, he offered his reason for stopping after 30 years of sessions. "On the drive over [to therapy] I was just sort of tallying up what my life was all about, how old I was, what I'd been through, what I wasn't going through and then I wanted to see how it would feel not to have to report in every week or so.
"I figured this is about as good as I'm going to get. I'm still going to screw up but I realized I was screwing up so much less, a smaller percentage than I used to, and I felt that I had made such great progress that there comes a time that you don't have to call in and say, 'I did well this week.'
One can't help but wonder if all these changes in his life would adversely affect his comedy. Not to worry. Some of the subjects may be changing, but Lewis admits that he's still the same overanalytical neurotic after all these years.
"No. 1, I don't have an act. I just have my head, and I have a bottomless pit of dysfunctions. I'm still whacked. I will always be an alcoholic. I'm just in recovery, and I manufacture a tremendous amount of misery, which I try to make funny for audiences on a daily basis. I'm miserable a day at a time, but less so. I make sure that when I hit that stage, I'm a wreck. I want the people to get a bang for their buck. I ain't going onstage like Donovan."