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Richard Lewis’ shtick still fueled by neuroses and anxieties
Here’s the thing about Richard Lewis: He can talk. Particularly about himself, his anxieties and his four-plus decades in comedy, all of which are intertwined.
Indeed, revealing riffs long have been a staple for the 64-year-old comic, currently enjoying a career resurgence that includes roles in the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the upcoming vampire-themed romantic comedy film — hey, it was bound to happen — “Vamps.”
We decided to let the voluble Mr. Lewis do the talking in advance of his stand-up performances tonight and Saturday at the Synetic Theater in Arlington’s Crystal City neighborhood:
Q: You once were labeled comedy’s “Prince of Pain.” Are you finally happy?
Richard Lewis: I will always have this cloak of — not resentment anymore — but anxiety. But I’m at the point in my life that I feel like I have bouts of happiness. At my age — being fairly healthy, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic for 17 years, being married for six years to someone who has my back, and I have hers, as far as the arts go I act, I write, I just finished a TV script, I’ll probably try to do another stand-up special — I would be a fool to not be grateful. What it comes down to is that I’m screwed up, but in a much healthier fashion.
Q: But doesn’t most comedy - especially yours - come from being something less than well-adjusted?
RL: Most of the comedians I like — and the great ones — were totally twisted. Riddled with pain and phobias and dysfunctions. Give me Richard Pryor talking about setting himself on fire, and you have a pretty funny and real and exquisite routine.
Everything that strikes me as funny generally has to do with something that is bothering me. I’m close friends with [comedian] Jonathan Winters. We’re both recovering alcoholics. We were both raised in families that were like being raised by wolves. Actually, wolves would have done better. We have a lot in common. The majority of comedians use comedy to vent their frustrations and feel less alone on stage. When people laugh about my fears, bad ex-girlfriends, it helps.
Q: You’ve famously been in therapy for decades. Can stand-up be therapeutic?
RL: My mother and I had sort of a crummy relationship. My family wasn’t the most nourishing nest to go out into the world from. Never did I realize that I would be holding onto these emotional abuses forever. But I did. When that microphone goes on, I feel obligated to be the messenger for people who have gone through these feelings. The scar tissue just opens up, and it pours out of me. I need an audience almost more than they need me.
Q: Can stand-up be therapeutic for your audience?
RL: After shows, people come over to me and thank me for being miserable. We shake hands. I take a picture with their camera. And I feel so good. It’s like that old joke about standing next to a fat person, and you feel thinner. My audiences feel much better off when they come out of the theater.
I’m so self-deprecating by nature. But with a mic, it’s like being in Yankee Stadium. And my talking about recovery has helped effect change. I’ll tell drug horror stories and see a wife in the audience give an elbow to her husband. I know exactly what is going down: “You’re a fan of Richard‘s. He’s made a change, why can’t you?” I know this happens because people tell me. I want people to know that I’m an alcoholic. There are billions of them. And if they’re fans of mine, I might push them to a point to take another road.
Q: In your autobiographical book “The Other Great Depression,” you wrote about addictions, neuroses and anxieties. Did you ever worry that getting help for your problems would dull your comic edge?
RL: I was such a screwhead for 15-18 years, pretty unmanageable in my real life. I even quit stand-up for three years. When I got sober in 1994, I had to accept responsibility for things. That’s the one part of recovery that really helped me as human being. I didn’t know it at the time — I thought I would be washed up [as a comedian] — but it also opened up a Pandora’s box of such beautiful self-esteem material. As I wrote in the book, “I have so much clarity now, I despise myself even more.”
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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