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.
Larry David and Richard Lewis in “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. (HBO) more >
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.”
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