- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2011

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.”

Q: What kind of impact has “Curb Your Enthusiasm” had on your career, and what is it like filming ad-libbed scenes with Larry David?

RL: A lot of comics, when they get to their early 60s, it’s trouble for them to stay relevant. But luckily, “Curb” has opened up a tremendous demographic for me at the exact right time. My show, it’s [filled with] about 300 kids — and then people in gurneys on the side. We have to let them lay there with their nurses and oxygen masks. And that is a good thing. I love staring down the pike at someone 70 and someone 20 and talking about stuff and both people getting it.

On [“Curb”], listen, I can’t describe what it is like to play me with a guy who is playing himself, and we’ve known each other since we were 12. It’s so bizarre.

Q: You’re reportedly developing an ensemble television comedy of your own. What can you tell us about it?

RL: I created the series with [humorist] Alan Zweibel. It’s a comedy, but it has manic overtones. I created a role specifically for myself. I can’t tell you any more about it. I’m so paranoid. Even if this business was run by Mother Theresa, I wouldn’t. It has such a great hook that someone could pick it up and run with it.

Q: You claim you created the phrase “the ________ from hell” in the 1970s. The Yale Book of Quotations recognized you — but Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations did not, which later became a joke on “Curb.” What gives?

RL: Here’s the deal. I used to get applause when I would use that phrase. It was initially a throw-away, but it became such a potent hook that I got embarrassed. I felt hokey and stopped saying it. But I was being ripped off in commercials, movies, there was a political writer in the Los Angeles Times who said, “with all due respect to Richard Lewis, it was the summit from hell.” So I wanted to get recognition.

I went to my attorney and gave them all sorts of reels and articles and features — a treasure trove. Proof! And the editor at Bartlett’s passed. I spoke to him. Asked him why. He said, “Well, my grandkids came home from their first semester of college and said, ‘It was the semester from hell.’ ” I said, “Hello? They weren’t born when I was saying it!” That’s when I went crazy, talking about it everywhere.

Q: What’s it like being 64 years old and still touring?

RL: I’m like an elder statesman at this point. Every time I see a gig and an audience, I really don’t know if I’ll come back to that venue or see those people again. That was always my game plan, but now I’m realizing this could really be the last time I walk on this stage. I’m fearful. What I love most is making people laugh.

• Patrick Hruby can be reached at phruby@washingtontimes.com.

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