by Jeff Niesel
It’s an understatement to say that it’s difficult to interview comedian Richard Lewis. As soon we got him on the phone last week, he launched into a monologue of epic proportions. It was hard to even get a question in. We’re not the only ones who have found it difficult to rein him in. When Lewis was a regular on Letterman in the ’80s, he dominated the interviews and even Letterman couldn’t prevent Lewis from rambling. That's not to say Lewis wasn't funny. His witty, stream-of-consciousness style is unparalleled.
When asked about what material he’ll present at Hilarities, where he performs on Nov. 7, 8 and 9, Lewis, who famously used to bring notes with him on stage, gives a typically obtuse answer; he says that he doesn’t bring notes with him on stage anymore, but he still adlibs about half of his jokes.
“I’ve been writing jokes down since I was 20 years old,” he says. “If anything strikes me as funny, I write it down. When the computer age came, if anything struck me as funny, I’d write it down, just like [Seinfeld creator] Larry [David] did. He would get his ideas for Curb Your Enthusiasm that way. Woody Allen did the same thing. Anyway, I would write things down and then type them into this massive bible of material and then copy and paste them in categories. Right now, I have about 100 pages of 10 hours of material I’ve never done. I like to go to a nice motel before the show and work on the material. I don’t drink anymore, but I’ve been killing myself with Diet Coke. As my doctor says, ‘I would rather you drink that than bottom out on crystal meth again.’ Anyway, I look at thousands of premises and the day before I open, I will hide out and look at it all. I have no idea what will stick.”
Though Lewis has struggled with alcohol and drug addiction in the past (something he chronicles in his book The Other Great Depression: How I'm overcoming, on a daily basis, at least a million addictions and disfunctions and finding a spiritual (sometimes) life), he’s been clean and sober for several years. Given that much of his act was about his neurotic impulses, you’d think he wouldn’t have enough new material. He insists that’s simply not the case.
“Yesterday, I must have written down 40 new premises,” he says “I don’t run out of new material. I probably have more material in my computer now than I’ve ever had.”
At the 20-minute mark in our conversation — after Lewis has rambled on about how his late ’80s/early ’90s TV show Anything But Love was unfairly canceled and how a producer on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson show once threatened to ban him from future performances after a monologue ran long (imagine that!) — he pauses.
“You haven’t asked me one question yet,” he says. “I feel like you’re afraid you’re going to say something I’m going to mock and then you’ll have a terrible day.”
I quickly tell him that's not true and ask him to tell about She’s Funny that Way, the new movie he just filmed with director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show). He goes against type and plays a redneck in the film.
“”I’m a Jew playing a redneck and there’s not an ounce of neurosis,” he says. “I’m an unsophisticated moron in the movie.”
And then the rambling continues.
"Back in the old days, you made so much money,” he says. “Now, it’s like ‘You pay us.’ Unless you’re someone like Johnny Depp, who makes his $20 million. He’s one of the big shots. And he deserves it. I would pay Philip Seymour Hoffman or Daniel Day-Lewis whatever they wanted to be in a movie.”
As much as Lewis makes fun of his shortcomings and explores his neurotic side in his comedic routines, he looks (and sounds) remarkably healthy for a 66-year-old man who’s led a hard life.
“I know the hair on the back of my head is starting to fade a bit,” he says in between reminiscing about the time he used to appear on The Hollywood Squares and the days he spent at Ohio State University in the ‘60s. “But from the front on, I’m still in my thirties. I want to go out cool. I know it sound narcissistic. I don’t want to go out like Fatty Arbuckle Lewis. I work out and have a trainer. I have so many problems with my back and he just has to work around all that. We do some sit-ups and bullshit about he playoffs. He’s good company.”
And then after about 35 minutes, Lewis admits that he might not have given me enough information for a feature article. While that's not the case, his gesture is a nice one. Sort of.
“If you have any questions you forgot to ask me, you still can,” he says. “Like you didn’t ask me about Debra Winger — she’s a friend of mine. Just email my publicist and she’ll send the questions to me and I’ll write you an answer within minutes. Just try to write with clarity because based on our conversation, I don’t know if you can do that. Now, that was a joke.”
And he pauses again.
“And if you don’t write me, I won’t consider it a put down.”
Yeah, he's still plenty neurotic.