11/5-7: Richard Lewis at Hilarities



Stand-up comic Richard Lewis is now best known for his recurring role on Curb Your Enthusiasm, the HBO comedy on which he plays himself, a good friend of cantankerous star Larry David. But Lewis has been doing stand-up for years and has had small roles in a variety of TV shows and movies. Like Woody Allen, he’s turned neurosis into an art form, peppering his jokes with references to his anxieties and fears. Doing an interview with him, you ask a simple question and get a long-winded, complex answer often punctuated by references to how he has overcome addiction issues. He recently spoke in a phone interview to advance the tour he’s appropriately dubbed “Misery Love Company.” It comes to Hilarities (2035 E 4th St., 216.736.4242) at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5, at 7:30 and 10:15 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6 and at 7:30 and 10:15 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7. Tickets are $23. — Jeff Niesel

You went to school at Ohio State. Do you have good memories of Columbus?
I graduated in 1969 and during the Vietnam nightmare and during a time when classic rock was great. The Vietnam part was shitty, but the music part was great.

And I read that you were in a fraternity. Was it the fraternity from hell?
Well, no. It was alright. I was in Alpha Pi for a year but got more interested in the kind of women that would hang out with Andy Warhol. I got more political. With all due respect to the sorority women, it was more fun hanging out with the Columbus people who were hip and cool and not sent from some fancy home in Pittsburgh. I was more of a street guy than a fraternity guy. My father, who died pretty young, drove me out there, and I said, “Dad, they said you have to sleep in a dorm the first year.” I said, “There’s no fucking way. I’m not even going to go to college.” We drove to the dean’s building or whatever they call it and he went to the dean and said, “Don’t worry.” He walked out and said, “You can live in the fraternity house.” I said, “How did you do that?” I don’t know what the fuck he did. I don’t think he was a mobster, but he could have been. He could have said, “I’m going to whack you and your family if you make my son live in a dorm.”

Were you writing jokes then or did that come later?
First, I lied my way into college, telling my father I wanted to be a doctor, which was absolutely a joke. I even slapped the nurse in kindergarten who gave me my polio shot. That wasn’t going to happen. Once I got in, I was remotely interested in copywriting because I always got a kick out of commercials. I had a much better love affair with comics and comedy, but I didn’t know how to tell my dad he was paying for everything and I’m going to make no money for 11 years and hang out in the Village and probably become a drug addict. I had tried to stay at Ohio State for as long as possible. I was really manipulating my father. Then, I got a degree in marketing which helped some with my copywriting career. I got close to one of the professors and told him I love film. He wanted me to stay and get a minor in cinematography. I would rather stay there and date a lot of women, talk politics, go to football games and go the bars at night and study cinematography. I called my father, who was in catering but clueless about Fellini and Bergman. I told him I was going to stay on for two more years and he should keep sending the checks. He said, “So you’ll be home tomorrow.” That kick started me to get into stand-up. I started writing jokes for other comics and then they handed me stuff back about my life. It catapulted me.

You joke a lot about depression and anxiety. Is that stuff real for you or just part of your on-stage persona?
I have been in and out of therapy for 38 years and I don’t go much now because I know what causes the problem. My last therapist is still alive but many I fear took their lives. My last therapist fell asleep during one of my sessions. I said, “Fuck this.” Maybe she did it as a brilliant ploy to show me that I should stop blaming everybody. I was always the victim. I don’t preach about sobriety, but once I got sober, I had to think about what part of it did I play in screwing up things. It wasn’t my mother and dates from hell and all that shit. I figured out where I came from and what my parents didn’t offer me and how judged I felt and why I went into the arts to express myself. No matter how much I was paying the shrink, how much can you hear the same shit over and over again. It’s not like hearing Miles Davis or Sergeant Peppers or Highway 61. It was like revisiting Richard Lewis’ life. I don’t know too many people who don’t suffer from depression. It never got to the point that I was suicidal or had to be hospitalized. I’ve been handling it. I do talk about a lot of anxiety because I do have them. You find what’s your strength in stand-up. For me, my strength is me. I don’t want to bring a prop on stage. I want to talk about my life. If it can make it funny and twist it a little bit, then that’s great. Curb Your Enthusiasm has been such a great bookend.

Did you imagine it would last seven seasons?
No. I had written a script and wanted to have Larry David help me find a producer. He said that we should work together and told me about it and said maybe we should work together. The only thing I asked from him is that he has to put me in at least two or three episodes so I can create an arc for my character. I don’t want to be judged for three minutes and then whacked out of the series. He understood. That’s the difference in having a friend as a producer. The truth is, I have his back. I love the guy; he loves me. We don’t see each other that often because we do piss each other off. We are argumentative.

Yes, it doesn’t seem like you guys are acting.
We’re not. I have to hold it back. When you’re on location, you have a mic and you have to switch it off when you’re not shooting. I always forget. I’m pretty fearless. There was one scene in one of my favorite episodes about the Benadril brownie. I was having problems with producers, networks and Larry, and I was in such a pissy mood. We were outside. We were going to give this girl a brownie with Benadril in it. I was yelling at Larry and as we walked in, I saw like ten of the producers and creative people and HBO people watching the monitor. I thought, “Holy Christ. It’s over.” I was telling the truth so maybe that saved the day. Even though Larry laughs at this stuff and doesn’t consider himself a good actor, you have to know where you came from and where you’re going. He doesn’t deal with that in a precise way. But he even got nominated for an Emmy so he’s better than he thinks. The truth of the matter is, I’m in the moment when I’m there with him. His brand of acting is so naturalistic. That’s the goal to get to that point. There are certain things for me that I have to do, or I don’t think I’m doing my homework.

Over the course of your career you’ve acted in various TV shows and movies, done stand-up on Letterman and even written a book. Is there anything left?
I think about that quite a bit at 62. I think I’m in good health and I’m still doing my thing but eventually the road will get very difficult. When I get off the road, I don’t know how I’ll feel. I did Carnegie Hall in 1989 and got two standing ovations. It couldn’t have been a better night for me. I’m light years better now, but I won’t repeat Carnegie Hall. Why have an off evening? I really do have this affinity toward films. I’d like to write a play or screen play that can be read and performed forever. I don’t know what that will be. I don’t know if I have the right stuff to do it, but I’d like to produce at least one good piece of writing.

At least you can die knowing that one person called you the Franz Kafka of modern comedy. I can think of no better compliment.
Mel Brooks said that. In many ways, I am as paranoid as the guy in The Trial. I don’t trust too many people at all. I’ve been so screwed over. There are great stand-up comedians but when I was starting out with Leno and Crystal, there was a passion we had. There were so few of us that were doing well on stage. That was our first love and everything else that happened was just desert. Shows don’t last, pilots come and go, movies come and go. I choose to grow with my material. If the time comes that I’m too lazy and tired to keep growing, I’ll quit. I have to make this worthwhile. With Curb, there are people from age 16 to 90 in the audience. Teenagers have to know I’m doing them a favor. I’ve been through this hell for them. I might even be the messiah. I have no children. I only live for the show. I might be God. Nah, I’ll let John Lennon be God.

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