Guest piece by Sharon Geller
Published Thursday, April 26, 2012, 4:15 PM
Comedy Central has recognized Richard Lewis as one of the top 50 stand-up comedians of all time and GQ Magazine listed him as one of the “Twentieth Century’s Most Influential Humorists.”
Starting tonight, through this Saturday night, the very funny and clever Richard Lewis is in Philadelphia, performing stand-up at the Helium Comedy Club in Center City Philadelphia (2031 Sansom Street; www.heliumcomedy.com).
Below are highlights of an interview conducted via phone on Wednesday, April 18.
Richard Lewis (RL): Whoa…what time is it? 7:30? What am I doing calling Philadelphia at 7:30 in the morning?
Sharon Geller (SG): Come on, Richard, you know Philadelphia is the Comedy Capital of the World.
RL: It’s true.
SG: So, what did you do for Passover this year?
RL The second night I was at Sid Caesar’s house, and Theodore Bikel was there too. Here was this comedy genius from Your Show of Shows. It was unbelievable.
SG: Richard, you don’t tell jokes like Borscht Belt comedians, and you don’t do observational humor. How would you describe your act?
RL: I never wanted to do observational humor because I never wanted to tell people what they were seeing. My humor is channeling everything through my brain. For example, when I talk about something, it’s how Richard Lewis feels about it. I’m a storyteller. I do a lot of free association.
Also, I never wanted to tell jokes because I never wanted to repeat the same joke twice.
SG: Whom do you most admire?
RL: Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor are the two comedians whom I loved the most – they were the best at their craft. I was 17 years old when I first listened to Lenny Bruce. I was hip enough to know then that he was beyond great.
SG: Why do you think you’ve been so successful when many other talented people whom you started out with didn’t achieve your fame?
RL: When I started out, I struggled, and I was broke a lot. But I’m glad I struggled, and I’m glad I was broke a lot. If you want to devote yourself to the arts, you’d better do it strictly from passion because there is zero guarantee that you’ll get anywhere. The hardest thing is dealing with business people who have nothing to do with your art. They could care less that you’re up at 4:30 in the morning writing a joke. Don’t expect any sympathy from anybody.
SG: What was life like growing up?
RL: I didn’t have a horrible family, but I didn’t have great support. My father wasn’t home a lot because he was always busy with his business. He was in kosher catering, which struck me as kind of funny because we were never particularly religious growing up. In fact, we were so not religious that I used to say in my act that my mother had a menorah on a dimmer.
I always tried to please my mother. On Chanukah I bought her a self-complaining oven.
Comedy was truly one of the few moments when the whole family bonded.
We’d watch old shows together. My sister, my brother and I would be in bed and watch shows like The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show. We’d be in bed and laugh. There wasn’t a dysfunction in sight. Then the show would end, we’d get out of bed and we’d turn back into a dysfunctional family.
SG: You’ve been a success not just as a stand-up but also on TV, when you starred with Jamie Lee Curtis in Anything But Love. How did you like working on a sitcom, and do you still keep in touch with JLC?
RL: Right now, I’m sitting in a 100-year-old house in the Hills that I couldn’t afford except for that sitcom. That show, which gave me a great 4 years, put me on the map. When I found out Anything But Love was scheduled to follow Roseanne, I thought: “Thirty million people just saw that show [Roseanne]!” That’s the breaks of the business.
When I auditioned for Anything But Love, Jamie Lee said, “You’re my guy!”
I love Jamie Lee, and I still keep in touch with her.
SG: Do you think that was a turning point in your career?
RL: The turning point was when I was on David Letterman. I had 70 Letterman shots over 7 or 8 years, and that gave me a following that allowed me to make a career as a comedian.
When Letterman first got his show, he said, “You can come on as often as you want, but you don’t have to do stand-up, just panel. You’re way too physical for the camera. You can still be a wreck but sit down.”
SG: When Letterman said you were way too physical for the camera, did he mean because you’re always running your hand through your hair and pacing?
RL: You know who was ideal for the camera? Jack Benny. He just stood there. “Your money or your life….I’m thinking!” It doesn’t get any better than that.
David Brenner is one of my best friends in life. He said, “If every night you did a show like the Helium Comedy Club and you completely sold out, you’d have to do it for 50 years to get the same number of people who watch The Tonight Show in one shot.”
When I’m on Letterman, 8 million people are watching me do a monologue.
SG: The names of your HBO and Showtime specials, “I’m Exhausted,” “I’m Doomed” and “I’m in Pain,” remind me of that joke – “A doctor says to a patient, ‘I’ve got bad news and worse news. What’s the bad news? You’ve got 24 hours to live. What’s the worse news? I tried to get a hold of you yesterday.’”
RL: I always used to blame everyone but me. It was always their fault. But I realized that I had to take responsibility for myself. I realized that ‘I’ was the man from hell. (Lewis’s “Concerts from Hell – The Vintage Years,” expounds upon Lewis’s now infamous line “I had a date from hell.”
Rodney Dangerfield was a fan of mine. He told me once, “You got a persona kid – You know what you’re doing.”
Often, Rodney and I would hang out and drink. When he would invite me out to drink, I used to say to him, “Rodney, I can’t – I feel like sh-t.” And he’d say, “Great…you’re half-way there.”
I wish I realized back then that you don’t have to have 7 drinks – 2 would have been fine. So, after 40 years of psychotherapy, I always learn something new. You know you’ve been in therapy too long when your therapist starts heckling you.
SG: I know you’re friends with Larry David and that Curb Your Enthusiasm has been such a big part of your life. Is your relationship on the show similar to your relationship in real life?
RL: The only difference between talking to him in real life and working with him is that I don’t put make-up on to talk to him.
SG: How did you first meet Larry?
RL: You want to know how I first met Larry? You won’t believe this. When I was 12 years old, I wanted to make the freshman basketball team. So I went to a camp in upstate New York where all of the counselors were college seniors – young coaches. There was sports 24/7.
(I think the only reason I made the team is because 3 Jewish cheerleaders were singing “Adon Olam” and begging the coaches to let me on the team).
It was at that camp that I met THE MOST OBNOXIOUS HUMAN BEING I’VE EVER RUN INTO. I was only 12 and not a drunk yet, but I knew that I had met the worst human being ever. He was gangly. And Larry hated me too. We were arch-rivals. I mean, we really dispised each other.
Now, fast forward ahead about 10 years – we’re in our young 20’s, and I go to see him do stand-up. (I had no idea that he was the same gangly Larry David whom I met at camp when we were 12).
We become best friends. I mean he was such a good friend that if I broke up with a girl, he would move my furniture out of her apartment.
One night after his show was over, we’re standing at the bar and I’m staring at him – I mean, really staring, sort of like Rosemary’s Baby staring and he said, “Stop it. Stop staring. It’s haunting the way you’re staring at me.”
And I said, “There’s something about you from your past that’s scaring me.”
And then, all at once, it dawns on us that we know each other from camp and we shout, “You’re THAT Larry David?” “You’re THAT Richard Lewis?”
I don’t think I could trust anyone more than I trust him.
I don’t see him a lot – In L.A., it’s not like New York where you just hop into a cab and easily get together with people.
SG: What’s he like?
RL: Larry’s very eccentric. One time I took him to lunch and, as a gift, I gave him Mickey Mantle antique cufflinks. He kept looking at his watch and finally I said, “Larry, what are you doing? It’s annoying the way you keep looking at your watch.”
He said, “I parked at a meter – I don’t want to pay the ticket.”
And he bolted from the restaurant.
Another time I called him and said, “Let’s grab some dinner.”
He said, “Okay…how about 4 p.m.?“
Who has dinner at 4 p.m.?! I had to barter with him to get to 5:48 p.m.
We decided to eat at this great Chinese restaurant in Beverly Hills. When I first got there at 5:40 p.m., I gave the Maitre d’ my credit card and said, ‘When the check comes, make sure I get it.’
Meanwhile, Larry comes in 40 minutes late. Around 7 p.m., I said, “Why don’t we order a couple of things to share?”
And Larry says, “I know the chef and I like him and he likes to show what he’s into. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Let him make us whatever he wants.”
So, the next thing I know, the waiter brings out a tray with 25 items on it. Like, there was so much food we could have sent it overseas to the soldiers. All of a sudden, Larry’s cell phone rings and he says, “I forgot that it’s poker night at Steve Martin’s.”
He leaves and I’m left with $3,000 worth of food. Well, you know you can’t leave a seat open at a poker game so he had to go. Actually, he invited me to come along, but I turned him down.
So, the bad news is – I didn’t have a good dinner. But the good news is – Larry made it up to me a month later.
He’s amazingly charitable, and he really does care, but he’s eccentric.
SG: You’ve worked on TV, in film and on stage. Which is your favorite medium?
RL: They’re all so different. Vamps is coming out in the fall, and I shockingly play a Jewish ACLU attorney.
(Lewis recently completed filming the film Vamps, directed by Amy Heckerling (Clueless) and also starring Ben Stiller. Lewis plays Danny, a former student activist who now works as a lawyer with the ACLU. Lewis’ first defining role was in Leaving Las Vegas, which led to his first major dramatic role, as Jimmy Epstein, an addict fighting for his life in the indie film, Drunks, with Dianne Weist and Faye Dunaway. Drunks was set at an AA meeting, and Lewis received rave reviews).
SG: Before we wrap up, do you mind if I ask you a few James Lipton-type questions?
RL: Sure, go ahead.
SG: What would you do if you weren’t a comedian?
RL: I would have been an architect. I would have built buildings for dysfunctional people and combined that with psychiatry to keep people away from siblings that upset you.
SG: What are your favorite TV shows?
RL: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, 30 Rock but, honestly, I watch TV mainly for the news.
SG: What are your favorite films?
RL: I don’t have a favorite film but I love anything with Buster Keaton, Pacino, DeNiro, Daniel Day Lewis and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
SG: What is the most annoying thing about you?
RL: Me, in general. Also, that I don’t trust that people are going to follow through. And that I repeat myself. And that I repeat myself. (last one there added by SG)
SG: Whom would you most like to meet?
RL: John Cassavetes, Stanley Kubrick, Albert Einstein.
SG: Any final thoughts on comedy?
RL: Nothing is more meaningful than stand-up. No show I do is the same. I go through hundreds of hours of material each time. I need the audience more than they need me. I want to entertain them, and I need them to let me go (off on a tangent). When I do, I give my best shows and it’s an out-of-body experience.
SG: Any final thoughts?
RL: Aging is pretty scary in show business. I’m shocked that I’m 64 but also happy that I’m still alive.
Richard Lewis, appearing at the Helium Comedy Club, April 26, 27 and 28. For tickets, please call 215.496.9001 or go to www.heliumcomedy.com.