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The funny thing about fear 

Editor's Note: Wednesday's performance has been cancelled.

Richard Lewis is a man who needs no introduction, so why give him one?

Behind a famously rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness style of comedy, Lewis has made countless late-night television appearances, performs regularly on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, and will appear in the film VAMPS in 2011. Enough said.

Besides, give him a couple minutes, and Lewis himself will tell you virtually anything you might want to know about him, anyway.

[Ten minutes after our scheduled interview time, my phone rings, I pick up, and Lewis just starts talking.]

RL: I am so sorry. It's shocking that I got a rare call from a relative that had problems in the last six minutes and it was either you or the relative.

Indy: I can't believe I lost out to that, I'm a little upset.

RL: No, but I rarely get calls. They think I'm so out of my mind. I'm so down on the list, they'd rather call a guy in jail on a murder rap then ask me for advice.

Indy: I understand.

RL: No, you don't understand. I'm a very professional guy and I've never played your town. Quite frankly, I love alternative press. Of all the papers for me to have a relative ruin it for me, and call you late and hang you up, I'm sorry.

Indy: I'll get over it. Apology accepted.

RL: OK, we'll move on.

Indy: Let me throw out my first warm-up question, which is —

RL: You don't have to warm up, I'm raring to go.

Indy: You started in comedy at age 23 and turned 63 this June, which makes this 40 years in the business. ... What went wrong?

RL: What went wrong? In what way? What went wrong in terms of my life, you mean? I think that's a good thing, don't you?

Can I just say something? That was the single worst warm-up question I've ever heard. It was dyslexic, it was psychotic — I mean, I just came off a movie set — wait a minute, hold on a second — you got me so discombobulated with that question — hold on a minute, can you hear me on this phone?

Indy: Sure.

RL: This phone, the batteries suck. I'm going to call you on my cell phone right now.

[Hangs up. I'm pretty sure he's not going to call back, then my phone actually rings.]

RL: Here's the deal. First of all, how dare you? How dare you? Number two, I did just a great — I'm going to boast. You're forcing me to a boastful stance, which is very unlike me.

Indy: The film was my second question. Should I throw it out?

RL: No — no! I'm afraid of your questions.

Indy: It's good, you'll be warmed up.

RL: [Makes mocking, infant-like stuttering sounds.] If you want to go a, b, c, d, people are going to get the wrong impression of my act. I don't have an act. I ramble, but fine — I just came home yesterday from shooting this movie VAMPS and hanging out with Malcolm McDowell, who is a friend of mine — and I start shooting Curb Monday, so I'm in a great mood —

Indy: Now you're stealing my third question.

RL: No, but I'm touring — so you said, "What went wrong" — I just came off a movie with Amy Heckerling and Alicia Silverstone and Sigourney Weaver, I'm starting Curb, I just got off the phone with Jonathan Winters and Mel Brooks and Albert Brooks, and you're telling me I'm a loser. What the hell kind of writer are you?

Indy: No, I —

RL: I don't want you to be jealous or threatened of me. I paid my dues. I was poor for 18 years, so I deserve this. I'm 63, give me a break. I could die at any moment. I did a thousand Lettermans and Tonight Shows — you gotta give me some credit. What went wrong! You're like my family.

Indy: Man, did I write the wrong intro question.

RL: You're like my mom. You know, I'm on with Johnny Carson and she says, "Who else is on the show?" So that started the whole ball rolling for my persona. Really. OK, I'm over it. I appreciate your letting me get it out. I vented and I'm done.

Indy: Thank you. My second question was: I hear you're playing an ACLU lawyer for VAMPS.

RL: Do you have to number the questions? Because I might have a breakdown.

Indy: I didn't number them, I put bullet points on them.

RL: What if you start saying "2a"? What if you say "2a"?

Indy: I can break up my order.

RL: Can you really? You sound very bright, but this whole numbering thing — I think you might need to go to a hospital.

Indy: I studied some of your interviews online, and I noticed that a lot of interviewers only got in one line, and then there's a whole paragraph under them. So I figured I'd better be ready.

RL: OK, you're right. You're right. You're absolutely right. It's a power trip and I'm a control freak and you're gonna mock me, but I'm really not — I just ramble.

Indy: I watched the Daily Show clip from 2008, and Jon Stewart didn't even get in a word.

RL: Why should he? I traveled 3,300 miles, and he has the show every night. Why shouldn't I talk the whole time? I'm only on for 4½ minutes.

Indy: I just jumped down on my list. That was like, my eighth question. What I was going to ask was —

RL: No, go ahead, take your time.

Indy: On that show, you seemed pretty politically active. There were elections at the time. Do you have any thoughts on the current elections going on? Are you a big tea partier?

RL: Nah. What are you, nuts? Here's the deal: My goal in Colorado Springs, Vegas, New York, you name it, is to make people laugh. Period. I'm not there to preach. When I talk about politics or religion, I initiate everything with — to me, first of all, the heroes are the soldiers, period. And the firemen and the cops. I don't care about the handful of bad apples. I'm in a business where 99 percent of the people are unscrupulous and screwheads, all right. So, there's a couple of bad apples in the Army or Marines, big deal. These are the greatest people. Who sacrifices your life for your country? It's unbelievable. Everyone understands that.

But the thing that bothers me more than anything about what's going on in America — what I thought as a kid was the greatest thing about this country was separation of church and state and tolerance of other people and no "My way or the highway." And as it turned out, it is "My way or the highway," and they are trying to screw the Constitution and change it, and there is a lot of intolerance and racism and anti-Semitism, and it's driving me crazy.

So I tell people — I go, look, I popped out a Jew, and I could have popped out a Chinese, a Buddhist, a Klansman — I said you could have popped out anything, too. I said — whatever you want to do is fine, but don't tell me how to live. If you're gonna start telling me how to live, I'm gonna go — you know, then charge the stage and get me, but I'll get half of you, because I can't take it.

I don't really — I do it in a way that's sort of — I played Texas a couple months ago, and I'd say 99 percent of the audience were right-wing evangelicals. I had some of the greatest shows of my life. When I started talking about how I perceive right-wing evangelicals, I wasn't mocking what they believed in. But I said, when I see some of these television shows in the hotel room on Sunday and these miracles, you gotta know that it's very hard to believe that it's not like, a Vegas act. I said I hope it's true. That a guy that had no feet, had feet when he left. If that's true, that's phenomenal. But I do it in a way that's not mean-spirited, that's the difference.

The "My way or the highway" people who do it in a mean-spirited way, that's what's screwing up this country in the worst way. If you can say, "Look, I don't know if this is really true or not, but if it is, boy, you've got a great god." But there's so many gods, why should anyone say mine is more important than the other ones? That's what's buggin' the hell out of me.

Indy: I really do want to jump up to the film, just for one question.

RL: You can ask me anything you want. I didn't mean to ramble on that.

Indy: You're playing this ACLU lawyer. Do you think your fans are going to have trouble picturing Richard Lewis the attorney?

RL: No. No. If anything, if I was a vampire they would. I'm the only one in the movie that doesn't get sucked — my neck sucked. I'm really pissed. I mean, I e-mailed Sigourney Weaver and said, "One of the reasons I took the movie was because I thought you were gonna suck me." And she e-mailed me back and said, "No, I don't suck you." It was a very provocative e-mail, I might add, now that I think about it. I should have put "suck my neck," but I didn't, I forgot to add "neck."

But the point is, I love playing an ACLU — here's the deal, it's really a beautiful — I mean, the cast is endless, it's an unbelievable cast, and hanging out with Malcolm McDowell was great, but Amy Heckerling was — it was one of the greatest acting experiences I've ever had, and I've done roles before — I was in Alias and all that. I have some acting chops. I can do it.

This was sort of an interesting role. I had Marilu Henner as my wife and she's dying, plus I have Alicia Silverstone as a girlfriend — she is a vampire, it's very confusing. But the script was so funny and such an interesting spin on vampirism, if that's even a word, that I took it immediately and I'm done. Now I'm moving on. I have a TV show I want to try to sell, and I'm shooting Curb and I'm touring and you know to be busy again — I don't wanna go back — but to have all this going on now, after 40 years, is good. It's a good deal.

Indy: With Curb, you start the filming of the eighth season next week?

RL: They've done half the season already. I'm doing about three or four shows. I have no idea what the show is about, what they've done. Larry won't tell me — won't tell me what I'm doing Monday, even.

Indy: When you appear, how much room does Larry David give you to script or improv or develop your scenes with him?

RL: None. Except — not the scenes — the scenes are already written out, like in four sentences. Like, "Here's what the scene is going to be," but there's no script. Everyone from Larry David on down improvs the entire show. There's not one word written.

Indy: How many takes will you do?

RL: It's not — the guy — he's a genius, this guy. And to write and have this show — this show could have collapsed in a minute, had he not written these painstakingly difficult outlines. Since there's no script, you have to depend on the story structure to be perfect. Because the actors are providing the dialogue. We know what each scene is, but we don't really know where it fits in, in the whole scheme of things.

But as long as we do the scenes — to answer your question — if we get the exposition right, and he thinks that we're funny enough, we move on. But we don't really do that many takes, to be honest.

Indy: It comes out pretty close to perfect on the first take, sometimes?

RL: I don't think any of us believe in perfection, but I've never done more than two or three takes in all the seven seasons.

Indy: I was watching the Richard Lewis Naked video yesterday, and misery is obviously your shtick you've built a lot of your act on in the past —

RL: I wish it was shtick, to be honest with you. It's who I am. I'm fairly miserable.

Indy: How much of your real self is in your stage persona?

RL: It's totally me. I didn't have a great childhood. I'm a recovered alcoholic. Take those two for openers — what am I? I'm not a happy-go-lucky guy. You know — drug addict, alcoholic, not a great upbringing. I have a bottomless pit of horrible memories which I felt I needed to share with an audience as soon as possible, to get some validation for who I am.

Am I glad I'm recovered? Yeah. Am I glad I met a wife and got married late in life, five years ago — someone who could tolerate all my flaws? Yeah. That's the good news. The bad news is that I still have a lot of noise like the Industrial Revolution between my ears, so that's what my act is. My act is all my noise. I don't have an act. I have about 20 or 30 hours of material that, believe me, I'll be long gone before it's ever said on stage.

I mean, maybe if I retire from the stage, I'll put together two or three volumes of this material so it's out there. But I ad-lib half the show, and the other stuff is stuff that I'm looking at. Already I'm looking at — I open in Seattle in a couple of weeks, and I just got back off the road, but now I'm getting into a stand-up head. I just scroll through months and months of the latest stuff I've been thinking about and pray to god it sticks to my head.

Not to mention Colorado Springs, I've never been to Colorado Springs. I'm not going to have that much time there before the show, but whatever I experience, my goal is to make people laugh. And if I start riffing something and they're laughing, it's not stuff that's pre-written — a lot of the stuff — if they're laughing, that's all that matters. If they're not laughing, I'll get out of it and go elsewhere. That's why touring is nerve-wracking for me. When I hear my name, I'm full of fear. I really don't know what's going to happen.

Indy: After all these years, you're full of fear, literally?

RL: Yeah, because I don't have an act. Most comedians know what they're gonna say. I'm not saying that's wrong, and they change it every now and then and they fill it out a bit — I just ramble and fortunately, enough people understand me and have followed me long enough to see me, they appreciate it, and those who don't, don't. But that's OK. If I was liked by everybody, I wouldn't like myself. I don't want to be that kind of person that's homogenized.

Indy: Did you model that kind of approach, the improv approach, after someone? Was there someone who mentored you and said, "Hey, do this"?

RL: I think — you know, there are certain idiosyncratic things that people who are born in New York, born Jewish, have overbearing mothers — if you give them a subject, there's a very strong chance that if they're in a room alone and write for an hour, that there'll be some similar jokes.

You know, as it turned out, when I heard Lenny Bruce and I watched Richard Pryor work, who was a friend, I realized that the bar was so high — that and listened to Woody Allen's joke-writing — I realized that, you know, if you can't at least strive for those bars, then what's the point? And George Carlin's fearlessness and Lenny's fearlessness — and Robert Schimmel, who died this past week, who was a friend of mine — these kind of guys were so fearless. And there's a lot others — but not many — and Jonathan Winters is a great friend of mine who's maybe the most brilliant of them all. Fortunately he's alive, but most people don't realize it because he stopped performing live in his 40s — his Tonight Show's on YouTube — if people watch them, they'll realize no one could be funnier than this guy. There's only a handful of people like that.

Once I realized how great they were, I said, "Look, you can only be as talented as you are, but at the very least what I have to be is fearless, and I have to tell them who Richard Lewis is." And that I do. That's what I've been good at and getting better at the longer I do this, and I've been doing it for four decades. Because no one is me, and so if I can get inside of my head and make people laugh — that was my goal.

When I walk off the stage in Colorado Springs, I guarantee you I'll have spent hundreds of hours thinking about the show, and I'll also hope to god that they laugh and also know that when they leave the theater that they'll be thrilled that they haven't had my life. That makes me, a lot of ways, a messiah of sorts.

Indy: It sounds like a lot of anxiety goes into thinking about those shows. Does that feed into some of the therapy shtick, too? Is that a real anxiety for you: Am I funny?

RL: After so long and so many thousands of TV appearances and shows, I hear enough laughter in my head to know that the people that come to see me will probably laugh if I'm on and having a good set. I'm just more concerned that the stuff I say is — that all the preparation I do and looking at the computer screen — that I say enough of the stuff that I looked at, because I don't bring notes on stage like I used to for decades — which had hours of all new material.

But this way now, I'm really flying by the seat of my pants, which is a phrase I rarely use and I don't think I understand it now that I think about it. But the truth of the matter is, I'm not worried about them laughing, I'm more worried about me being absolutely filled with fear and anxiety because that fuels my comedy and makes me funnier. I will be — believe me — by the time I hit the stage, I owe it to the audience to feel miserable, and I will.

Indy: What kind of prep do you do? You're coming to Colorado Springs. Do you get online and look at recent news stories, or go back to things like the Ted Haggard scandal and things like that?

RL: No. I never do that. I hate that kind of comedy. If I'm there for a day earlier and walk around and see things I've never seen before, I'll say, "Oh my God, what the hell is this?" I was born in New York. Obviously, there'll be a lot of things that will be like, "What the? You really live here? How?" Not in a mean-spirited way, but in a befuddled way. I don't wanna do what's going on with the mayor and scandals. I could care less.

I made a career about talking about my feelings, because I felt like my feelings were not cared about. As it turned out, people of all walks of life, all ages, different religions, they still have feelings that are very similar. That's what my act is built upon. It's more of a psychological thing than anything else. Not like observational humor or what's different about Colorado Springs and Brooklyn. That, to me, is boring.

Indy: Do you think one key to your popularity and success is how you've revealed your depths rather than just played a character? Have you put yourself out there further than most comedians and actors?

RL: Well, I don't know about actors — certainly not actors. But I haven't had the opportunity I wish I had, to do that as an actor. However, as a comedian, yeah, I think that people know Richard Lewis more than they know almost any other comedian, if I'm on my game. Because I am fearless and will tell them absolutely everything about every sin, every thing, every flaw I have. I have to do it in a way that's funny. But they will know that it's true.

That's why I wrote that book about my addictions about eight or nine years ago. Because I was in denial for so long that even though I was successful as a comedian — I hate to use that word in the arts, you don't go into the arts for success, but because you have this need to express yourself — but I was known and I was popular and I made a living at it, so fine. But I mean, I had to write in prose basically that I was a drug addict and a sex addict and all sorts — eating disorders, you name it. I said I'm working on it, on a day-to-day — and I have been for the last 17 years, fairly successfully. I didn't want to go on stage — I talk about it somewhat, it depends on the mood I'm — and you know I do it in a way that's not a lecture. I do it — some of the horror stories are hilarious, those are the ones I'll talk about.

Indy: I think I'm almost at my 20 minutes.

RL: Run out of time? This will probably be one paragraph with you just mocking me, basically.

Indy: Yeah, I'll just go back to that first question. How's that sound?

RL: I advise you — because you're very intelligent. I would throw that fuckin' question out for the rest of your life. It's gonna ruin your sex life, ruin your friendships, and ruin everything. You're gonna become a disheartened human being.

Indy: It just blew up in my face. I was going over it with my co-editor yesterday ...

RL: You actually went over this with — you planned that stupid question?

Indy: Why ask it the normal way: "What went right?" It's funnier: "What went wrong?" But obviously if I have to say it's funny, it's not funny. It didn't work.

RL: I have to tell you this. You're obviously a very smart guy. But this was — and I've been interviewed for 40-plus years. I say this proudly: I am glad that I called you on this. Because I think I saved your career. I really do, and I think that eventually, you should send me something if you hear I retired or had a stroke. Send me a present.

Indy: I can tell you the other question I held back on, if you wanna know.

RL: I gotta know. I won't mock you. I'm obsessive-compulsive, I have to know.

Indy: When I was going to ask about VAMPS, I was going to say, "So you're playing a former student activist turned ACLU lawyer — did you prepare for the role by defending white supremacists?"

RL: Oh my God! That's funny. That's actually funny. I mean that would be — those are those really hard decisions that ACLU lawyers have to make. Most of them make it on the side of defending anybody. But fortunately I'm a comedian, so I don't have to fuckin' answer that question. And now that I think about it, it was a good question.

It was the first one that absolutely — it filled me with terror. That I had to be on the phone for any length of time with you — but you came back so strong it was almost — you know I'm from New York, but when the Yankees were down to the last inning four or five years ago — and I'm a New York fan, I'm not an L.A. person — I'd root for a New York Korean ping pong team, anybody from New York, I don't care. But the truth of the matter is that when they lost to the Red Sox — that's how you came back. That was the greatest World Series ever for the Red Sox. It was unbelievable. But for you to come back after that pathetic opening was to me, almost like — it's Carnegie Hall for you, so congratulations by the way.

Indy: I thought that when you were changing phones, you were done. You were like, "Screw that guy — hey, I gotta call you back, my phone's dyin'."

RL: Changing phones? I was gonna blow my brains out after the first question. But it all worked out great. You deserve — I might even send you some money.

matthew@csindy.com

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