Richard Lewis is on the phone, shot out of a cannon almost as soon as you pick up the receiver.
"I'm driving around in a taxi and I'm completely insane -- like a cross between Shecky Greene and Travis Bickle," the 63-year-old comedian says. "Maybe that's my new stage name -- Shecky Bickle."
He's calling to talk about his upcoming run at Caroline's on Broadway, where he'll be performing nightly March 24-27. But with Lewis, the stream-of-consciousness conversation rarely stays on one track.
"I'm so sick of me," he says, continuing, "I think I've never been better on stage. But I'm 63 -- so at this point, my balls are longer than my career. After the show, I'll be taken out on a gurney with a 7-foot-5 guy taking me back to bed."
He's been watching Meet the Press and free-associates about what Libya will be like if Moammar Gadhafi is ousted from power: "Once things are settled, I'm getting a summer house in Tripoli." Then he moves on to Cong. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota (home state of Lewis' wife), who has just been on TV mocking First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to get more women to breast-feed.
"That Tea Party woman," he moans, "she thinks breasts are a socialist plot. It's like this woman appeared to Lorne Michaels in a vision."
Playing Caroline's is a return of sorts for Lewis, who performed at the original Caroline's (once upon a time, a hole-in-the-wall comedy club on Eighth Avenue near Chelsea) in the 1980s.
"I used to play there three times a year -- and every three or four months, I'd have a completely new show," he says.
It's an obsession of the comedian who's been dubbed "the Prince of Pain" for his hilariously self-lacerating material: Never tell the same joke twice. He's constantly writing material, to make sure he's not repeating himself. Once upon a time, he'd keep a legal pad with him, writing down premises for jokes - then taping them together until the 20-foot-long tapestry of yellow paper resembled comedy's answer to the AIDS quilt. No longer.
But he has mixed feelings about having shed this paper security blanket, which represented his ability to dive into new material at a moment's notice. Wife Joyce keeps reminding him that, to most audiences, the material is new, even if it isn't to Lewis.
"She keeps saying, 'There are 300 million people in America -- and 90 percent of the people who come to see you have never seen you perform before'," he says. "I guess she's right. Even the few close friends I have don't come every night. As my wife says, 'You don't even say 'Hello' the same every morning. Do the world a favor and stop worrying.' She's right. It's so grandiose."
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