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An Interview with Richard Lewis: Bo Derek, Narcissism, Therapy And Sandwiches

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Richard Lewis' free-form, uninhibited style has been likened to beloved talents ranging from Lenny Bruce to Jimi Hendrix. The New York Post said, "Richard Lewis built the strongest stand-up comedy career on a blazing trail of neuroses since Woody Allen;" but perhaps Mel Brooks put it best when he said, "Richard Lewis may just be the Franz Kafka of modern day comedy."

Richard is currently on his "Misery Loves Company Tour," and filming his 7th season of Curb Your Enthusiasm where, playing true-to-life, he reprises his role as one of Larry David's closest friends. Among the accomplishments he is most proud of, Comedy Central has recognized Richard Lewis as one of the top 50 stand-up comedians of all time, he was charted on GQ Magazine's list of the '20th Century's Most Influential Humorists' and played to an SRO concert at Carnegie Hall.

JOHN DEBELLIS: How come you're up so early?

RICHARD LEWIS: I haven't slept since McGovern lost. I'm tired. Put the tape machine on.

JOHN DEBELLIS: It's on.

RICHARD LEWIS: Okay, well, I'm not doing the interview. Take care, Johnny.

JOHN DEBELLIS: Bye.

RICHARD LEWIS: I did this because you tricked me. You know that I'm weak and fragile. You're the David Copperfield of comedy writers. You have a dark Jack Rubyesque side to you. You ask me something and it's almost like I smell gunfire. Is this for the Farmer's Almanac? Let me give you a prediction; there will be no soil in Iowa. Take care, John.

JOHN DEBELLIS I don't believe I have to even ask you a question.

RICHARD LEWIS: The reason I'm talking over you is that you don't know how to ask a question. You have a degree in nothing. Don't you get it? I'm helping you.

What's the name of the magazine? Do you still write articles for Perfect Ten?

JOHN DEBELLIS: No, this is for the Huffington Post.

RICHARD LEWIS: That's cool. I write for them too, but I did like the name Perfect Ten because it was sort of a throw back to Bo Derek. I met her at a Deli. I got married four years ago. I'm monogamous. As we're speaking, I'm not exactly at a disco. It's L.A... It's 7:45 in the morning. There's nothing to trigger that sex addiction, or as my therapist would say, "It was an affection addiction." She said, "You got so bashed emotionally, you might like sex, but you wanted women to love you. Sex was just sort of a side effect." [Laughing] Sex is a side effect to my lovemaking.

JOHN DEBELLIS: That's a great way to put it.

RICHARD LEWIS: Don't judge me! Anyway, Bo Derek came over to me. And she looked absolutely drop-dead killer. If I was single, I would have asked her out. I have this need to ruin my marriage, so I told me wife that Bo Derek hit on me. Guys don't ever do this! I'm not talking to you, John. You're lost. You're gone. Puppets did better than you with women. When I got sober almost fifteen years ago, part of the way I could stay sober was being honest about myself. So I have to deal with that aspect of my persona, defects that wanted me to medicate myself. So "Ten" comes over to me and says, "I've been a fan of yours forever." And I froze. When I was single, I was basically a consensual serial womanizer. I wasn't a scummy person. I was manipulative. I wrote notes to people, "I hope you're in love. I hope you're married. I hope you have a boyfriend. I hope you're happy, but if you're not?" I wrote two things, which was the manipulative side. "I'm a decent person," then I actually said this to many of the most beautiful women in the world, "I'll take you for a tuna sandwich." If you say a drink then you're lumped in with all these sleezoids. But if you say a club sandwich-- a Rueben sandwich--trust me, it just makes the person feel less stressed. So what you do is you have a Rueben sandwich, and then you have twelve martinis. Anyway, where were you?

JOHN DEBELLIS: What happened when you told your wife about Bo Derek?

RICHARD LEWIS: My wife's hip, beautiful and independent and never jealous. She says, "If you don't want to be with me. If you want to leave me for another woman, fine. I love you. We've had a great run. I met her eleven years ago at some record party for Ringo Starr. Next. That's the deal with her. She said, "I'd be devastated but I'll get over it. I don't want anyone that doesn't want me." I spent thirty years of my life wanting people who didn't want me. I wanted to repeat my mother. When I got my first Tonight Show thirty years ago, I told my mother I was on the Tonight Show this week, and she said, "Who else is on?" It took decades of analysis and therapy to figure out that I didn't trust women. Who the fuck cares anymore? At this point I'm just glad to move my bowels. Did you ask a question yet?

JOHN DEBELLIS: I remember when I went to see you in L.A. in the seventies, you started leaning forward and the whole neurotic thing emerged.

RICHARD LEWIS: There's a thin line between narcissism, even if it's a healthy narcissism, and entertainment. But I chose to go on stage to be validated because I felt so bashed. If I'm not going to talk about myself in front of strangers and see if they laugh and understand, then what's the point of it? I don't want to tell people, "Did you ever notice this about Kmart?" I don't want to tell anyone how they think or what they see. That's what happened to me. I take a great pride in three things as a comedian: the premises are real, I'm prolific, and I feel strongly that who I am on stage is the same as who I am off. I'm not saying that's a great thing. But to me, that made me authentic. I thought, "Let people know who Richard Lewis is because my family didn't take the time to know me."

JOHN DEBELLIS: Your on-stage persona can't be confused with anyone else's.

RICHARD LEWIS: Rodney Dangerfield once told me-- I was close to him, which was like being close to a tornado, dark, brilliant-- he said, "Hey, you know what you're doing. You have a persona." And that meant the world to me, coming from him. How much more of a persona could you have? "I get no respect."

JOHN DEBELLIS: Says it all.

RICHARD LEWIS: I chose the metaphor, which is in the Yale Book of Quotations. "Blank from hell." That basically said I was a victim. The reason I wrote my book (The Other Great Depression, which by the way is re-issued now with new writing and also on audio for the first time) was because I blamed everything for everything and everyone for everything and now everyone knows I'm a recovering alcoholic. I take great pride and saying it on television, particularly with Larry David. I must have said it scores of times, "Larry don't push me, and I'm fragile." I try to make it funny. If one person is watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, or a talk show and I say, "I'm a recovering drug addict or alcoholic," and that person sitting in their apartment says, "I never knew that," and his wife says, "You see, you're fucking up your life and Richard Lewis overcame this," and he or she tries to get help, it's all worth it.

JOHN DEBELLIS: You got me in therapy.

RICHARD LEWIS: I got about 80,000 people in therapy. In fact, there's one province in Iraq that most of the people there call my former therapist in NY, who you go to.

JOHN DEBELLIS: You used to tell me that when I drove you across town I was driving in the fetal position.

RICHARD LEWIS: Well, it was scary driving with you when you weren't looking at the windshield. You were the worst driver ever.

JOHN DEBELLIS: I was nervous. It was my first nights at the clubs.

RICHARD LEWIS: When I drove Larry David over to the old Improv or to Catch, he asked, "Mr. Lewis can I have a ride across town?" Of course, he denies it. Do we have to talk about Larry? Only because Larry won't do interviews. I get on the average of fifteen calls a day saying, "Larry won't speak to us. Can we talk to you about him?" He hates P.R. I love him. The seven years he's given me on Curb resurrected my stand-up career in a big way and I'm grateful.

JOHN DEBELLIS: The last time I played stickball was with you and Larry. You could really hit.

RICHARD LEWIS: Pete Rose signed my stickball bat because I beat him in stickball. Shawn Green, one of the few Jewish ball players, signed a bat of mine, "To the greatest Jewish stickball player." I was one of the greatest stickball hitters that ever lived. Larry couldn't get me out. How far afield are you in this line of questioning, because right now I feel you are absolutely clueless what to ask me?

JOHN DEBELLIS: You keep making me laugh.

RICHARD LEWIS: Someday that will happen to you.

JOHN DEBELLIS: I don't think so. You're quicker than I am.

RICHARD LEWIS: Well, that's because you're more like Willy Loman. I'm more defensive than you are. I'm a cripple emotionally next to you.

JOHN DEBELLIS: But you're happily married now.

RICHARD LEWIS: I am, but I'm still, as my friend called me yesterday, "an emotional hypochondriac."

JOHN DEBELLIS: I'm pretty bad too. To me, antidepressants are a food group.

RICHARD LEWIS: That's hilarious. Put that in the interview. What do I care? You're going to put in all your one-liners and I'm going to come off as a social worker.

JOHN DEBELLIS: This is about you.

RICHARD LEWIS: Well, I'm waiting. Here's what this interview is going to be: Lewis picks DeBellis' top thirty jokes. You're a charlatan. I get a list of all these people you interviewed-- Mother Theresa, the Messiah. You're a hoax! You interviewed one person: the inventor of the dildo. But I'm doing this for you. And that's it. I don't give a fuck about anything, except my wife, relatives, a handful of friends, the current administration and my charities. By the way, my wife's charity is Urbanfarming.org. Its mission is to eradicate hunger. I'm on the board. It's unbelievable. It beautifies inner cities and educates the young and the elderly on how to grow food. To see them grow a garden, beautify where they live, then feed their neighborhood, and also being sober enables me to help other addicts, and it doesn't get any better than that. Now that I'm monogamous, orgasms have gone down the food chain, those things are really important to me. How much can you do, man? My balls are almost reaching the ground. If I have Elephantitis, it's over, I'll retire. I'm not going to roll onto the stage.

JOHN DEBELLIS: Since this is a political site, I'm actually going to ask you a few political questions, now.

RICHARD LEWIS: It's about time.

JOHN DEBELLIS: Okay, after eight years of Bush and Cheney, I still have a hard time believing we have a new progressive president. Has that reality hit you yet?

RICHARD LEWIS: Yes. But I still dream that Bush and Cheney are my agents.

JOHN DEBELLIS: [laughing] I keep hearing from pundits that comics are going to miss George Bush. Are you going to miss him?

RICHARD LEWIS: Miss him? Are you nuts? I was in a deep depression for 8 years! I even saw an Armageddon Channel on my cable yesterday. Good riddance!

JOHN DEBELLIS: I'm with you on that. Is it more challenging to find funny material in a president you like as opposed to one you hate?

RICHARD LEWIS: I find it easier to find material about how much I hate myself.

JOHN DEBELLIS: Again, I agree. When they announced Obama won, what were you feeling or thinking?

RICHARD LEWIS: I wasn't doing anything but crying tears of joy.

JOHN DEBELLIS: It was an amazing moment. Did you ever think that we'd have a black president?

RICHARD LEWIS: Yes, and now we have the greatest President at the best possible time, regardless of color.

JOHN DEBELLIS: I feel he has a real chance at bringing the country together. Has his election victory changed your feeling about this country?

RICHARD LEWIS: It just reminded me that the country isn't insane and has a shot at really being what the Founders envisioned.

JOHN DEBELLIS: Do you think President Obama should go after Bush and Cheney for war crimes?

RICHARD LEWIS: Yes, I wish he would, but he probably won't now and maybe never, because Americans are starving and out of work and homeless and can't get health care and he is putting his priorities there and I can't disagree with that. Those two cats and "their Neo-con cohorts from hell" will have a much higher power to answer to.

JOHN DEBELLIS: If he goes after them, what do you think we should do to Bush, Cheney and Rove?

RICHARD LEWIS: Who knows? I just write jokes. But I'm glad I don't have to live in their skins!

JOHN DEBELLIS: What do you think Cheney was thinking when he saw Obama getting sworn in?

RICHARD LEWIS: Thinking of his oil profits.

JOHN DEBELLIS: By chance, do you happen to have a solution to the financial crisis?

RICHARD LEWIS: I'll ask my therapist.

JOHN DEBELLIS: The Republicans are already starting their obstructionist bullshit. Do you have any advice for President Obama on how to deal with them?

RICHARD LEWIS: Send them to Alaska.

JOHN DEBELLIS: Maybe then we could get health care. Do you believe that we still don't have universal health care in this country?

RICHARD LEWIS; Yes, it's the dark side of our system and "greed" is making it tough for us to realize our full potential as a country.

JOHN DEBELLIS: Can you explain how all these high profile politicians could overlook paying their taxes?

RICHARD LEWIS: They feel invincible and forget about consequences.

JOHN DEBELLIS: The last time you were on Keith Olbermann's show you were the calmest I've ever seen you. Any explanation for that?

RICHARD LEWIS: Yes. Obama won and I was so filled with joy and I was trying to express a lot of things in five minutes versus bashing the insanity of the Bush years. But I managed to express the "sad desperation" that Senator McCain showed in his campaign by choosing someone so ill-suited to be a breath away from being President. Basically, I was feeling serene. And the last time I felt "serene" it was the name of a hooker I met in Vegas. That was a silly joke. I never used hookers. I was too afraid of catching something. I would have wrapped myself up in 1200 condoms and looked like a Jewish mummy.

JOHN DEBELLIS: Before you get too serene, let's get away from politics. Who is out there now that you like?

RICHARD LEWIS: Therapists?

JOHN DEBELLIS: I should have been more specific. Only you would immediately think I meant therapists. I meant comics.

RICHARD LEWIS: When I was younger I listened to the greats: Winters, Mel and Carl, Nichols and May, Pryor, Carlin, Klein, Berman and lots of Lenny Bruce albums. But once I started doing fairly well, I didn't want to hear anybody's jokes or premises. I didn't want to hear anyone doing a routine on a sweater, for example, because I'm really ethical about this craft and my brain would shut down and not think of sweaters for a long time. So I don't know who's good out there. When I hear someone's really phenomenal and I watch it with my wife, after five minutes, I'll tell her to turn it off-- "I get it, the guy's really incredible." Then I want to go back to a hotel and look at my stuff. I love comedians who are the same on stage as off, like Mason and how Rodney was. But recently, who was more authentic, say, than Carlin or Wright, Izzard, Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison? And there are so many others. In fact, Larry David, as a standup was amazing. I left out plenty but you get my drift. Actually, knowing you, you are probably lost now and weeping.

JOHN DEBELLIS: I can't go to comedy clubs unless it's to see a friend.

RICHARD LEWIS: A friend I'll go see, but that's different. People say, "Why don't you go to the clubs here in LA?" Because I built the damn clubs with a handful of others. I have a ninety-foot face on the driveway at the Hollywood Improv. I'm a sandwich at a lot of these comedy clubs. I work on new material whenever I do concerts, or casinos, or club engagements-- I don't need to work out material here in town. Been there, done that. Even on TV shots I wind up ad-libbing most of them. I have a casino gig in a couple of weeks and then I'll do a nightclub in San Francisco that seats 450. The point is, I will do that same kind of fearless set each night. I don't need to go to the Improv in L.A. and work out. I started at the NY Improv and love the clubs for that reason, but I don't need to work out on my downtime anymore. When you have to do monologues starting out, then it is very important to work out, but I haven't done monologues since 1982-- all because of Letterman. He changed my life as a comedian when he got his show. He gave me my first big break He was a big fan and he said, "You know you're a hit and miss standup on Johnny Carson, because you're so physical and for the camera it's not good. Plus you're just so nuts." He said, "Just sit down, be yourself and wail. You don't ever have to do standup again." And I never did.

JOHN DEBELLIS: You were always spontaneous.

RICHARD LEWIS: I have a lot of material in my head, and like I said, I have about twenty hours of new stuff in my laptop I look at daily, and if something moves me that day or that night, I'll open with it and also ad-lib a lot of my set. Years ago, starting out, I used to think I had to put everything I loved into a set and rush. Even on TV I rushed to get more jokes in than the time called for. Steve Landesberg, of Barney Miller fame, an old friend, and a wonderful comedian, was at the Improv when I started and he gave me a great tip for TV shots. He'd say, "Look at that light. Play to the camera. Those are ten million people watching. The studio audience is only three or four hundred. If they happen to laugh, fabulous. If they applaud, fabulous. If not, smile and move on."

JOHN DEBELLIS: You were on Letterman every six weeks or so.

RICHARD LEWIS: In the early days, yeah. George Miller, who sadly passed away, might have done a couple more Lettermans than me. Among the living, no one has done more, I don't think-- not that it matters. I've done about sixty-five. It helped me get club dates, which allowed me to pay the bills. I was living hand to mouth in a little apartment. I was running into superstars in airports saying, "Richard you're great, blah, blah, blah." But they have no clue that financially, if you're not in a series, or you're not a movie star, back then nightclubs paid nothing.

JOHN DEBELLIS: When we started, it was very different.

RICHARD LEWIS: We were a handful by comparison to the number of comics now. We were a transitional link between the big stars of the fifties and sixties and took the torch and handed it over to the mushrooming amount of comedians of the eighties.

JOHN DEBELLIS: I heard David Brenner gave you great advice about the Tonight Show.

RICHARD LEWIS: He said, "One Tonight Show was like being at the Improv on a Saturday night for a hundred fifty thousand years." I'm psyched-up when I do radio. I can reach hundreds of thousands of people in a market. And way psyched-up when I'm on television. For people not to take it seriously is foolish.

JOHN DEBELLIS: Are there any rumors about you that I don't know?

RICHARD LEWIS: I have bouts of happiness.

JOHN DEBELLIS: You actually sound pretty happy.

RICHARD LEWIS: I'm on top of my house now wearing a dress with a gun to my head. How do you know? You don't know.

JOHN DEBELLIS: I do know that even at your lowest point, your comedy was still important to you.

RICHARD LEWIS: I remember when I bottomed on drugs, I was hole up in my house doing blow for about six days and I was looking at myself and I was disheveled. I remember David Brenner told me that he had everything just from jokes. I sort of reprised that. I was looking at myself and I was on my way out. I felt pathetic. I've gotten everything I've gotten-- all the good stuff-- from writing jokes, and I said, "Am I going to just drop dead and lose everything and become homeless or go insane with a disease that I could actually stop?" It's not that I had cancer or AIDS. I was an alcoholic and drug addict. If I just put the cork in the bottle, or didn't buy the cocaine, I had a shot. And that's when I said, "No mas." It took me a long time.

JOHN DEBELLIS: I had no idea you were going through this.

RICHARD LEWIS: Listen, I sold out Carnage Hall in 1989. I did two and a half hours. I got two standing ovations. I was a functioning alcoholic in terms of my career. Toward the end, I stopped standup for three years. I had some concerts and some shots on TV and I was bad. I didn't want to burn that bridge because that was all that I had. My life was out of control. Then I was on the TV show. I knew my part. I got my shit together for two days. I got four days off. I was an active alcoholic and I got terrific reviews. The show lasted four years. I wasn't happy, but I got through it. I remember at Carnegie Hall, after the show, I got totally obliterated and I had to ask my sister, "Are you sure I got two standing ovations?" A lot of people feel when you get depressed and you're hopeless, that's when people drink and do drugs. But for me I did it mostly when I was happy. I didn't feel like I deserved success and, of course, would medicate my anxieties; but of course, problems don't disappear by drinking or drugging them away. I wake up every day since August 4th, 1994 asking to be free of the obsession of alcohol and drugs. So far so good.

JOHN DEBELLIS: So what is your day like?

RICHARD LEWIS: I woke up at four AM. I couldn't sleep knowing that I was going to be tortured by you. When I get off the phone, I'm going to work out. Then I'm going to go back to sleep. Then I'm going to go to a few hotels with about ten thousand new premises and look at them. The more I look at them the more confidant I feel on stage.

JOHN DEBELLIS: Why do you go to hotels?

RICHARD LEWIS: I like getting out of the house. I print out about five months of premises, which is about five hours of new material, and I just look at it, underline stuff, and put X's next to things I like. I just keep looking at them, so by the time I hit the stage I remember about a half hour of it. The other half hour I ad-lib and the other fifteen minutes are things I've been doing, but I never do it the same way. Every show is different. Between shows I go into the green room, remember what I did, and look at my notes and come out of the gate with new stuff.

JOHN DEBELLIS: That's confidence.

RICHARD LEWIS: If I laugh when I write it down, then that's all that matters. And if the audience laughs, it's a bonus. I can't go back and repeat the first set because, if it worked out, I already know it's funny and it bores me to do it again. If I'm going to free associate for 70 minutes, I want to be surprised as much as the audience. And if the audience is with me, I just go wild. I just keep ad-libbing until it dips. Mostly I don't know what's going to happen.

JOHN DEBELLIS: I'm blown over by your ability and the huge risks you take.

RICHARD LEWIS: I'm not the only one who does it. But I do it more than most. That's why Curb is so great, because Larry writes these remarkable outlines, so all you have to do is be on your game and you'll be funny.

JOHN DEBELLIS: It's like watching you and LD just being yourselves.

RICHARD LEWIS: I come back from the show and my wife asks, "How did it go?" and I'd say, "I don't know. I got cranky. I yelled at him." Until he edits it, I don't know if I came out good. I yell at him ninety percent of the time on that show. And I fight him physically seventy percent of the time. I once sprained his wrist and broke his glasses and I thought he was going to kill me. We have such a good relationship. It's funny because he's such a mogul out here. I love to walk on the set and you hear a young actor or actress, say, "Mr. David...etc." And I'll walk by Larry and go, "You're a piece of shit." And he laughs, because he knows what I'm doing. And I don't psychoanalyze LD any more, so many shrinks ran from him screaming.

JOHN DEBELLIS: I once asked him what it was like to have all that money. And he said, "The only time I'm happy is when I play golf, and I stink at that."

RICHARD LEWIS: That's true. Now that he's gotten all the recognition --

JOHN DEBELLIS: He's happy.

RICHARD LEWIS: But I think he's having a hard time understanding why.

JOHN DEBELLIS: Most comics are like that. But you actually sound really good.

RICHARD LEWIS: Don't judge my happiness.

JOHN DEBELLIS: I shouldn't say you're happy.

RICHARD LEWIS: It's none of your business. I'm feeling better than ever because I'm committed to a good woman. As someone from my past, you understand it. We're cut from the same cloth. A woman who would take a bullet for you is something uncanny, baffling, and yet glorious. Speaking of which, I better go and see if my wife is still with me. This interview took a fuckin' day and a half.