ALMOST FAMOUS – Round XVII
By Kimberlye Gold
An in-depth interview with comedian, actor and author RICHARD LEWIS!
Greetings, entertainment junkies! The last breath of summer has given way to the fall - and I must pull out my warmer dress-to-impress attire to cover all the auspicious Bay Area events! (What am I talking about? I live in Daly City, fog capital of the world!) On September 14, I attended a one-woman show called "Exit Laughing", part of the San Francisco Fringe Festival at the Exit Theater in the lovely Tenderloin. Submitted for your approval: one Ruby Unger, formerly "Miss Nancy" from KTVU Channel 2’s kiddy show, "Romper Room, and host of a popular all night radio talk show on KCBS; also one wild and crazy gal!
This particular show was an anniversary celebration for an organization she started 20 years ago, the WUFF (women united for fun). Ruby tossed rubber fish to audience members and convinced most of them that they now owned a mystical, multi-purposed "power trout." She heard the thunderous voice of God, and had the nerve to talk back. She conducted group chants (about irreverent subjects you would never hear on Romper Room). WUFF's men's auxiliary is Men Who Dare, and Ruby's special guest M.O.D. was none other than my pal Ben Fong-Torres, who brought down the sold-out house with a nifty Dean Martin number (with lyrics about WUFF) and, of course, "Teddy Bear" by his beloved Elvis Presley.
On September 21, I checked out Those Improv Guys at the Magic Theater at Fort Mason, featuring a quartet of talented and wacky thespians, Doug Kassel, Scott Keck, John Remak and Jerry Van De Veer. www.thoseimprovguys.com.
Their timing wasn’t quite as perfect or bits as funny as the cast of "Whose Line Is It Anyway", or even the last "Flash Family" improv show I saw at The Magic Theater, but they had plenty of good moments, nonetheless. Standout performance by John Remak, whose large-and-in-charge presence was a constant source of merriment and delight. Improvisational comedy is a "flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure for both actors and audience, and should be experienced by all who seek such a thrill!
A couple of "Unsung Heroes ‘n Zeroes":
Richard Ferriera, "Somewhereville" , from Nashville: this new millennium’s hybrid of Van Morrison meets that other Elvis (Costello) www.richardferreira.com. And Laura Cantrell, "Where The Roses Bloom Again" : a lovely pure country chanteuse via the Big Apple, who has nabbed some of the opening slots on that other Elvis’ latest tour. www.dieselonly.com. Both are nutritious and delicious in execution, content and vibe, kids.
Stay tuned next month for my 2nd annual exciting coverage of the Mill Valley Film Festival!!
Now on with the show…
HE CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW (And it’s still a nightmare!) "Prince Of Pain" Richard Lewis gratefully lives through his, one laugh at a time.
Time currently seems to be on the side of the serenity-challenged Lewis, who rarely finishes a sentence but has just finished his third season guest starring as himself on "Seinfeld" co-creator and fellow Brooklynite Larry David’s Emmy-nominated HBO series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and has had a recurring role as a rabbi on the WB family drama "7th Heaven". He just may hold the Guinness Book of World Records title for "Most Appearances on Late Night TV Talk Shows, slouching on the couches of his pals Jay Leno and David Letterman, on almost as regular a basis as the ones in his therapists’ offices.
His acclaimed dramatic debut, in the1995 indie film, "Drunks", where he played a recovering AA member who goes on a bender, has not led immediately to "a million opportunities", but he is "a phone call away from some really exciting stuff in TV and film if casting directors can get over the fact he’s "so damn identifiable as Richard Lewis" and cast him, like his peers Denis Leary and Robin Williams. His hilarious and scathingly honest collection of essays about life as a recovering addict, "The Other Great Depression", which last year received rave reviews from critics and fans alike, has just been released in paperback. Live Archive has put out a double CD, "Live From Hell (Before and After), and he’s in the middle of a cross country stand-up tour, riffing endlessly about "things from hell" – including himself now in the phrase he coined years ago.
Clean and sober for eight years, he’s emerged from Hell to become, of all things, a role model. It’s a role the 55-year-old comedian takes quite seriously.
"I made a joke on stage once that I have so much clarity now that I despise myself even more. I understand myself more, so the feelings are really strong and intense, both the good and the bad stuff, because I’m not blocking them out with anything. I have a manufacturing plant of baggage next to my house! But I am far more comfortable in my own skin, which is why I was so thrilled that Bruce Springsteen let me use his quote ("But it’s a sad man, my friend, who’s livin’ in his own skin and can’t stand the company"- from "Better Days") to open the book. I was never comfortable with who I was before. I burned a lot of bridges before I got sober, which is why I quit stand-up for a couple years. Stand-up was the one bridge I was not willing to burn. I go up there, I write, I direct, it’s my pacing, I chose to do the gig, and I’m grateful the fans want to come see me. When I think about what means the most to me, my first love, it’s stand-up.
After being a recovering addict for almost eight years now, I’ve learned to calm down a bit and not be so needy about stuff I don’t have. I take much more responsibility for my actions and know they have consequences if they aren’t principled. That metaphor I came up with back in the ‘70s, "Things From Hell"; I did have dates from hell and the family from hell, but now I know that I was the son from hell, and the date from hell, and it kind of opened up a huge treasure chest of new material. I’m able now, in a funny way, to flog myself. I have to point the finger at them and at me; it’s actually fair now. It was way one-sided before."
And that’s exactly what Lewis gets to do on a regular basis with his childhood chum Larry David on the Emmy-nominated HBO series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm". The acid tongue-in cheek parody of David’s life has enabled Lewis to combine his passion for the spontaneity of stand-up, his desire to act, and to explore his convoluted relationship of 40 years with David, apparently a comic love/hate affair.
"There are no scripts, it’s all ad-libbed," Lewis explains. "There’s just a three or four page outline of what each scene is. Larry and I know how to push each other’s buttons, how to set each other up, aggravate each other. If I’m angry at Larry on a personal level, I can use that that in the scene. We can really scream and yell at each other, as ourselves! It may not help my career as an actor, playing myself, but the cool thing is it’s all coming from my brain, my synapses, as it does from the rest of the cast. It’s such heightened realism, like a Cassavettes movie with comedy!
What makes me feel so good about the success of this show is that when Larry and I started out together in New York, we were huge fans of one another. But he hated the harsh realities of stand-up audiences. If someone ordered a drink while he was riffing, he’d storm off-stage. He was legendary for storming off-stage. He probably left the stage after a minute, more times than the amount of sets he ever did! Then "Seinfeld" hit and he became the most successful co-creator of a show in history, but I knew him as an amazing stand-up. Now he gets to do his riffs on this show! Even though it’s on HBO, not on network where 20 million people are watching, the ones who are watching are getting to see the Larry David I started out with."
And who is the Richard Lewis people are seeing now, since writing "The Other Great Depression": a book of comically brutal essays relaying the story of his life and struggles with "at least million addictions"? It’s clear that the confused kid born into a dysfunctional Brooklyn family in the ‘50s sees himself quite differently, a few years past the half-century mark, several years into sobriety, and two years after coughing up the deepest wretches of his soul. He appeared much more raw, almost haggard, at both his book signing, and his San Francisco stand-up show last January.
"That was one of the most grueling times in my life," Lewis admits. "I had been asked to write a book for many years, and when I finally had around five or six years of sobriety, I’d changed so much. I said, ‘I’m going to try to do this now. I can write some funny essays, but it’s going to have to be a lot about being an addict, or I have no interest in writing it.’ I wrote over 2000 pages, and it had to come down to 300. 60% of it was written two months before I finished it! A New York artist friend of mine said he felt like he was reading a book that I wrote with a gun to my head, and quite frankly, that’s how I felt. That’s exactly why I went to therapy for so long. I found a wonderful therapist in the last decade that I felt I had to be accountable to, or I would have gone off the deep end. I told myself, if I ever lie to her, if I lie in this book, then I’m just a fraud and a hoax, and I didn’t! It was cathartic for me because there is so much lying and spinning that goes on in this business.
When I get much older and it’s coming to the end of my career, I want to be the one to write about the dark stuff. I don’t want someone else to make up any bullshit about me. But it’s been much more than that. If you save one person’s life or help one person get on the right track, that’s plenty for me. Based on the letters I’ve received and what I’ve heard on the street, I have helped people and it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done. What’s particularly remarkable to me are the ones who just happen to pick up the book because they’re fans. They come up to me now and tell me they’re trying to help themselves, and it just doesn’t get any better than that."
Ah, but it does. A terminal bachelor with a black belt in fear-of-intimacy and commitmentphobia issues, Lewis titled one of the chapters in his book, "An Open Letter of Apology to Practically All the Women I Have Ever Gone Out With". He is now in a serious, committed, dare I suggest, healthy relationship for four years now with a woman who is actually closer to his own age instead of half of it, one of the many habits he candidly admits having such a tough time breaking. Beautiful women seemed synonymous with champagne and cocaine for this addict of everything under the sun. This is the longest relationship he’s ever sustained, he claims, and it’s a huge deal. Was it because he was finally ready, or because she was finally "the right one"?
"A relationship in my twenties is different than when I’m in my early fifties. There are certain things that I want out of a relationship now," he says. "She’s in her forties, she’s in the music business, she’s really cool and I love her. But I knew some really great women and some not so great women, before I got sober and there’s no way anything could have been that great while I was an alcoholic. I found the right woman at the right time. I met her just as I was writing my book, and I used to fax her thousands of pages, particularly about my addiction with women. She understood and wasn’t threatened by it. After being sober for four or five years, I actually met a woman who could listen to a Dylan album 1000 times a day, and wake up and listen to Mel Brook’s ‘2000 Year Old Man’. We had so many similar things, loves.
"There’s nothing wrong with somebody being with a woman 25 years younger. They can be brilliant and beautiful and have a great sex life. But that never worked for me, because there was something about making a living with the spoken word, with references being so crucial. I needed somebody who was alive when Kennedy was assassinated and the Beatles broke up. I went a long time without having that, and I tried to rationalize all the other good things that were there, but it was really dissatisfying to me. It’s hard not to be so self-absorbed and think too much about who you’re with and why, never having been married, never having kids. I’ve been the baby! I imagine it’s the greatest thing in the world, to create something from yourself and someone you love, and I’m envious. We both think about it, but we’re not sure we want that now. I think I just want to be content and happy and travel."
Content? Happy? Is Lewis finally growing up, settling down? Almost. In the chapter, "Marry Her, Asshole", he describes in hilarious and painful detail how, upon leaving a therapy session where he went "on and on and on about how great it was to be able to accept being loved by one incredible woman and not be halfway out the door," he spotted a beautiful mystery woman in a car, chased her down and got her to roll down her window at a stop light. It turned out to be his own girlfriend. (Why he didn’t recognize her car remains the biggest mystery of all). When he told a famous rock star acquaintance, legendary for his dalliances with countless women, that he "tried to hit on my own chick", the friend replied, "Marry her, asshole."
"It was such a metaphor for how pitiful this addiction is," Lewis sighed. "To feel so good about loving a woman – telling your therapist about it - and then moments later, letting it all fly out the window and driving like a total basket case. It’s never enough, even if you’re happy or with someone you care about. It was quite an epiphany at the time, but epiphanies wear thin after awhile, and you really have to work on it, a day at a time, like every addiction I have. But I’m glad it happened, and it’s a favorite essay of many people because it does show in very real terms, how hard it is to go forward and fight addictions."
And the fight generally begins at home. Lewis’ workaholic father died suddenly after what was supposed to be successful open-heart surgery, while Lewis was in his twenties. His mother suffered a heartbreaking deterioration following a stroke and died during the course of his writing the book. In it, he touchingly described one of their last visits, where he was finally able to understand and forgive her for the lack of nurturing and support he felt growing up. It is a lesson that has served him well.
"No mother is perfect, no person is," Lewis obliges. "She had her own stuff to work out in her life and wasn’t capable of enjoying my success, nor understand my craziness, even felt guilty for my alcoholism and was, in fact, in denial of it. We also had wonderful moments and she had a great sense of humor, and my hunch is that she had a much easier time feeling proud of me behind my back than to my face, for a myriad of reasons. When she became so ill and we had a meeting of the minds – I think, because she was so out of it – I was able to accept her as a woman, not just as my mother. Sure, it would have been better for her to have had a healthier life herself, and we would have had a better relationship, especially after I sobered up. But in accepting her defects as I have slowly tried to fix my own, it’s helped me in all areas of my life, not just in trying to have a healthy, long-term relationship."
Deep thoughts from a man who tells jokes for a living.
"Listen, I’m really grateful. I’ve been making a living at something I love for 30 years – being a comedian – everything else is gravy," Lewis says humbly. "I can remember when I was 24, I’d just gotten this great gig and I was jumping up and down, and I remember the song that was out then, "I Can See Clearly Now". I played it over and over, ‘cause there was that great moment in the song, not the chorus, that part that goes, "Lookin’ around, nothin’ but blue skies" and I felt so euphoric! What was that, the hook?"
The bridge. Take him to the bridge! But throw him a net, just in case….###