Richard Lewis on why he disappeared

Richard Lewis on the phone: "What happened was fairly dramatic"

Richard Lewis

Comedian Richard Lewis performing at Zanies comedy club in Vernon Hills. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune / April 18, 2009)

When you’ve been having phone conversations with comedian Richard Lewis for the past three decades, it doesn’t take long for him to warm up.

But this time is different.

Sure, he starts out light, contemplating his place in comedy, his miserable childhood, his Jewish persona, the film he recently shot for director Peter Bogdanovich (“Squirrels to the Nuts”), his bout with alcoholism and the unexpected reverence he’s receiving from younger colleagues, now that he’s 66 and a star of Larry David’s HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Before long, however, Lewis – who plays Zanies on Thursday and Friday – is probing a still more personal subject: Why he vanished from the club and concert scene during the first half of this year.

As always, his soliloquy tumbles forth like an avalanche, jokes tucked in amid sorrows and vice versa.

As soon as he answers the phone, in fact, he’s funny and grim all at once.

“Ladies and gentleman, Howard Reich – see how you’d feel if you heard that five million times!” says Lewis, speaking from his home in California.

And then he’s off and riffing (what follows is an edited version of the conversation, which otherwise would fill the rest of today’s newspaper).

‘I’m a hoax’

“I have fallen into the category – I’ve never considered myself a celebrity, and I never will – but I know that I am, because we know what a celebrity does.

“I don’t have any oral sex tapes out there. I’m considering throwing (on YouTube) me being disgusted with the horseradish at my grandmother’s Seder. I mean that would go viral.

“My parents (would say): ‘Don’t ever put her down, she was tortured in Russia.’ All right, I’m sorry, I can’t eat this stuff.

“You see, the sad thing is, and the good thing is that what I just said, I don’t know how it pops in my head, but I’ll say it immediately.

“This is absolutely what I’ve been hearing for years: ‘God, he started talking about Jack Ruby, and then he forgot, or I don’t know if he forgot, about an hour later he shoots (Lee Harvey) Oswald, and he came out of this whole thing about blindness, he’s a genius.’

“And I say to the people: ‘Let me tell you right now, my memory is shot, I might start out on a riff that I think is cool, but I will forget that I’m in it and move on, so don’t praise me for anything.’

“You know, it’s for the same reason I started stand-up. It’s to try to get some adulation and some feelings of vindication, that I’m not always wrong for my family. Because it wasn’t a great upbringing, as you know by now.

“It’s almost as if I have received the kudos for this craft, and now I’m backtracking on stage, and backtracking is the wrong word. I’m now basically saying, ‘No, I’m a hoax. I’m a complete hoax.’

“And it’s sort of sad in one way. But I guess I can’t tolerate people actually praising me. I don’t deserve. But you know, I’m not unhappy, I’m not whining about it.”

‘I’m in a cool spot’

“There are two main themes that running through my life now.

“One, at 66, and with a lot of these legendary guys not really working, or dead, and me coming at a time where I have the respect of the guys now in their 80s, like Mel (Brooks) and Carl (Reiner) and Joan Rivers, but I also can get on the phone and go out and talk to Sarah Silverman and Jeffrey Ross and Marc Maron, so I’m in a really cool spot.

“It’s the last thing I would have ever thought of myself as someone highly regarded in what I thought I never could accomplish

“I just don’t know if I’m ever going to be satisfied.

“People sometimes say, ‘Well, you know, you’ve got a good wife, your marriage is good, you’ve done well.’

“I go, ‘Yeah? No, no, no, no, no! You live inside between these ears for a day – you can’t wait to get onstage.’

“I’m losing so many friends. We all do as we get older. I mean Lou Reed was an old friend. And not just celebrities. I lost a best friend the week before Lou passed away.

“It’s almost as if every time I go to a gig now, and not to be cynical or remotely be funny, I go: ‘I’m doing this for Lou,’ or ‘I’m doing this for these artists.’ Because it’s really now coming down to, at my age, staying healthy, staying alive, and being funny and taking care of my wife and the relatives I really care about and friends.”

‘I started sort of hallucinating’

“(Several) months ago, Howard, I was on the road, and agents call you and go: ‘Hey, you’ve got an offer, you got an offer.’

“And I’m OK, I don’t have to take every offer, but I don’t like to turn them down either.

“What happened was fairly dramatic. I was in this hotel room, and I hadn’t slept for two days, and I had just been on a tour of about seven or eight cities. Some of them were concerts, some were clubs. I would say close to 30 shows in three weeks, and I was hardly home.

“And I started sort of hallucinating. I really felt the building was like – like, this is bad, man. I said, ‘Richard, you’re not having a breakdown, but your body is breaking down.’

“And I did this show, but it was like an out of body (experience). Once you’re in there, you don’t make any excuses, you know. I would have liked to have told these people, ‘I haven’t slept in three days, I haven’t taken a break in 40 years, and mainly I haven’t turned off that comedy knob for 45 years. And it finally caught up with me.’

“When you hear guys like (comedian) Dick Shawn dying on stage, or, I mean there are other reasons you die onstage, but I saw myself like: ‘Richard Lewis, you know, dropped dead.’ l saw it as loud as like a billboard.

“So I go on the phone, and I called anyone that was close to me in business, and I said: ‘I’m out. I’m out of stand-up, until further notice.’

“And I came home and my doctor grounded me for five months. And the thing that was so great about it was that it was the first time since I was 20 that I knew that I had nothing pending. No talk shows, no concerts, nothing.

“I mean, if acting came along, fine. That’s a different ball game. But nothing about, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Richard Lewis.’ I didn’t have to be that person in front of strangers.

“And I sat and I watched (TV), I got caught up on shows that I heard were the best written, like ‘The Wire’ and ‘Breaking Bad.’ My wife and I would watch two or three episodes a night for two or three months, we’d go to films, and I’d basically just stay home.

“She’d say: ‘Dinner’s ready.’ And I’d say: ‘I just want to see what happens to Barney Fife, it’s hilarious.’

“But I never did that (before). I’ve had a great life, I don't mean to sound – I’m not whining – but I never turned off my head. From funerals to the darkest moments to the most joyous moments, rather (than) enjoy the joy or grief, something would strike me funny, and I’d whip out my (writing) pad and write it down. And it took me out of the moment

“And being out of the moment for 44 years, really, without sounding too melodramatic, if that’s the right word, I just felt like: I better take control here. Because comedy took over. It absolutely took over. And I went back two months ago.”

‘I’m totally naked (up) there’

“And to be honest, I don’t know how I’m going to be on this next round of cities, including Chicago. But I needed that break, and the last four cities, I have been in such a zone, it’s almost like I don’t even realize what I’m doing on stage. I just hear applause at the end and walk off and say: ‘How did it go?’ And that’s probably the best you can be, is when you’re not conscious of what’s going on. It’s just pouring out of me.

“And I think it’s coupled with the fear of I don’t know how long I can do this physically.

“But the truth is, also, I don’t care now if someone doesn’t get me, and there’s plenty that don’t get me. And I almost take pride in that now.

“And I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it to you, but I’ve always been a huge (fan of) – and one of the people I wish I would have met – John Cassavetes. Never met him and could have, but I think my alcoholism stopped me from going to a play that was two miles away that he turned into a film.

“But the thing is, when he used to screen his movies, and he found people too comfortable, he would go back and edit and make it more horrifying, you know. And it’s not a complete analogy, but there are people I see staring at each other (during a Lewis show).

“There could be two couples next to each other: And one couple is absolutely, it’s almost like, ‘Please, no more, we can’t take it, it’s so (funny).’ And the other couple is staring at me like I’m an alien. They’ll say, ‘Let’s go, let’s just go.’

“That’s been me my whole career anyway. I never intended – it’s not like it was an intentional thing – but for me have everyone like me? Ewww, God, I can’t even imagine being that kind of person, that kind of comedian. And I’m not and I never will be.

“I guess a circus clown has no choice. You know, when he’s squirting soda at another clown, and some kids are going, ‘Boooo,’ then he’s in trouble, with makeup on and the red nose. But I don’t have makeup and a red nose.

“I just have me. I’m totally naked (up) there. So they’re going to either dig it or not.”

‘I don’t know what’s going to happen’

“I’m always nervous when I hear my name, because I really don’t know what’s going to happen on stage. But I’m nervous now in an exciting way. I was getting to a point where I was nervous in a nervous way, because I didn’t feel I had the goods anymore. And that was only because I was suffering, as my doctor said, from nervous exhaustion.

“You know, I’m getting older, I’m old. 66. Maybe I look 65. But I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to do this. So what I do is I take less gigs, and I focus much harder on each city, and it seems to be the right, the magic, the silver bullet for me.

“The truth is, I’m trying to figure out: How does it feel be married in your 60s and not running around and hanging around food stores and meeting models 40 years ago? Why am I content?

“I’m even bummed out that I’m content sometimes! The best part of my 45 years almost (in comedy) is traveling, is being in the same elevators, and walking the same streets and drinking in the same bars as the people that made me feel like there was some sort of reason to live.

“That sounds a little heavy handed, but quite frankly, things were so dark (during his youth) that without Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers and Lenny (Bruce) and (Richard) Pryor and these guys and Johnny (Carson) and Shelley (Berman) it didn’t seem like there was much reason (to live). I wasn’t suicidal, but I was bored.

“So now I’m really wide awake again, and that’s where I’m at. That’s at least where my head is at.”

See you next week, Richard.

Richard Lewis plays at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Thursday at Zanies, 1548 N. Wells St.; 312-337-4027. Also at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday at Zanies in MB Financial Park, 5437 Park Place, Rosemont; 847-813-0484. $35 plus two-item food/beverage minimum in both locations. Visit

Twitter @howardreich


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