Whenever Richard Lewis takes the stage, it’s anybody’s guess what might come out of his mouth, because even he doesn’t know for sure. Two things you can count on, however, are that he will be both hilarious and highly neurotic.
See for yourself Friday night (Feb. 27) at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale, when Lewis teams up with fellow comic master Kevin Pollak for a show to benefit the future Catskill Resort Museum, which will honor a long list of Jewish-American “Borscht Belt” legends who helped develop modern stand-up comedy in upstate New York’s “cradle of American humor” in the ’50s and ’60s. Names such as Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Buddy Hackett, Mel Brooks, Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield and Jerry Stiller honed their craft there, unwittingly giving birth to a major comedic movement.
Lewis, best known recently for his many appearances in his longtime friend Larry David’s hit HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, talked to the Miami Herald about — well, what does Richard Lewis really talk about, anyway? Again, see for yourself in these excerpts from the interview. In other words, in case you were wondering: Yes, Richard Lewis really is like that.
How are you?
I want my feeling-good streak to … I’m going for the record today — 18 minutes. It’s all good. So many things are going on — good stuff. On the career end, my buddy Larry David starts previews next week. I was born in the same hospital ward as Larry — literally, I was born three days earlier, and they had to keep me in there for, all this psychiatry and I don’t know what the hell they kept me in there for, but he was born in there and we just recently found this out. Anyway, I’ll let you talk in a second. The fact that he’s going on Broadway is so mind-numbing to all his best friends and friends in show business, and really he seems to be taking it in stride, you know, and everyone is just projecting all over the place, like how would I feel doing something I’ve never done — I think I did a play in 8th grade or something like that. It’s just that whenever I get anxious about anything lately in terms of the business, I go, “Larry has 42 hours to be on Broadway,” and I go, “Jeez, I mean, that’s a big deal.”
I’m vicariously having anxiety attacks through Larry David, and it’s really pissing me off a little bit. I mentioned it to him, I said, “You know, I’m in a good place — I’m touring, I have a book coming out May 5, which is really a unique book, and a series for it seems like it’ll be at the very least two seasons with some very trippy, brilliant people, and yet you’re opening on Broadway.” We had an argument about it, and he told me not to worry about it. And I’m done — you can ask me anything you want, I’m an open book for you, Michael.
Oh, I am coming to Fort Lauderdale — don’t I have a gig with Kevin Pollak?
Yes, I meant to ask you about that.
You can ask me anything, and I apologize. You can read me at dinner tonight or in the paper — it’s just that no one listened to me as a child. I have a relationship, generally speaking, with the press, but sometimes I’ll get a woman or a man in a bad mood, and if I’m just free-associating like this … I’m really not that bad, though.
I’ll answer questions, but I might have to ask you to ask me another question, but you’re the journalist — I’m just a court jester.
This show benefits the Catskill Resort Museum. What’s in it for you?
What’s in it for me is the fact that I knew a lot of these guys when I was in my 20s starting out, and I watched these guys and I wrote for some of these guys. And it just throws me back to my early 20s — even before I got into show business, I wrote for a lot of these guys, and I never had a manager at the time, and Alan Zweibel at SNL is the writer historically — he’s done some other things, of course, but you know, we had the same manager, and there was an audition for “SNL” — literally the first year, in the mid-’70s — and I was just starting, I was at college, and I said, “Jeez, that sounds like it’s gonna be an amazing idea,” but my manager had other ideas — he said, no, there’s a gig down in Pennsylvania I want you to take, and don’t let any of their religious feelings upset you or make you nervous. They were, what was it — God, I’m blanking — you ever see the movie Witness? Who was that, what was that clan? The people?
Thank you! I was driving all the way down there, and I thought I was going to New York to audition for Lorne Michaels. I was planning on the drive down there … Hey, you know I love the Amish — terrific people.
What did you ask me? My God, I’m sorry. Oh man. I’m not cracking up. Why am I doing this? So I started writing for a lot of these comedians, and as it turns out, they really weren’t liking any of what I considered my best stuff. This was actually before that gig — I was just being sentimental a little bit. But I would write for a lot of these comedians who needed material, and I would write hundreds and hundreds, and they would say, “Can’t use ’em all — might consider the Sesame Street joke, but it needs work.” And so as it turns out, all the stuff that was really cool and on-the-money were jokes about my psyche. And it was hardly about them — they wanted real observational, generic kind of stuff. So that really helped me get onstage really fast, because I went, hey, I’m trying to be as funny as I can, and they’re picking one joke out of, you know, 500 — that’s just ridiculous.
That said, I came along at the time — these guys, not just the stars, not just the big names historically, but they were like in their 40s or something, and I was in my early 20s, but I really got to know them, and everyone was so competitive as usual, but they really dug me because I reminded them of the guy who just grabs the mic and just starts riffing, and even though they just primarily did one-liners, somehow I had some old-school in me in terms of just knocking them out in the audience, in the way they felt was almost Vaudevillian in the fact that I was just like, “Lemme out there, boss, lemme get out there!” I had this energy that was reminiscent of theirs, so they tell me. So it’s a pleasure to be associated with this thing.
Kevin and I, we’ve toured together on occasion, and we’re like night and day — he’s a sensational actor, and now a director — but his impressions are world-renowned, not just the sound and the inflection, but wow, he really gets into the heads of people. Albert Brooks, to mention one, he’s a mutual friend of ours, he just nails him better than anyone. And others — if he’d do a Chris Walken contest, I bet it would sell out at any venue. Luckily, the difference is, I don’t do any impressions. I feel somewhat of a hoax, thinking that these Borscht Belt guys, they could do everybody and had an ear for everyone. I mean, if I did an impression of Mickey Mantle, it’d sound just like my impression of Abe Lincoln, which would be me. It’s horrifying, and I get upset, because Kevin has a great comedy mind, so when he’s doing an impression, he can make any kind of point he wants, as if he was not an impressionist, but uses Chris Walken, or [Al] Pacino, or Harvey Keitel. And it just adds stuff — that’s what an impressionist does, and he does it really fine. For me, though, sometimes I’d be onstage, and it’s like, “Oh God, if I only could do Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe” — I have no idea what I would say about them, but the point is, I would do Marilyn talking just like me, and then Joe DiMaggio. And it’s really odd looking at the audience and seeing like 800 people all scratching their heads like it’s an Olympic event. It’s really tragic.
Tell me about your new book, Reflectio
ns From Hell — was that painful to write, or therapeutic, or what?
If I could just paint this briefly for you: I’ve been a patron to an artist, Carl Nicholas Titolo, and he’s also a legendary professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York. But I met him through an old childhood friend, and I saw his work and I was blown away. I just couldn’t believe his craftsmanship, and he just got to me. And I did about 70 or 80 Letterman [shows] back in the ’80s — David Letterman was really kind to me and gave me a springboard — and Carl and a few of my childhood friends would come to a lot of the shows at NBC, and I in turn, when I started to make some bread, would go to Carl’s shows and usually pick up the ones that were really great, and over the 30 years I have about 35 of his paintings. But he’s such a genius, and it’s been so verified in the last year when I had this really key person in my life who is in the art and book world see Carl’s work and go, “Oh my God!” and I said I had an idea to write these negative mantras and call it “Richard Lewis’ Guide on How Not to Live,” and I said Carl’s gonna illustrate. And he knows my head so well, so I gave him the mantras and he would illustrate it. And then I found out later on while we were in the middle of this, and I pardon the grandiosity here, but Edgar Allen Poe did a similar book with the French impressionist Edward Manet, and I never looked at that, but I’d like to, but this is sort of a let’s go up to the 21st Century, and we’ve got Richard Lewis and Carl Nicholas Titolo doing the same sort of book. It was shown around to the most high-profile people that you can imagine, and then boom! It’s coming out, and I’m just ecstatic about it. I think it’s a really wild, jazzy ride into — and I’m talking about myself, and you might think I like it, but trust me, it’s painful — it’s like a roller-coaster ride through my head.
I’m like the Energizer Neurotic Guy who just keeps whining, you know?