Richard Lewis Cleans Up Good


At 64, should Richard Lewis soon be applying for Social Security?

No need. After all, he's done quite well for himself with social insecurity, so why rely on the government now?

He's relied on himself and just about every quirk, headache, and ache and pain for his paean to everyday living, fueled by his one-time fix on drugs and alcohol. But things are different now; sobriety is, indeed, a sobering experience.

"I have so much clarity now, I despise myself even more," he wrote in the autobiographical The Other Great Depression.

Make that "hate myself even more," he updates during our conversation on a — what else — rainy day flooded with the gloom and doom that is his "room" to play in.

But the ever playful Lewis — riffing on a column he's writing for an upcoming Playboy — plays by his own rules. And some of those rules have changed in recent years.

For one, he's sober; for another, he's married. Double shot of seriousness? Make it a gimlet source of jokes, with grass stains of memory as punchlines.

Sobriety certainly hasn't curbed his enthusiasm for a great line — and his best these days are reserved for his appearances on Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm and still hot-to-trot tours.

Which leaves him in somewhat of a quandary, needing a quick fix — non-alcoholically speaking — for how to describe his upcoming appearance at the Sept. 22 Livengrin Foundation ( anniversary celebration, set for the Crystal Tea Room at the Wanamaker's Building in Philadelphia.

Lewis is on the board of the foundation, famous for its dedication to addiction recovery.

Misery loves company? Well, yes, that is a theme of his appearance, but he doesn't want people showing up thinking he's showcasing his comedy act.

"It's not a date night," he quips of the Q&A he'll take part in after his appearance.

But, seriously … and, yeah, he allows, if some humor seeps into the night, well, what Jew's experience isn't laden with happiness and tears?

He didn't actually say that; Tevye did. But Lewis' body language — shoulders so hunched they could have been a contestant on Merv Griffin's old "Play Your Hunch" TV show — bespeaks slumps and recoveries. Not to mention that he and the late Johnny Cash could have snagged the two leads in "Men in Black II" for their lack-of-splash sartorial darkness.

But he cleans up good: "This is my 42nd year of doing stand-up," says the stand-up guy from Engelwood, N.J., now 17 years into recovery.

"And I've never been better."

He's not bragging; no, he cautions, that's his "stunt-double" doling out the compliments. He, himself, would never have the confidence to con a writer with such bragging rites.

But there are some serious sources of success: Lewis has just finished working on a new TV series with longtime buddy, producer/writer Alan Zweibel; he's contemplating yet another cable comedy special (he first starred in an HBO young comics special in 1981); and recently sank his teeth into a bat-out-of-hell movie called "Vamps."

He's not vamping for time, although he is waiting to hear whether friend David — "I've known him since we were 12" — will do another season of Curb, street theater at its sauciest, in which the actors work from a seven-page outline and ad-lib their quips-pro-quos.

"At the age of 52, I was approached by Larry and asked to do the show," which just wrapped its eighth season. "And I told him, I don't want to do a cameo. Give me an arc, I said. And he did."

And that long-suffering, put-upon comic compost of Jewish diffidence and self-debasement has turned into yet another arc de triumph for Lewis; popular on TV, the show has hit the streets running, with its DVDs welcomed all over the world "wherever they speak English," says Lewis.

Or the language of neuroticism. "They're very huge in Israel," Lewis says of the tapes.

"What a shock!"

More startling is the fact that this once seemingly pre-ordained bachelor now has a batch of plans for a future with his better-half, whom he's known for 13 years.

Thirteen years? A Bar Mitzvah of a relationship? In 1998, he became a man. "I would never have made a decent husband before," says the now six-years-married Lewis.

"I was a date from hell."

Heaven help this comic — who played a rabbi on TV's 7th Heaven in 2002 — who would like some comic credit for coming up with, he claims, the popular term "(anything) from hell."

Maybe he can take some solace from the rumor — started right here, right now by "On the Scene" — that the only reason President Barack Obama never referred to the economic catastrophe of 2008 as a depression was out of deference to Lewis' autobiographical title rights to The Other Great Depression.

But he is forgiving. "I'm always available to help," says the proud Democrat who worked on behalf of President Clinton.

Not in the Same Mold

 What never would have worked for Lewis was to follow his late father into the catering business. It's bad enough, he recalls, feeling like chopped liver when his father moved Richard's Bar Mitzvah to a Tuesday so it wouldn't conflict with a catering job.

Making ice sculptures dressed in black for a living? No way, says the marketing major with a degree from Ohio State University.

But on his dad's death bed, he did tell his parents that he would be a dentist.

No tooth to the matter, he admits. "It was just so they could say, 'Here's my son, the dentist.' "

Sounds cheekier than "My son, the angst-laden neurotic"? Nice work if you can fear it, and Lewis concedes he works out of a position of fear, never using notes for his appearances or specials, although he has the ultimate neurotic comedian pro's sack of a source — 30 to 40 hours of material to choose from.

But why choose to marry so late? "It was the right woman, the right time," says the performer whose first TV hit was, ironically, Anything but Love.

But was it the same for her? Some social insecurities just won't stay deep-seated, rising to the top at the tip of an anxiety attack. "No," he groans, "she probably thinks, 'Wrong guy, wrong time' — and is whispering on the phone to her friends to get her out of here!"


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