Richard Lewis: Unplugged
Comedy’s prince of pain heads to South Florida at the top of his game—and with plenty on his mind (as always)
It’s nearly 16 minutes into a phone interview that will go on for well over an hour, and Richard Lewis has yet to answer a single question. “I’m going to try a new tack and hopefully not ramble,” he says later in the one-sided conversation. “How am I doing so far?”
It couldn’t be going any better. When one of the most original and influential stand-ups of any era unleashes a self-deprecating stream of consciousness, the last thing you want to do is interrupt him.
As it turns out, comedy’s Man in Black is rambling for a reason. He’s wrapped up a ninth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” with best friend and show creator Larry David, he’s 23 years sober, he’s happily married to wife Joyce, and, at age 70, he’s back on stage after taking time off last year to recover from various ailments, including a fractured wrist.
Lewis co-headlines a show Oct. 7 with Artie Lange at Seminole Casino Coconut Creek with “like 300,000 hours of material” in his head. “I’m going to be so raw in Florida; I might get so provocative in that casino that the people wearing Bermuda shorts won’t have to go in the sun,” he says. “Their thighs and calves will be red by the time I’m off the stage.”
If his interview with Lifestyle is any indication, that may be an understatement.
- We’ve finished shooting the ninth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I’ve seen some of the [episodes]; I think it’s the best season. Larry took a long five-year nap, unfortunately. But he doesn’t go into a new season unless he thinks he has a 10-story arc. The show is ad-lib, but there are some expositional points; otherwise, there’s no story and it would be like those cakes that crumble, whatever they’re called. I used to know. That’s the thing [about being] 70. My brain now … you might ask a question about politics, and I’ll tell you that things aren’t going well for President Eisenhower. “If only Eisenhower would stop tweeting!”
- I’m starting to go bald in the back of my head. So we’re doing some post-production stuff for “Curb,” and I say to Larry, “Why do you always have the camera on the back of my head, you bastard.” I’m like, how much did he pay off these cameramen? “Make sure you get Lewis’ bald spot.” Larry says, “The balder you get, the more episodes I’m [doing].” I haven’t spoken to him in a week. I’m not sure whether I’m rooting for more hair to be in the drain or not. I think I’d rather be semibald and do a 10th season of “Curb.” Then, after that, I’ll be offered a show where I play Uncle Mikey, the guy who [lives] with a chimp.
- I’ve never seen Larry in such a great mood. I just hope he has some really horrible things happen to him psychologically—and then he writes it down as quickly as possible.
- I took a year off, out of necessity. I slipped on a roof and badly fractured my wrist. Here’s why I’ll never have a manager again—and I’ve had like 90 of them. You have to fall off your roof to get a phone call. “How’s your wrist? I’d like to visit you but I’m in the South of France.” I don’t even like managers in baseball dugouts now because they remind me of show business managers.
- I used to use notes on stage; I haven’t in a decade. … I had this sheet that was Scotch-taped together. When I opened it up, it would be about 6 feet long. It looked like a Jewish Christopher Columbus scroll. “Are we in Jersey City or France?” … When I was younger, I carried this sheet everywhere I went. If I lost it, I would have had to run away with the circus and be shot out of a cannon. The first Jewish clown to be shot out of a cannon. I’d probably go about a foot-and-a-half in the air. And then I’d apologize and offer to pay for everyone’s tickets.
- Early in my career, David Brenner befriended me and got me a tour with Sonny and Cher. The tour was difficult—you’re performing in front of 15,000 people in arenas—and you’re an unknown. The fear I had was like crazy. That gave me steel family jewels for life.
- There are so many different platforms [for comics to pursue today] that I almost want to take a nap thinking about all the work I would have to do. The road was narrower in [the 1970s]. It was like, “Get ‘The Tonight Show’ or you’re done.” So I’d drive to Catch a Rising Star in New York, try to meet as many consensually loving actresses as I could—who were all, unfortunately, waitressing—and work on my act. I wasn’t thinking about protein and probiotics. I was thinking about “The Tonight Show” and condoms.
- Don’t think there weren’t comedy groupies. They weren’t walking around with clown shoes and red noses on—although I know one comic who was into that.
- So David Letterman and I were talking before he got his show in 1982. He told me that I could do his show as often as I wanted. That was one of the great breaks of any career. And I took him up on it. I must have done about 60, 70 shows over the years. We also discussed how I was at the comedy clubs compared to how I was [on a talk show]. On “The Tonight Show,” I was running around on stage, and it looked unprofessional. … So Dave said, “When you do my show, you never have to do stand-up. Come right down and do [an interview].” He set a precedent for me. … He gave me a chance to sit down and squirm, and it worked out. I’m squirming now, and I’m not even sitting next to you.
- Have you asked me any questions yet? What’s wrong with you. I think you need a journalist intervention.
- On the sitcom I did with Jamie Lee Curtis (“Anything But Love,” which ran on ABC from 1989 to 1992), I used to tell the producers that I was getting ridiculed by people over [the characters’ lack of romance]. It was mostly cab drivers, but a nun even came up to me. “By the way, how come you don’t sleep with Jamie Lee Curtis?” When we finally did the TV deed, my big fear, being a method actor, was [how my body would look]. I don’t know if Ben Hur put on a cod piece, but I wore 12 pairs of underwear, I had a cod piece, then I put some metal over my mid-section. I’d do it in private. I’d be in makeup and hair, and then I’d say, “Excuse me, I have to go to the john.” And then I’d put all the Ben Hur equipment on my genitals.
- I did more shows at Cedars-Sinai the past year than [on stage]. … I had a hernia on top of a fractured wrist, and a sciatica thing—I was a joke. I thought it was over. … You know you’re getting old when you run into doctors who did your operations. I was going to buy some sports jackets the other day, and this guy goes, “Richard, it’s Dr. Phillips, your hernia doctor.” … I said, “You’re such a big shot. Did you have to autograph my scar with a [permanent] marker?”
- I had an unfortunate attraction to some unfortunate personalities [during his dating days], and I would parade this Fellini-esque group, one after another, in front of my therapist. … Out of the corner of my eye, I could envision my therapist giving me a thumb’s up. There was never a thumbs-up. … This went on for 15 years, until I met Joyce [his wife of 12 years]—a name that we both despise, but there’s nothing I can do with it. I like Richard; it’s a cool name. But Joyce? If I kiss my wife after saying her name, I feel like I’m kissing my aunt at a Passover meal in Brooklyn in 1957.
- By the way, I have a fascination with clocks. I have a collection of them. … Why was I even thinking about the clocks? Maybe it’s because I’ve been on the phone with you for 3½ days.
- Oh, the therapist. So my wife, when we dated, I had to find some reason to go to the therapist. My therapist loved my wife and knew she was the right one for me. But she just couldn’t take me anymore. The therapist leans in about an inch away from my face and said, “This is as good as it gets.” And she said it in this scary horror voice, like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.” Her head spun around on its axis, and she spit this green guck all over my black suit.
- The next week, I proposed to my wife. She was lying in bed reading, and I looked like Rodney Dangerfield. I had on boxer shorts and high black socks and one of these T-shirts that Brando might have worn back in the ’50s. I didn’t look at her or get on my knees. I didn’t even have a ring. Here’s how I proposed. “I guess we, uh, have to get married.” She didn’t even look up from the novel. She went, “Yeah, yeah. It’s cool.” It wasn’t exactly having intercourse at 4 a.m. on the banks of the Seine River or up against the Eiffel Tower.
- If I’m on the road, I’ll write notes to other comedians. And sometimes, I’ll get nothing back. Or they’ll send an email with a joke. This is after I’ve written them a letter that John Keats would have written to other poets. That’s just me. I’m burdened with the need to be appreciated.
- In October, they’re going to name a room after me at The Friar’s Club. I understand the George Burns poker room or the Billy Crystal dining room, but what about me? I wanted something named after me. … So long after I’m gone, people will be sitting in the Richard Lewis men’s room. I know Lenny Bruce would be very proud that I chose that.
- Listen, I’m going to need some oxygen soon. We’ve been talking for 80 minutes. I know because I’m looking at one of my 1,000 clocks.
What: Artie Lange and Richard Lewis
Where: The Pavilion at Seminole Casino Coconut Creek
When: Oct. 7, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $35, $45 and $55; ticketmaster.com; casinococo.com