Richard Lewis Will Be the Gandhi of Comics

Oy vey.

Interviewing comedian Richard Lewis is like being inside one of his monologues. The only difference is that rather than a one-sided conversation operating on a stream of consciousness level, there are breaks where questions are inserted -- though those are only brief bumps in Lewis' full-throttle comedic autobahn. Comedy is Lewis' life, and his life quite literally is his comedy.

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Lewis' stand-up career began in the 1970s when, as an advertising copywriter, he discovered the best copy wasn't about the products or people he was supposed to tout, but himself. He got laughs from his bosses, not bonuses, but this only provided direction and motivation for his stand-up open mic forays. The saying goes, talk about what you know, and Lewis took it to heart, placing his troubles, woes, Jewish upbringing, monetary struggles, drug and alcohol addictions, and love life on stage. He could talk about himself and people would laugh. It was an ironic therapy, a cathartic acceptance, and one that has sustained Lewis' career for more than 40 years across comedy clubs, late-night TV and cable comedy specials, Super Bowl commercials, movies, sitcoms, and best-selling books.

Now, after a four-month hiatus -- the longest of his career -- Lewis is eager to get his show back on the road, beginning with a stint at Phoenix's Stand Up Live on July 19 and 20. Jackalope Ranch caught up with Lewis by phone in a mysterious location to discuss his early comedic days, recovery from addiction, and the turning points in his career. It wasn't the interview from hell, but Lewis is, admittedly, prone to chattiness.

Spolier alert: Though Lewis clearly expected it, we did not ask why he wears all black.

Richard Lewis: Hello. What can you ask me that hasn't been asked in 43 years of interviews? Find some fucking gold, I beg of you. I'm putting on the pressure now, what do you think of that?

Jackalope Ranch: A little pressure is a good thing. I'm certain to ask things never before asked. If you ask me why I wear black, I'll give you a pass. Should I just get it over with?

Actually, it's not even on my list of questions. I heard about that, that's why I called . . . I get you who doesn't ask questions about black clothes. I can't be better off . . . I heard you ask color-coordinated questions.

Certainly, I . . . After 43 years of nonstop performing I took about three and half, almost four months off for the first time in my life since I was about 22. So I'm really looking forward to getting back . . . I have black under my eyes already; I'm so toughed up about it. And if I'm alive, I'm here next Friday and Saturday.

Let's hope so. It's a good thing to plan for. Well, thank you. I read you were writing ad copy while developing your comedy act in the early '70s -- was this copy humorous, or so dry you needed the comic relief? When I graduated from college I knew I wanted to be a comic. My father died shortly after that, so it thrust me up on stage to fill up a hole. But one of the most insane part-time jobs that kept me impoverished while I worked on my craft was writing ad copy for this agency that was always in debt. The sheriffs would come and I'd have to answer the door while [the owners] would hide. They were all hippies. They were good, but it was a small firm. I had a degree in marketing, and was really quite good at copywriting, I think. But I had no money.

You see, [right out of college] I was lost, I was broke, I was lost, and I went to show the big agencies in New York my stuff, but I didn't know enough that I couldn't walk into a New York City ad agency on Madison Avenue with ads drawn by me like a mental case, with box heads and box feet. They looked at me like I was out of my fucking mind. Consequently, I was a day away from painting a YMCA in Manhattan and then my college girlfriend moved back east and saved me.

So, then I found an ad in the yellow pages [for the hippie ad agency, Contemporary Graphics] and went over there and they made me the head writer for about $100 a week or so. I wrote a lot of humorous stuff, and I was always writing jokes for a lot of older comics, but they would just turn everything down. I always thought it was great; it was about me, which ultimately led me to go on stage.

[The agency] was such a goofy place. The accounts were like Chinese menus -- I had to write stories about the dishes. Or I had to write a speech for a mayor running in a small town in New Jersey. It became very clear I had to go on stage.

That's one thing about the journey. I knew that regardless of what would happen, I had to go on stage. It helps when you're broke for many years to get friendships with people who are already established, and I had that from very early on and it gave me hope. Back in those days there was only a handful [of comics]. There was Billy Crystal, [Jay] Leno, me, Andy Kaufman, and a few others, but not as many as in the '80s. It was more dreamlike and surreal then back in the '70s. We thought we were like dreamers. We felt like we could look down our noses at people. It was weird, but it worked out.

What was the moment when the realization came that you could make something of a living as a comic and no longer need to work up Chinese restaurant menus? There was a specific moment. I had established myself as one of the best young comics in New York. I felt confident if I kept working on my craft I would be fine. But if you don't have a sitcom, and back then there weren't the millions of clubs there are today, and if you didn't have money from family, you're broke. I was pretty broke.

There is a comedian, and he's still my best friend and was a huge star back in the day. We were sitting around one day in a deli on the east side and I was doing well on stage but wasn't making much money and -- to give you an idea of how long ago this was, like 1972 -- I said, "If I only had $1,000 I would quit everything I was doing and be a comic full time." And he whipped out a check and said, "You're a comic." And that was that and I haven't looked back.

I'll always remember that as a 24-year-old. I haven't forgotten. It's a pretty ruthless business -- without question -- and there are jealousies. Out of the blue, people will shock you with their behavior. But there's so much gold at the back of the rainbow there. Is that the phrase, back of the rainbow? Side of the rainbow?

End of the rainbow. Thank you. I'm not all there. I was a Cesarean. But, no, there's so much gold in general, but people will surprise you with their character defects. That's one thing I can say as a recovered drug addict of 18, almost 19 years, and an alcoholic. I have plenty of defects to this day, but the one thing I can be positive about is that I always try to come through for friends in the business. It's really hard to pay the bills and get some degree of fame. I've always been good to people. I'm boasting, but it's important.

It's great to repay the debt, so to speak. You've caught me at a weird time. After taking four months off for the first time I literally had a long time to do nothing. I was going to write a play, finish a screenplay, and then I said, "Wait a minute. I need to turn my brain off." All I do is think about comedic stuff. I've done other things, but since I was 22 it's the jokes that pour out of me. I have 20 or 30 hours on my computer. When I actually stop doing this I'm going to write a couple volumes to get it out. If I don't, they get to die with my hard drive. I literally have tens of thousands of jokes I love that I can't remember on stage. That's sort of a goal when I'm done with stand-up. I'll be the Gandhi of comics and I'll put 20,000 jokes out there. Then I'll be done with that craft.

So, a lot of what you talk about in your comedy is you -- your troubles and tribulations, and a lot of it's very personal. Do you find it's therapy for you as well? Basically, when I wrote for other comics they'd give me back all the good shit because it was really about how I was feeling and they didn't understand the jokes. That was how I realized I needed to go on stage and do it.

It's been incredible therapy for me. It was unconscious, I guess, but also a calculated risk, unraveling yourself on stage. I have no idea how any show's going to go and I do unravel on stage. I do that because I just don't really trust too many people, just a smattering of people, a handful of friends, my wife and our rescued Maltese. I love going on stage and I'll talk about how I'm feeling and what's going on. Half the show will be spontaneous, and other half will be about current events. I need to get on stage if I'm feeling miserable because I need to get laughs for the misery. I'm not going to lie.

Getting old never posed a problem. In my 60s now I can reminisce about the bad old days, how it used to be, and pitfalls that lay ahead for the younger crowd. It's laughs at my expense, but I want to talk about things that are relatively important. As long as people keep showing up, I do it. With people laughing at my dysfunctions I feel less alone. If they're not laughing I feel less appreciated and understood. That's the tough part about talking about yourself, observationally it can be boring. I get to a lot of stuff, but by and large I talk about my psyche because I've had a need to be understood since I was two or three since I didn't have much of a childhood. I need the audience to understand and continue to be like family.

How has your routine changed since you sobered up? I believe I read that you claimed drink helped you get on stage. I know it's been almost 20 years, but how have you changed? I don't know if I said that. I could have, but I just drank, period. I knew how to play the game. Never drank before going on stage. I didn't show up hammered. My drinking was to excess, but was mostly after performances. But when it kicks in, what you do is start avoiding people, isolating yourself. It takes a lot of time and you become self-centered.

I actually stopped performing during the peak of my career for about three years because I knew I was drinking too much and didn't want to burn that bridge. I lost a tremendous amount of income, but I didn't die either. I bottomed out on crystal meth. The same guy who gave me the cash, I remember being in his townhouse in New York when I was basically a kid, and I just couldn't believe it. Every piece of furniture was so exquisite and expensive and I thought there was no way I could ever afford anything like that. The couch would be like, five years rent. When I bottomed out I was on the third floor of my house in Laurel Canyon and I was for days doing crystal meth and I was going down. Then I looked in the mirror and I remembered what he told me when I was a kid: "I bought this townhouse with jokes." I thought I'd had such a great life up to that point. It was 1993, things has been so good, and there I was going to drop dead in my own house I bought with jokes. I panicked thinking I could die, and I could have, and I called friends and they took me to the ER.

You asked me how it changed me. The one sea change for me was that I was in denial. Carnegie Hall was 1989 for me and I had two standing ovations. But you don't think, and afterward there was a party for me, and I go so shitfaced I humiliated myself. But on stage, it was a winning performance. My life outside the stage was out of control and a few years later, I bottomed out. But the sea change was that after I got sober, I realized, unintentionally, that I was a drug addict and alcoholic, and on stage I never said that. I thought one of my strengths in humor was my honesty, but now that I think about talking with you, I was in denial until I stopped, so I would never have admitted it on stage.

It seems ironic that your strength is talking about your problems, but this is one you couldn't share. I think I know myself better than anything. It's my strength, what I talk about. Now that I got sober I feel I'm the real deal for myself and before that I was a phony.

How's it going with your claim as originator of "The ___ From Hell" phrase? Listen, I got it in the Yale Book of Quotations, and the only reason I cared on this journey is that I popularized it in the 70s. I did about 80 Letterman shows and it would be "I just came from this vacation; it was a vacation from hell." And people would jump in and applaud. It went on for decades. My premise was that I was the victim of everything. It turned into an unintentional hook. The last thing I wanted was to be called "The Comic from Hell." I was just talking psychologically. I felt victimized by everything, I still do. That's why I'm going on stage to talk about it -- politics, relations, you name it. But I couldn't take it when I was being ripped off constantly on television, movie companies using it. I asked my attorney what we could do about it. I've been using this for almost half a century.

I went to Bartlett's (Bartlett's Familiar Quotations), told them I'd been using this phrase for years, and was tired of being ripped off. One of the senior editors said, "Hey, my two granddaughters just came back from college. They said it was 'The semester from hell.'" I laughed, and said, "And, what does that prove?"

It's sort of immortalized now, and I got a deal of satisfaction from that. No one likes to be ripped off. I just don't think about it anymore.

Richard Lewis performs 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. Friday, July 19, and 7 and 9:45 p.m. Saturday, July 20, at Stand Up Live, 50 West Jefferson Street. Tickets are $22.

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Glenn BurnSilver
Contact: Glenn BurnSilver