Richard Lewis Will Be the Gandhi of Comics

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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.

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Glenn BurnSilver
Contact: Glenn BurnSilver