Richard Lewis: The Metamorphosis

At 59, after 13 years of sobriety and almost two of marriage, Richard Lewis is as content as a driven,

At 59, after 13 years of sobriety and almost two of marriage, Richard Lewis is as content as a driven, neurotic, workaholic comedian can be.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="noreferrer" href="">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

After a self-enforced layoff from stand-up of about two months, Mr. Lewis will perform at Comix, a new club in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, on Feb. 23 and 24. He’s eager to get up—and also dreading it, of course. “New York is my home turf – I have so many friends in Manhattan,” he said the other day. “And, tragically, so many relatives. There’s a percentage of my family that I love. But there’s a larger percentage that, when I know they’re going to be there, I feel obligated to really tell how I feel, to go places with my stand-up that I don’t even go with therapy. It makes me want to reach back for the high, hard one rather than holding back. So the pressure for these shows is enormous.”

With his trademark black clothing and peripatetic stage presence—pacing, clutching at his hair, doing a kvetch ballet during each performance—Mr. Lewis is part of a modern tradition of comedy neurosis whose antecedents include Woody Allen and Shelley Berman, now Mr. Lewis’ co-star on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. “We’re both worrywarts—we both live on the dark side of life,” said Mr. Berman, 82. “But he’s very nervy. He cuts himself wide open when he works. You can see the guy bleed.”

Mr. Lewis may still bare his soul in his act, but he does so without the security blanket that he dragged onstage with him for years: taped-together sheets from a legal pad, on which he would write lists of comic premises that occurred to him at all hours, to remind himself of what he wanted to talk about. Eventually, the list would grow so large that when Mr. Lewis spread it out on the piano that inevitably graces his stage, it looked like some oddball quilt assembled for a Staples commercial.

He still generates material with prolific abandon, typing it into his ever-present laptop, where he stores about 20 hours of new material, which he scrolls through endlessly before and between shows. “I’m such a madman—I’m so obsessed about the show, but that’s who I am,” Mr. Lewis said. “I’m just so wired by my time onstage, my head is filled with images. It’s terrifying, but it’s also exhilarating. I’ll never not work like this.”

He’d like to take another shot at Carnegie Hall, where he played a sold-out 1989 show with six taped-together sheets of paper. “If I did everything on the list, we’d still be there,” Mr. Lewis said. He’d also like to be sober this time. While he wasn’t drunk onstage (“I was one of those functional kind of guys”), he barely remembers the two-and-a-half-hour show or the multiple standing ovations at the end. And his girlfriend at the time erased his only tape of the show.

“My sobriety has opened so many synapses that were hidden from years of drinking and drugging,” said Mr. Lewis, who discussed his alcohol problem, and his tortured family life, in his 2000 memoir The Other Great Depression.

“He was always good, with his malfunctioning family and his view on life from the dark side,” said his friend and fellow comedian David Brenner. “It wasn’t the underbelly of poverty; it was the dark side of mental illness.” Mr. Brenner recalled a discussion in which Mr. Lewis told him that he’d been in therapy, three times a week, for 17 years: “I told him, ‘If you had a toothache, and you went to the dentist for 17 years and you still had that toothache, you’d have to figure there was either something wrong with that dentist—or with dentistry in general,’” Mr. Brenner said. “He looked at me like the RCA Victor dog—he didn’t understand what I was talking about.”

“I was born to talk about myself,” Mr. Lewis said. “Had my parents listened to me with any degree of interest, it wouldn’t have happened. The whole house should have had funhouse mirrors. I didn’t trust the people who knew me; I needed to go onstage in New York City and talk to strangers to validate me. That’s why I got married late: I had these trust issues, and I figured there was a chance they’d linger.”

A self-professed “affection addict” who admits to cheating on virtually every ex-girlfriend (a list that includes Nina Van Pallandt and Debra Winger), Mr. Lewis used to date extremely young women—either ones who were downright nasty (“because I was getting what I deserved”) or girls who were so dewy and unformed that he had to play Pygmalion. “It was like, ‘This week we’ll watch all of Fellini, then it’s on to Cassavetes and Truffaut’—everyone had to catch up to Richard.”

Then he met Joyce Lapinsky, a woman in her 40’s who worked in music publishing, at a playback party for a Ringo Starr album. “It triggered what she calls ‘the snake dance,’” Mr. Lewis recalls. “I might as well have been a 9-year-old. I was putting on a show for this woman.”

After seven years of dating, Mr. Lewis took Ms. Lapinsky to meet his therapist. “It’s sad—had no confidence in my ability to select a mate,” he said. The shrink listened to his patient complain about some minor communication problem that he saw as an impediment to further commitment with Ms. Lapinsky, then erupted. “In a voice that was almost satanic—it was so dark and loud that it seemed to echo through the neighborhood—my therapist screamed at me, ‘This is as good as it gets!’” Mr. Lewis said. “It shook me to my core.”

Still, there was one hurdle: Mr. Lewis’ house, perched above the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, which he refers to as “the museum.” All of the vertical surfaces of the hillside structure’s multiple floors—and most of the horizontal ones—are covered with Mr. Lewis’ immaculately displayed collection of memorabilia and souvenirs from three-plus decades in show business: framed photographs, autographs, paintings, posters and other minutiae of Mr. Lewis’ artistic heroes, mentors and inspirations: everyone from Jack Kerouac to Groucho Marx to Lenny Bruce, Buster Keaton to Jimi Hendrix to John Cassavetes, Oscar Levant to Johnny Carson to Mickey Mantle.

“I knew that, if I wound up being with you, I would have to have my own home,” the minimalist Ms. Lapinsky, now a program-development consultant for Urban Farming, a nonprofit organization, told him. She got a cabin in the mountains 80 miles away, and she and the outdoors-averse Mr. Lewis (“I’m literally allergic to the sun,” he said) divide their time between the two domiciles.

“Joyce has such a stabilizing effect on him,” said Susie Essman, another Curb co-star, who has known Mr. Lewis for two decades. “Everybody is looking for that one person in life who will love you unconditionally, and he’s found that with her.” She paused, laughed and added: “And yet he’s still miserable.”

Mr. Lewis recently received the newly released DVD set of the first season of Anything But Love, the sitcom on which he starred with Jamie Lee Curtis for the better part of four seasons, starting in 1989. Aside from the way his elaborately coiffed hair looks on the show (“Like two beavers standing up and having a fistfight,” he said), it reminds him of how long he’d been working before he got that break—and how long it’s been since that show ended. Since then, he’s starred in a couple of short-lived sitcoms (including Daddy Dearest with Don Rickles and Hiller and Diller with Kevin Nealon), and done guest shots on everything from Alias to The Simpsons. But acting roles come only sporadically.

“It’s been baffling to me,” Mr. Lewis said. “I had a wonderful flight with Gary Sinise recently, and he said what I hear from a lot of people: ‘How come you don’t do my show?’ I didn’t say it, but I thought: ‘Ask your casting director!’

“Playing Richard Lewis on Curb is the greatest acting role of my career—but, ironically, it makes it even more difficult for me to be considered for other parts,” he continued. But Mr. Lewis wasn’t really complaining. “I’m very grateful for my stand-up career,” he said. “I mean, I was broke for the first 11 or 12 years of my career; I lived in hovels. I guess that’s why I relate to Kafka.”

“You have to understand that, in the range of happiness, his gauge doesn’t go up to 100,” said Mr. Brenner, who lent Mr. Lewis money in those lean years. “But right now, he’s at a 40 or a 45—which is at least 20 points higher than it used to be. Right now, he’s much happier than I’ve ever seen him.”

Richard Lewis: The Metamorphosis