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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Richard Lewis on Stand-Up Comedy, His Heroes, and ... Happiness

Posted By on Tue, Jul 26, 2011 at 8:30 AM


When Richard Lewis is in a room, no one else needs to speak -- and they shouldn't, because they are unlikely to be anywhere near as interesting, generous, frank, or funny as he is.

Lewis is one of the truly authentic voices in stand-up comedy -- and he has been since he began in the 1970s. Over four decades, his enormous influence and confessional, emotionally naked material helped open the door for a generation of comedians who have developed highly individual and personal styles.

Lewis continues to tour regularly, when not guest-starring on Curb Your Enthusiasm or playing the occasional role in a movie. He spoke to us in advance of his engagement at Cobb's Comedy Club, which starts Thursday. We talked about his current work, which appears to be driven by -- can it be true? -- newfound happiness in his life.

Hello -- this is Casey.

Casey! This is Richard Lewis. Try to relax. I will not scare you. Can I just give you a little preamble? And then I'll shut up and let you do your journalistic thing.

I started playing San Francisco in the late '70s, early '80s. San Francisco -- and Chicago -- have been the most important cities for me, because they're the most historic cities for the legendary guys who started doing stand-up in the early '60s. They all went through San Francisco -- playing the hungry i and the Purple Onion -- Jonathan Winters, Lenny [Bruce], Mort Sahl, Phyllis Diller, and [Mike] Nichols and [Elaine] May -- everybody! And if you didn't make it there, you were fucked.

I'm at a point now where I'm not dead -- most importantly -- and I have an open door to all these guys who started a little later that I did -- Jon Stewart and Bill Maher and them. The truth is, I started really late as a comedian. I look at these actors, and I go, "Wait a minute -- I'm 12 years older than Alec Baldwin?" But he was doing Macbeth in high school, and I was trying to figure out if hash was really better than bread.

So now, I'm sort of freaking. I'm feeling grateful. I met my wife through a Beatle -- how did this happen? To be able to help Lenny Bruce's daughter stay sober, to have Buster Keaton's widow come over to my house to see all the Keaton memorabilia I have -- these things are just too good to be true.

Richard Lewis and lifelong friend Larry David in HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm
  • Richard Lewis and lifelong friend Larry David in HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm

Up until just weeks ago, I was in a deep funk, thinking, "It's gonna be over." But instead of going that route, I crazily went a happy route. I'm glad I'm not driving 90 miles to play a health club. I'm getting a lot of calls from all over the place. Marc Maron, who's a really great guy, asked me to do his podcast. And I'm working with Larry [David, on Curb Your Enthusiasm], who I've known since I was 12. I've finished a TV pilot that I'm planning to go to the networks with. I co-created it with Alan Zweibel, an old friend and an original SNL writer. I'm getting material to take to HBO and see if they want to do the "Tracks of My Fears" special. I haven't done a special in over a decade because I work differently now.

I used to bring notes onstage. Even at Carnegie Hall, I put like 18 sheets of paper on a piano and did two and a half hours. And I always thought it was cool because it was like having a work in progress. It was all new. I used to do Cobb's three times a year, and I'd put my sheets of paper on the piano and I would do three different hours each time.

One of my managers said, "Why don't you try it the traditional way?" So for years now, I haven't used notes. I try to remember about 20 to 30 minutes of stuff I've never done. As my wife says, "First of all, there's 400 million people in the country. Most of them have never seen you. And even if you start talking about a subject you've talked about before, you know you're going to do it differently." So I ad lib about half my show.

Like Cobb's, if it's a great nightclub in a great city -- it's great. If it's not a great nightclub in a crummy city, it's a horror. I have to basically hide in my hotel. There's no place to go. In San Francisco, I have a lot of friends. The nightclub's gorgeous. My wife goes with me when I go to New York, San Francisco, or Chicago. I say, "You want to go to Des Moines, by any chance? They have a film on the history of hay."

That's when you need her!

You nailed it. That's why I'm still in counseling. I do feel a pressure -- because of my age. I'm in the third act of my career. I'm trying to go out with as much of a bang as possible. I could be doing this a long time.

Jonathan Winters is 85 and arguably the greatest improvisational comedian who ever lived. If people would only go on YouTube and see this guy; he's a genius! When I was a kid, Stan Laurel was living in a tiny apartment in Santa Monica, and I remember reading that Dick van Dyke and people like that used to pay homage to him every few days to sit at his feet. And I don't think I've gone a day in the past six years without calling Winters to see how he's doing. And the same goes for Phyllis Diller, who's 94. My wife and I go over to her house. I'm not trying to sound grandiose, but this is just thrilling for me. I'm doing things I never thought I would be in a position to do.

But the bottom line -- and then I'll shut up -- is that everything I ever wanted to do in stand-up has happened. But I take every gig seriously. I'm already preparing for these [San Francisco] gigs, and I have meetings this week to try to sell [the pilot and the stand-up special]. Stand-up is it for me. It's my heart and soul. Every show is different.

Anyway, I'm done. Even if something pops into my head, I won't say it. You're a journalist. SF Weekly has been there for me. I was on the cover once during Gay Pride Week, which was an astonishing choice. I was worried that I would hurt the cause. It's framed in my house. It was one of the great covers, ever.

I'm done. Ask me anything you want. Or are you done?

(Full disclosure: Lewis is the godfather of Taylor Friedman, a fellow at SF Weekly.)

Richard Lewis appears at Cobb's Comedy Club July 28-31. Admission is $20.50-$23.50.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Casey Burchby


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