Richard Lewis

No depression

In his 30-year career, Richard Lewis has performed thousands of shows as a stand-up comedian, headlined HBO specials, worked as a character actor in comedies (Robin Hood: Men In Tights, Wagons East) and dramas (Drunks), starred in sitcoms (most recently Hiller And Diller with Kevin Nealon and Anything But Love with Jamie Lee Curtis), and written a book (The Other Great Depression, out this fall). Lewis' stock in trade is the neurosis-driven quip, but he's also an unpredictable stream-of-consciousness storyteller. After years spent traversing the country for his "Magical Misery Tour," Lewis took time off to do other projects and campaign for Bill Clinton, but he's recently returned to the road, this time taking his "Wreck In Progress Tour" to cities across America. Lewis recently spoke to The Onion about his career, his famous friends, and why he's not depressed.

The Onion: So, how are you doing?

Richard Lewis: Well, this is a great time for me. It really is. I just turned in a book, which took me 13 months to write. There are, like, 80 essays, and it's called The Other Great Depression. I wrote stuff that was both dark and humorous, but I went all the way, so it's not like some stupid autobiography. So, having done that and finished two screenplays, one of which I'd like to direct, and just looking for decent acting projects, I said, "You know what? It's time for me to get back on the road and do what I've done for almost 30 years now." And, man, it has really been great, because I've always done stand-up based on my need for acceptance, and after thousands of shots on TV, and playing Carnegie Hall, and doing all those specials, this time I'm doing it just for me and the people who want to see me. I've just been doing it for that. I mean, it's fun. I've looked in the Oxford English Dictionary, and "fun" came back in. It was sort of like one of those sightings of the Virgin Mary in a 7-11.

O: Are you really a depressed guy?

RL: Uh, depressed? No. Anxious? Absolutely. Anxiety-ridden? Yeah. Worried? A lot of the time, yeah. But much different than depressed. I'm at a place right now where I'm just groovin' and feeling grateful that I can still perform. One thing about stand-up for me, because I'm sort of a historian on the whole deal, is that I have continued to write material since day one—I must have written over 100 hours of material—and changed it almost all the time. I never repeat a word in any shows or specials, and usually, if I'm touring for a year, usually after three or four months it's an entirely different set. And that's pretty cool, man. It's living on the edge, but that's the only way... So, what did you ask me?

O: I don't even remember.

RL: You don't even have to ask me a question. I'm like a crazy Jewish mynah bird. I don't know, I planned for about three or four months prior to taking my first gig [on the new tour], so I'm really ready. I mean, I didn't really know what to expect from this tour, but I'm really psyched about it. I've gotten rashes and ear infections and throat infections from the fear, but they just happen, even when I'm thrilled. [Laughs.] The other thing about the stand-up is that at least now, I have no plans. In the last 15 years, every time I went out on the road, I knew I was staring down the barrel of an HBO special, and that's pressure, man, because you've really got to get that 60 minutes ready, with not one word repeated from anything. So, there's a lot of pressure, and that kind of took the fun out of it. Now, I'm going back out with the same excitement I had when I was 23 years old, and I'm still writing new stuff every day.

O: You mentioned acting and movies...

RL: Well, I was in this movie Drunks, playing an addict, and I'm trying to break through and get some real acting roles now. I don't resent being a comedian, but it does make it difficult for directors who have their own vision to pop me in as a serial killer. They expect me to go, "Ah, I don't know, it's Yom Kippur. I'm not allowed to eat or kill..." [Laughs.] You know? I have to write my own friggin' movies so, fuck it, I will. That's what I'm doing. [Pauses.] I might use that. "Jewish actor, serial killer, fasting..." See, that's why I bring notes up on stage. I bring, like, 800 premises on stage. If I have a bad day and shit happens to me an hour before the show, I might spend 20 minutes talking about it. I just trust my instincts that it'll be entertaining and not just narcissistic and boring. I'm not always right, but I've been right more often than not; otherwise, I wouldn't still be gigging. Lou Reed and I were talking once, and I said, "I did this movie Drunks, but I still can't get these juicy dramatic roles." And he said, "Hey, man, when it's all said and done"—and he did an impression of me, which is like watching Edgar Allan Poe singing—"you're going to be remembered as, [kvetching] 'I don't know, what's the difference, let's do a hoedown, who cares...' And I'm gonna be remembered as, 'doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo...'" And he's singing the chorus from "Walk On The Wild Side." Once you're in that niche you can try other things, and I have, but... The book could become a best-seller, but I'm still probably going to be remembered as a comedian. That's where I put most of my energy. For a while, I had some resentment toward that, until I realized that when I go to a gig, people are paying to see me. So why should I take it out on them? I should just quietly despise three of four former representatives who single-handedly tried to keep me down. [Laughs.] It's not the audience's fault.

O: I was surprised when the plug got pulled on Anything But Love.

RL: I wasn't surprised. It was four years [1989&shyp;92], and we'd been following Roseanne most of the time. Plus, they'd moved us around, and television is a game of numbers and money, period. It was a good show. I'm proud of that show. It was the way the plug was pulled that was actually sort of historic. We were never even told that it was our own production company, 20th Century Fox, that pulled the plug, not ABC. Now, that's pretty psychotic. They didn't even call us to let us know, you know, "Don't get in your car." But when I drove there and saw my desk being put in a U-Haul, it was unbelievable. I thought I had died, like I was in Topper, you know? What the fuck happened? They pulled the plug to save money, because they thought we wouldn't be picked up for a fifth year. Now, chances are they were right, but we never got the opportunity to end the show the way we and the writers wanted to. But it was a great experience. Jamie Lee [Curtis] and I hit it off immediately. I love her, and we're the best of friends to this day. The one thing we both know is that, 10 years from now, we're not going to be on a Love Boat special, you know, Hannah Meets Marty, and I'm, like, spitting up phlegm, and she says, "Ah, look, I'll rip off my blouse. Remember that scene from Trading Places?" And then I have a heart attack and that's the end of the show.

O: Of your projects, which would you just as soon take back?

RL: I wouldn't take any of them back, because I was always happy to get a job. I don't know. I don't live in the past much. I mean, look: You're talking to a guy... I did a series once that was yanked back in the '80s [March 1987's Harry] with Alan Arkin, who is a real icon to me. And then I pursued and actually got to do a show with Don Rickles [1993's Daddy Dearest]. The show ended up being different from what I expected it to be, and it was yanked. But I worked with Don, and we're friends. I had dinner with him two weeks ago. Alan Arkin! Forget about it. So I don't consider it failing to get a job and have something not work; I just consider it a luxury to have the opportunity to keep working. I've gotten to introduce and meet the president, the first lady, and the Gores. Finding out that the Clintons wanted me to introduce them, and that they're huge fans of my comedy, blew my mind. I mean, when I meet these people, I pinch myself, just like I would have 30 years ago. That is as exciting as... I'll always remember this little dive in Queens I used to go to weekend after weekend. I must have done thousands of shows in those first five years. And once there was a note on my windshield that said, "Hi, we're Amy and Bob, and we've seen you a few times. We're big fans." And I'd just been doing it for, like, three months, and it just flipped me out. They came back to this little hellhole to see me. I drove the 50 miles back to my little apartment, and I felt like a million bucks. That's what I always tell people: I go, "You know what? I struggled for a long time, and I didn't have much bread, but I never felt poor because I had a passion for comedy." And I thank my lucky stars for that.