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Comic Richard Lewis on What Not to Call Ringo Starr

Richard Aldrich’s If I Paint Crowned I’ve Had It, Got Me (2008)

If you’ve described having “a date from hell,” you’ve actually quoted Richard Lewis — his “the _____ from hell” coining is credited in The Yale Book Of Quotations. Possibly more neurotic than Woody Allen, Lewis has been right at home on six seasons of his friend Larry David’s show, Curb Your Enthusiasm; a recovering alcoholic since 1994, the comic says his new life as a sober, married man only serves to enhance his stand-up. In advance of co-headlining Town Hall with Richard Belzer on January 17, Lewis told us about how annoying Larry David was at 12, getting introduced to his wife by a Beatle, and riffing when his mind goes blank.

You met Larry David at camp, right?
I went to a camp when I was 12 and so did he. He was this lanky, annoying, obnoxious, neurotic 12-year-old and I despised him. I wasn’t an alcoholic back then, but I probably acted like one.

Did you think he was funny at that age?
No. I mean, I annoy him too. We fight 99 percent of the time, onscreen and offscreen. I have a good marriage, but if we have a little tiff, my wife says “Why can’t you do it like with Larry? You scream at each for a second and then you go, ‘Hey you wanna go see the Knicks game?’”

You married your wife, Joyce, four years ago.
I met my wife through Ringo Starr, about four years into my sobriety, at this record party. You don’t call him Ringo if you know him, you call him Richard or he’ll come after you with a pitchfork. It’s like calling Ronnie Howard “Opie” by mistake, it’s over. She’s from Minnesota. A Jewish woman from Minnesota is very kooky; she doesn’t know whether to go ice fishing or go to the sale at Barneys.

How did you know you loved her right away?
First of all, I thought she was Italian and 32, and I love Italy and I had these visions of moving to Rome and having a couple of bambinos. She looked at me and she said, “You’re way off. I’m 42 and I’m a Jewish woman from Minnesota, so if that’s upsetting, run now.”

What was your approach?
I used to bring these pads around, and I would see somebody and write the same thing. It was such a lot of crap — I wrote “I hope you’re happy, I hope you’re married, I hope you have kids, but if you’re not, I’m single and I’d love to meet you and take you out for a sandwich…” or something really stupid. And then I’d put my number down. I did the same thing to Joyce, and she called me the next day.

How do you feel your happiness has affected your stand-up material?
I’ve never been better, because once I got sober I realized I was such a screw-head that I turned that camera back on me — so rather than ‘mother from hell,’ ‘date from hell,’ it was me. It opened up a Pandora’s box of hours and hours of material about when I was an active addict.

How do you get better at what you do?
I just bring my dysfunctions onstage and hope for the best. I just prefer to go out there and hold a mike and tell the people out there they’re better off not being me. I ramble until I hear a bullet go by my ear, or someone yawns and I leave. I ad-lib about half my show, and the other quarter of it is stuff that I remember from my computer. When I do Town Hall, if something’s going down in the world or in my head or in my marriage that morning or that afternoon, I’ll burst right out of the gate talking about it and pray that it’s entertaining. I can’t keep it back.

Have you ever gone blank?
No, if I go blank I’ll talk about it. And if they laugh I might do fifteen minutes on going blank.

Comic Richard Lewis on What Not to Call Ringo Starr