Richard Lewis on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ Standup, and the Prism of Pain

Richard Lewis has no problem with oversharing. It’s one of the many defining characteristics that made him such a trailblazing voice in standup comedy when he hit the scene in the late 1970s. The humorist hybrid of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, Lewis’ standup style serves as the genetic link from the more abstract comics of the Borscht Belt era to the hyper-personal, inward-thinking monologists who would set the tone for the next four decades of comedy.

His sets were — and still are — profoundly intimate and revealing, thrusting his audience into a space that made them feel like voyeurs of someone else’s therapy session. Frantically pacing back and forth across the stage while reciting rapid-fire free-form thoughts about his crippling insecurities and his struggles with addiction and sex life, his routine could readily be described as a poetically prolonged panic attack. But Lewis performs like a jazz musician, letting emotional beats crescendo before dialing back to let the laughs dictate his next rhythms. Wildly physical, Lewis’ hand-waving made him appear like he was conducting a symphony of self-loathing. He calls himself the Prince of Pain. I like to call him the King of Kvetching.

Lewis’ comedic psychology, emotional wounds, and obsessive soul-bearing is what also makes him the perfect foil to Larry David’s cold curmudgeon in Curb Your Enthusiasm, which returns this Sunday for its 9th season after a six-year hiatus. He’s also back on the road, adding dates to his ongoing Tracks of My Fears tour. There’s the upcoming show he’s co-headlining with Artie Lange (“Can you believe it? Two recovering drug addicts? Vegas doesn’t think either one of us will make it through the show”) on October 7th in Coco Beach, Florida, and then there’s another at the world-famous Carolines on Broadway October 13th. Richard’s got his groove back.

Lewis hopped on the phone with me to discuss the highly anticipated new season of Curb, memories from the golden age of late night, and why comedy still makes him excited to get out of bed every morning.  

Mr. Lewis, thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

I’m ready to humiliate myself in front of you with stories for you and your family.

I won’t make you do that, I promise.

Don’t take this the wrong way but are we done yet?

If you’d like it to be!

I’m kidding, buddy. I love talking about the craft of comedy. I’m sure you’ve dealt with so many comics who find it a burden to discuss the craft. I despise those people. Well, some of them are a little eccentric so they can’t help it. But you’re not gonna ask Daniel Day-Lewis if he likes shrimp cocktail. He’d come over and kill you!

Before we talk about the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I’d like to pick your brain about your legacy as a standup and your current tour.

You shouldn’t say “pick your brain” to a guy at 70 now. It scares me. It’s Frankenstein-like. I can’t even believe I am 70 years old. I remember I was at a restaurant once going over thousands of premises, because I ad-lib most of my shows and I don’t use notes. I used to use notes at Carnegie Hall and Vegas because back then it was all new material. I used to have a piano put on stage. I remember at MGM Grand I had about five hours of new material and I had to use teamsters to lift this piano onto the stage that would’ve given 300 guys hernias. It was bigger than Elton John’s piano. They said, “Mr. Lewis,” — they didn’t call me Richard — “we never knew you played.” I don’t fucking play. This is for these notes! These yellow pads! They chased me out of the fucking building. I had to go in the Elvis Presley tunnel and I think I ran into Frank Sinatra’s ghost. It’s a whole other story.

So where were we? Nowhere. You hate me already, don’t you? You despise me. You’ll miss me when you hang up.

This is precisely why I love you actually. So how was it reuniting with Larry after a six-year hiatus from Curb Your Enthusiasm?  

Let me just say this: Larry David and I have known each other for a long time. We were born in the same hospital three days apart. We met as kids. We hated each other. Never realized we were the same people. We were comics. Twelve years later, we were best friends. I was an alcoholic. He wasn’t. I looked at his face and he scared me. But I consider him a genius. He was a comic’s comic but he couldn’t handle standup because he needed undivided attention, which is a joke. I said, “Larry, The Tonight Show is here to see your performance.” And he’d say, “Yeah, but those people ordered a scotch.” So he left standup and found the right way to do it for himself. His monologues were brilliant. He was a great comedian but the best thing about him is that he decided to turn his monologues into stories in Seinfeld and in Curb, with characters like Woody Allen did. You know Woody’s voice. That’s the way he could do it and make it work.

So an audience was his comedic kryptonite?  

He didn’t want to have to worry about an audience. He told me that he was coming back with a 9th season of Curb. I never ask him if I’m on again, how many I’m in, when it’s coming back, but this is the most exciting year ever. He would never come back if he didn’t think he could top himself. He has a real jock mentality about that. I think this is the greatest season ever. I hope that he keeps coming back. I keep teasing him: “How could you not do a hundred episodes, you little baby? Don’t you need the money? If you do 100, that’s the gold figure!” Like he needs money. He only comes back if he thinks he’s better than the year before. This is the best season in history of Curb so I’m really grateful to be on it. You didn’t even ask me that question. I’m a horrible interview.

What do you think makes a hyper-specific show like Curb click with such a universal audience? After seventeen years the show still has a massive following.

It’s certainly become a generational thing. If you think about it, if someone’s 24 and going to med school, they were 7 when this show started. So people have grown up with the show. Honestly, I think Larry is the Norman Lear of this generation. He’s a genius writer, a fabulous performer, and I think that he hooked onto a persona which he had onstage as a standup. He just couldn’t tolerate audiences. So he has a persona of “just don’t get into my way – do what you want to do but don’t bug me.” And people feel that way and relate, but they don’t have the courage to act on it. They could get fired or they could get divorced. That’s a lot about what his persona is and people love that. Not to mention, he puts people in unbelievable situations that quite frankly —and I’m sure you’ve heard people call it this — are “Curb moments.” It’s because it’s like an excruciatingly embarrassing moment. I’m sure if I hear it so much from fans, I just can’t even imagine what Larry hears.

Your character has sort of evolved into the empathetic heartbeat of Curb, where your fights with Larry all stem from you being tragically vulnerable while Larry refuses to share anything at all. How much do you guys discuss the emotional beats of each scene before improvising?

Larry and I are very similar in many ways, including family background and the way we see the world. That said, interestingly, we might have a similar premise or idea but LD channels it through his wondrous scenes and I usually channel my feelings through the prism of my own pain. I need to share my innermost feelings to almost everyone. Larry and I have shared very personal, loving feelings and for Larry, once is plenty.

The chemistry is already so authentic. How much do you two “turn it up” once the cameras are rolling?

I’m his best friend for 60 — well, I’m not his best friend. He tried to strangle me with his mother’s umbilical cord when we were born but other than that, sure. He told me yesterday he wishes he was more like the Larry David onscreen. I said, “What about me? What do you think of me?” He said, “Well you’re a lot like you but it’s different for you, both of us really, because we’re in heightened situations.” But it’s not so much that we want to be funny. We’re already funny cats. The whole cast is great. I will always go to bat for one of my favorite comedic actors in my lifetime: J.B. Smoove. I’ve never seen anything like this guy when he came on the scene for the 6th season. I called Larry up because I didn’t know where this guy came from. I didn’t know he wrote for Saturday Night Live for years. It doesn’t get much better than that guy. This guy has Emmy written all over him.

We sadly lost Shelley Berman this month. Can you tell us any stories from your time working with him?

Alongside Nichols and May, Shelley Berman originated the humanistic side of comedic feelings. I worshipped the guy. He was perhaps the finest wordsmith of all the iconic comics. He was very sensitive, a perfectionist, oftentimes irritable, but at his best channeled his psyche into his routines and heroic improvs on Curb. His admiration for my work is something that will stay with me till my last breath.

Going back to your beginning as a standup, you landed on the mainstream radar after memorable appearances on Carson and Letterman in the ‘80s. How do you feel about the current state of late night, especially as there are less and less standup showcases?  

Times change. Period. I wish there were more slots for pure standup but who cares what I think.

What do you remember about the golden age of late night?

David Letterman, he — David Letterman set me off. He called me into his office when he got his late night show in ‘82. I was doing a lot of standup shows but he told me I was moving around too much on stage. He told me to move back to New York and write for his show and I could still be a comedian too.  I told him, “No David, I just moved. I can’t.” He said, “I’ll tell you what. You can come on the show as often as you want but you’ll never be doing standup, not on my show.” Whenever I did The Tonight Show, I would do it with guest hosts with Burt Reynolds or Joan Rivers because they didn’t care that I did panel. Usually you would only do panel with Johnny if you had a series. I was always doing panel, so I started doing my standup material during it. Letterman set that precedent for me. I never did standup on television from 1982 on because of Letterman. Every time his show would say “Let Richard do five minutes,” and Dave would say no. “Richard doesn’t do standup on television. He sits down.” That was because of Dave.

Is it true you almost got banned from Carson for doing too long of a set?

Yes. I was killing a monologue with the Burbank studio audience and, not to trample on the laughs, I went over from five minutes to almost eleven! I decided not to end my routine prematurely and look amateurish. The talent booker was clueless why I waited for my laughs and threatened never to book me again. Mystically, I ran into Carson at The Palm after the show and plead my case. Johnny understood, and the rest, as they say, was history. 

Mel Brooks once called you the Franz Kafka of modern comedy. Why do you think that is and do you agree with that description? 

Tragically, yes. I’m paranoid, worry endlessly, and go dark in an instant.

You’re approaching your 47th year as a performer. You’re a successful author, you’ve sold out Carnegie Hall and you’ve been on multiple hit shows. What is it about performing comedy that still gets you excited?

I’m not sure why anything I do happens and don’t want to know. I’m mostly useless at any other endeavor and still have a need to express my most private feelings — hopefully for laughs. But I’ve been very blessed. I don’t care that I’m 70. I came around at a time that when I became a comic, there weren’t that many. There was Crystal and Leno and Kaufman and Elayne Boosler. The older comedians were in their 50s and 60s then and they dug me. I got a review once in The New York Times and — I’m boasting — it said I was a transitional link between the older generation of comedians and the new edgy ones. I’m somewhere linked between Alan King and Gilbert Gottfried. I don’t know. I’m just really lucky.

Photo by John P. Johnson/HBO.

Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.

Richard Lewis on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ Standup, and […]