Ask Richard Lewis how his President’s Day is, and he’ll reply, which president?
"It depends," he told me. "If Abe Lincoln was president, I’d be jumping up and down. I was a big fan of Clinton and FDR, although he was a little slow getting rid of the Nazis. I’m not as big a fan of the current president…I don’t think I’ll be invited to the Oval Office. I hope he has a good day. I hope he reads something. I’m thinking of sending him a coloring book, so he can start slow."
Yes, Lewis is a Democrat. And yes, he’s still as neurotic as ever. Over the next hour, as I attempt to squeeze in a question or two about current events or his current works, he’ll veer from topic to topic, sometimes in the same beat. As he does just now, trying to show the least bit of compassion for George W. Bush. And also plug his upcoming weekend in Boston.
"I’m a tolerant man," Lewis said. "I’m only coming there because I miss Boston. I have friends there. I make no money. It’s the Gandhi tour when I play a nightclub, and I also try to fast. Four shows, no food. Maybe a little rice on the way home." He’d just left a gig in Texas. "I was staring at a concert hall filled with mostly evangelicals. Here is this poor postured Jew. When you feel you’re on the lam, after they say, ‘Ladies and Gentleman, Richard Lewis,’ you go onstage full of fear."
Fear, though, seems to not exist once he’s onstage. Neither does a set list. "The best thing I’ve ever done is not bring the notes onstage. I don’t know what I’m going to do in any set," he said. And then…as if playing to that Texan crowd: "Look, you believe in the rapture, fine. I’m not allowed to go up with you. Jesus was a Jew. Hopefully he’ll let me sleep on a guest cloud. This is the way I was born. Don’t blame me for it. I won’t blame you!"
And then back to the president. "I’m a lifelong Democrat. Of course, I’m not happy about the president. But what upsets me is the lack of separation between church and state," he said. "It’s really killing me. I’m a spiritual guy. I talk about my life onstage. When they go home, they’re happy they’re not me. Boom! Everybody wins."
"I’m not a social critic, because I ultimately turn it around to how it’s affecting me personally and sexually," he said.
That’s been his hallmark. Fear and neurosis and sex. Right? Fear about real life. "I don’t know what I am except a humorist," he said. "From 23 on, I needed absolute validation about myself. To think I can close my eyes at a higher state, and I can remember exactly where I’m living, a crummy apartment waiting for the White Album to come out. It’s hard to extricate being sober for 12 years. How I didn’t kill anyone when I was drinking and driving home on top of a dinosaur."
Lewis is OK, though. Despite what you may have seen on Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which he needed a kidney from Larry David. "Believe me, most of my relatives have e-mailed me: ‘I’m not your blood type, but are you OK?’ Bite me!" he said. "You learn who your true loved ones where. 98 percent of the people who wrote me were relatives. That’s why I love stand-up, because I’m looking at strangers who hadn’t heard me yet."
And then back to addictions. "I was addicted to a lot of things, women included," he said. "After seeing Match Point, I had to be in a straitjacket for 14 weeks. I haven’t told Woody (Allen) this yet. Midway through, I went to the bathroom, and I almost jumped 15 women on their way to get popcorn." Scarlett Johansson can have that affect on a guy, though. "My god, a praying mantis on marriages. I am still in a funk and I have a gorgeous wife!" And he was happy to find someone who shared his interests. "It’s such a pleasure not to have someone see Dog Day Afternoon for the first time again!" he said. "I’m a real Cassavetes freak. Even my wife, who loves Cassavetes, too, says, ‘Look, I can’t watch Faces for the 100th time. You watch it!’"
Now he’s thinking about his legacy as a comedian. "What humbled me more than anything," he said. "When Walter Matthau died. Everybody loved him, but it was 12 seconds in an hour on the news, and they cut to a traffic jam…I thought they would just talk about Matthau and forget about the traffic or the weather for the night. So I don’t take myself that seriously." Lewis did release a DVD box set of his comedy works, with concerts going back 20 years. "I also realized how many jokes I wrote," he said. "I ramble a lot, but I had loads of one-liners. I could’ve done talk shows for the rest of my life 20 years ago, because I have so much material."
Which led him back to addiction. Any tips? "There are a number of ways to lose an addiction," he said. "I, as a rule, tell nobody how I did it. That said, there are cross-addictions of sex and drugs and cigarette smoking. In a flash, I could give up everything and eat Ben and Jerry’s and hole up in a cabin. Luckily, I’m addicted to comedy. And I’m addicted to it with a passion."
The Winter Olympics were ongoing, but not getting much passion out of him. "I haven’t watched much, because I’ve been on the road," he said. "I watched one of the tobogganing, and I got nauseous. They always try to drum up this up close-and-personal stuff so you’ll watch it. ‘His parents were Klansmen, he grew up an Orthodox Jew, and now he’s on the toboggan!’ That I’d watch."
One of the weird perks of his career has been knowing many famous people. "That’s one of the crazy perks," Lewis said. "The fans I have are hardcore fans, because I’m not commercial…at the top of my game, I’m who I am. And people want to see me, that’s great. But doing it for so long, you’d get phone calls. I’m telling this to (John) McEnroe at Larry David’s house. I knew Wilt (Chamberlain), too. I knew the same women as he did, but I hoped I dated them first, for obvious reasons. He showed up with seven women, it impossible not to see him, he was at the Improv in Hollywood. He was so intimidatingly large, that I freaked when I went up to meet him." In 1991, then-Gov. Bill Clinton and his campaign tracked Lewis down in a hotel. He once visited the White House on his way to rehab. And then there were the Rolling Stones. "Last year…Ronnie Wood is a good friend of mine…He says, ‘Why don’t you come to this small venue?’ I’d never met Jagger or Charlie. My wife went with me, and she knows I make incredible faux pas. They end up in a dressing room with all four of them, she’s watching me make one faux pas after another. I had the same hip sneakers. And they’re odd sneakers, that Mick had on, so he mentioned it. He turns around, walks out of the room. I panicked. I turned into a small child. Charlie says, ‘I don’t think Mick gives a fuck what you’ve got on.’ I say to Keith Richards, ‘You know, you’re looking at a man who should be dead.’ My life looks at me. He has a face that looks like Tora Bora. I start eating off a plate. He slaps my hand, says ‘Don’t eat that. Swiss cheese is bad dairy.’ Keith Richards is now my nutritionist!"
But enough about them. Lewis is winding down this current tour. "I’ve been on the road almost constantly for two years," he said. "These are my last four shows after almost two years on the road. So my discoveries will almost be like Cape Canaveral." After this weekend, he has a screenplay and is pitching a new TV show. And he’s grateful for his opportunities. "I live in a house that is 80 years old, that’s about three miles from where one of my idols, Buster Keaton’s studio was, and about 20 seconds from Lenny Bruce’s house." He’s met and talked with Bruce’s mom and Keaton’s widow. He met his wife, a music publisher, through Ringo Starr. And he’s rubbed elbows and swapped stories with so many comedians over the years. "To realize now, we’re in our 50s," he said. "But I’m so grateful that I’m still in the game."
At the end, Lewis pauses to tell me that our interview felt like therapy for him. Can we do this for an hour next week? Maybe. I’ll have to check my schedule.
"I was poor, but I felt like a millionaire. I didn’t care, because I had that microphone. That’s why I have no patience for anyone in the arts, no matter who they are, if they’re a writer or a dancer, if you have passion, if you’re doing this for money, get out," he said. "David Brenner tells me, ‘When you do The Tonight Show, it’ll be like doing nightclubs three shows a night for 50 years. That’s how many people you’ll be playing to. Hearing laughs now, with all the stress that’s going on, is such a great feeling. I am most proud being a comedian now than I’ve ever been before."