Richard Lewis is worried. But that’s nothing new.
The 71-year-old stand-up comedian, actor and writer – dubbed “the Franz Kafka of modern-day comedy” by no less than Mel Brooks – is legendary for his elevated anxiety levels.
But for nearly a half-century, he’s been making audiences laugh uproariously. “I don’t have an act,” he explains. “I just go [onstage] and see how I feel and tell people how I feel. I have things that I find funny, but if an audience laughs — it’s something.
“I will keep riding that horse until they stop, and then I’ll get off and get on something else.”
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native who grew up in Englewood, N.J., Lewis is about to wrap up shooting on the hit TV show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” now in its 10th season, while preparing to go back out on tour. He recently published “Reflections from Hell,” a collection of Lewis aphorisms illustrated by artist Carl Nicholas Titola that provides an artistic insight into the comedian’s angst-ridden existence.
Known for his rapid-fire mind and exhaustive comic work ethic, Lewis is clearly always working and searching for the next big laugh. Though he could easily sit back and retire, he recently told Jmore he continues to work “because I’m above ground.”
Jmore: You’re often introduced as the “Prince of Pain,” but Jewish is also always one of your descriptors.
I was born a Jew. I went to Hebrew school. My bar mitzvah — I sold out, I didn’t do much advance press. It sold out — it was packed.
I was thrust into Judaism. My parents could have been Buddhist, and then I wouldn’t have a clue about eating rugelach. I was born Jewish and I was born loving to laugh. I didn’t even have a microphone when I was born. I just grabbed the umbilical cord and the doctor said, “You’re made for this, buddy.”
I believe in a higher power, and mine is very Jewish and has bad breath during Yom Kippur.
And “Curb” is overtly Jewish as well, right?
Yes. “Curb” is like performing in a giant menorah.
Do you consider yourself part of the American Jewish comic tradition?
Absolutely. I came up at a time in ‘70-’71 when a lot of these iconic comedians, many of them Jewish, were in their prime and I was just a young kid, and they got me. And they really helped me go back to the various huts where I was living and feel like, “Hey, I’m doing the right thing.” You know, Milton Berle loves me and Shelley Berman and David Brenner. … I mean for whatever reason, I had a twisted gift that they thought was unique.
I remember Rodney Dangerfield said to me, “[In Dangerfield-esque voice] “Hey, you got a persona — you know what you’re doing, kid.’ And that was coming from one of the strongest personas of all time. Outstanding.
Why don’t you generally do political humor?
I used to be far more political during the Bush administration, but [the Trump administration] has been far more polarizing and so horrific, from my point of view, for the vast majority of Americans — Jews and non-Jews — that I’d rather talk about something else. It’s called the “Everything Else But Trump Tour.”
Do you think Americans have lost their sense of humor?
No, I think we’ve lost a sense of dignity in this country in general. I don’t care what wedge issues that people who are for Trump believe. This administration has done so many things to disgrace the dignity of our country. That’s the frustrating part for me. I think the hatred and the anti-Semitism, the emboldening of people that are riddled with hate — that’s a small percentage of this country. I’m convinced of this. For whatever reason, people voted for him or would vote for him again They’re not all white supremacists. To them, there’s other things that he stood for. Or maybe just because he was a TV star. I mean, Ronald Reagan was an actor.
So how does it feel being 71 years old?
NONE of your business, number one. No, I’m 71 and I’m proud of being 71 — that I made it. But in Jewish years, it’s 102,000. What year are we in now, 5779? So I’m 102,000 in three months. But I still have my hair at 102,000. Well, I have to say my hair in the ‘90s was legend. It was almost pornographic, my hair.
That alone is pretty incredible, considering how often you pulled at it.
I must’ve pulled a little bit in the back of my head, unknowingly. Larry David is so thrilled. Last year when we were shooting, he said, “You’re finally losing your hair.” So I said “Well, what do you want?” And I heard him telling the cameraman, “Let’s do an over-the-shoulder shot of Richard and make sure the lens picks up his head.”
Talk about your relationship with Larry David.
We were born in the same hospital — Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, which is no longer there — three days apart. We’ve had a mystical kind of relationship our whole lives. We met and didn’t see each other, then met and realized we knew each other. It’s really been one of the nicest relationships in comedy, if I can throw myself in that arena.
You can see that the two of you love each other.
Who Larry and I? Oh yeah. Oh God, when the [director] yells cut, he laughs with me. I mean, the gag reel is always great. I wish they would put a long gag reel on TV. When [David] goes off, he goes up and starts laughing, and when I look at him it’s over. He does it with everybody, but we have such a unique experience, literally born together. It’s something that worked out and people believe it because we’re playing ourselves, albeit I guess hyperbolically.
It’s fairly close, sadly. When I come home and my wife, Joyce, says to me, “How did it go?” I say, “How many years are you going ask me how it went? We had a scene in a restaurant, we argued over the menu and I’m home and I have makeup on. Tomorrow, I fight with him again at a car dealership. All we do is fight. Leave me alone.” And I don’t edit it. I don’t know how funny I’ll be.
Do you ever feel that “Curb” goes too far?
Nothing is too far, but [David] doesn’t have to put it in the show, he can edit it. He says, “Do whatever you want.” I mean, there’s certain story lines that you have to follow, but it’s very minimal. It’s 99 percent ad-libbed. It’s fantastic.
You say you’re at peace with yourself now — no more psychotherapy, happily married, successful. Can you summon enough angst to keep you onstage?
Oh, I’m a bottomless pit of angst. People come over and say “God, I’ve been watching you for 30 years, you’re so great,” and I go, “Why do you say that?” Who asked people to say that? Why can’t I just get a simple thanks? You could be wrong — maybe you think I’m someone else?
No, I’ve had enough damage done to stay funny until I hang up my comedy jock. When I lose the passion onstage, I’ll stop that and just probably write or act if something came up. But I mean I’d feel satisfied right now if I said I’m done, but I’m not done. You know it’s too much fun to hear people laugh, and I’m still performing at a high level.
For the last tour, I was performing at the best level of my career. I think a lot of that had to do with experience and also feeling good about myself, and feeling good about yourself doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not going to be a crazy wreck onstage. But I’ve mastered the art of being unhappy onstage. It’s a good quote. I hope you use that quote. I don’t want to do your job, but if that’s not in [the article], I will haunt you when I’m gone. I will read this article and if I don’t see that quote, it’s over. I will haunt you and your family.
OK, well thanks for chatting. Be well.
Be well? You had to end like, “Watch the curb when you walk across the street.” I always hang up on a laugh. Click.
A former Baltimore resident, Deborah Walike is a freelance writer living in upstate New York