Richard Lewis' comedy act is known even by people who've never seen his stand-up. His persona has become such a singular archetype that younger comedians who manifest an agitated, irrepressibly confessional, complaining-with-punchlines character are seen to be descended from Lewis' comedy lineage. A figure in black clothes restlessly prowling the stage, raised hands gesturing plaintively, bits coming out with a stream-of-consciousness rhythm — aside from the words, it's a feel, an identifiable vibe, and one that will soon be hitting an L.A. stage for the first time in five years.
Lewis has brought a more focused, life-seasoned version of his stage presence to HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, undoubtedly exposing him to millions of younger viewers unfamiliar with his 40 years of stand-up, multiseason early-'90s sitcom Anything But Love, and movie roles ranging from the heavy drama Leaving Las Vegas to the parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
In Curb, whereas David is ultimately glib and emotionally armored, Lewis is lamenting and wounded. The pair do a kind of manic-obsessive dueling banjos, all the more resonant because we know they're accessing a lifelong, Brooklyn-born friendship.
“I know what my sweet spot has been,” Lewis says. “It's personal stuff, dysfunction, fear of intimacy, family stuff, psychology stuff. I eviscerate myself onstage. Once I started to get really personal about myself, I used hyperbole. I love hyperbole.”
In 1989, Lewis played Carnegie Hall for more than two hours to standing ovations.
“I came down the stairs a half-hour after the second ovation, I was fucking hammered on booze and I made a complete fool of myself in front of people I've known my whole life. I showed my alcoholism after the great show.”
The one topic he had suppressed onstage — his alcoholism and drug addiction — was unlocked once Lewis got sober in 1994. Another of his tightly held habits was working with an almost comically bountiful pile of notepads, covered with shorthand bit ideas, which he preferred to lay down on a piano onstage.
“One day one of my 4,000 managers said, 'Why don't you try it the real way? Traditionally?' Doing it without the pads, people close to me said that my performance level had been far superior.”
Lewis also got a nudge regarding the notes from a different set of industry professionals.
“I was doing a huge Vegas venue years ago, went down for a sound check and said I needed a piano. By the time I was done, these Teamster guys were collapsing from exhaustion bringing in the grand piano, and I whipped out my three inches of paper and they weren't thrilled with that.”
With or without notes, Lewis will always leave himself open to improvisational inspiration. “When you do something in the moment, it may just be for that stage, that audience, that head space that you're in.”
Lewis got to play a stable entertainment professional in Leaving Las Vegas, the Oscar-awarded 1995 feature about severe alcoholism, and then a half-year later won a lead role as a heavy addict in Drunks, an impressively cast low-budget drama about a Manhattan Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Such powerful addiction-related themes turned out to be cathartic and therapeutic for the newly sober actor-comedian.
Nearly a quarter-century in to an alcohol-free life, Lewis credits various tools for helping him maintain his healthy mental state, chief among them a dog — a little Maltese mix who sits on a mat in front of him. “She doesn't give me any shit. She doesn't argue.”
A year and a half ago, just before leaving for a Vegas gig, Lewis walked on the roof of his house to compulsively check on a drain, fell off, was seriously injured and got knocked out of commission for 17 months — ironically, all while having been decades stone sober.
“I told my wife to call everybody and say, 'I'm out of the business for a while.' I had to cancel almost two tours. I'm in very good health now.”
When it comes to combing life for those odd, contentious “Curb moments,” Lewis stresses that it's Larry David's special genius — and job — not his. But then he concedes an anecdote from his honeymoon trip to Rome.
On a walking tour through the Eternal City's historical treasures, other tourgoers came up and mentioned Curb to him, the guide going so far as to use Lewis' name in reference to historical martyrs, declaring “I bet Richard felt like this.” Lewis asked for some privacy, as it was his honeymoon.
Then Lewis' wife felt a sudden urge, so he grabbed the guide and said, “You're gonna make a lot of money from that tour, because of me. Get her a bathroom.” It being an urgent situation, and with the guide's privileged access, Lewis' wife got to pee in Da Vinci's toilet. Which perhaps just further proves that Lewis — comedian, actor, author — is a true Renaissance man.
RICHARD LEWIS | Roxy Theatre, 9009 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood | Sat., Dec. 9, 8 p.m. | $50 | theroxy.com/event/1494668-richard-lewis-todd-snider-west-hollywood/
Follow Adam Gropman on Twitter @groptimum.