Richard Lewis will be at Cobb’s Comedy Club this weekend, working through the litany of anxieties and perceived slights that have defined him since he began performing nearly 47 years ago.
However, something seems different these days. Elements of his classic persona were certainly in full regalia during a recent phone call with SF Weekly, and he still credits his inner turmoil as the foundation for his work as a comedian. But he also seemed oddly at peace with himself and the world. Perhaps it was due to a legitimate catastrophe he experienced about a year and a half ago before leaving his house in L.A. for a show in Las Vegas.
“I was ready to go and the car was outside. I do suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it was partly that and partly foolishness that made me climb on the roof of the house we used to live in, and I fell off,” Lewis says.
He was taken to the hospital with only a severely fractured wrist, but he was so traumatized from the experience — along with “surgeries and crazy shit” — that he cancelled nearly 18 months of stand-up performances.
“But I rescheduled as soon as I saw the light at the end of the tunnel … and the shows have gone probably better than they’ve ever gone in my career,” Lewis says. “A lot of the people who haven’t seen me, or even those who are legitimate fans of mine who come to see me, are saying — and this is the same epiphany I had — ‘This guy is fuckin’ 70. How long is he gonna do this?’ Maybe I’m never coming back to San Francisco, so every fuckin’ show is like Carnegie Hall to me. This is it, the people are still here, 48 years in, just take no prisoners, just be as loose and as fearless as you can be, more than ever, because I’m 70 and I just have to get over that fuckin’ situation.”
He says that what he fears most these days is the thought of losing what makes him happiest: his marriage.
“My marriage is so great, and having a real relationship that I trust and love … I do worry about not having it anymore, however that happens, and it freaks me out,” Lewis says. “That’s just where it’s at for me. I got married at 57, but you can’t look back and you don’t want to look in the future — because there is no future. This is the future for me now … I treat every day way more importantly than I used to.”
During his hiatus, Lewis says he was primarily concerned with healing up for the ninth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm with his longtime real-life buddy, Larry David.
“Just in the nick of time, I was able to show up for Curb, which actually ends this Sunday. Larry just kicks ass this whole season, and the last episode, just look out. Talk about being fearless. [Larry] was always fearless as a stand-up, but a la Woody Allen, who stopped stand-up at a very young age and put his jokes and premises and his feelings about life into characters in his films, Larry did that with Seinfeld, and he’s done it as himself on Curb. He’s a remarkable guy and I’m glad we were born in the same hospital.”
It’s true. Both David and Lewis were both born in the same Brooklyn hospital — in the same ward — just three days apart.
“We didn’t get along from the get-go,” Lewis says. “He was mocking me, since I was three days old, I felt he was always mocking me, since I was a preemie. But then he also said, ‘Don’t worry everything’s going to work out.’ It’s amazing. What are the odds?”
But the odds get even crazier than that.
“When we were 12 or 13 we went to this sports camp and we were arch rivals. We despised each other, we just didn’t get along. I thought I’d never saw him again, and he didn’t want to see me — I annoyed him,” Lewis says.
He continues that while they became best friends when their paths crossed once more on the New York standup circuit in the 1970s, neither had any recollection of their former bad blood.
“We were such great friends, and one night I was looking at him at him after the show and all the comics are hanging out, and I said, ‘You know, there’s somethin’ about you that’s weird, man. It spooks me.’ He gets real nervous about that shit and he says, ‘What’re you talkin’ about?’ And we retrace our childhood and just as a throwaway one of us said, ‘Hey, I went to this sports camp.’ We zeroed in on this fuckin’ camp, man, and we screamed. I mean what are the odds? We were destined to be on TV together. It’s un-fuckin’-believable.”
Lewis still seems to spend much of his time corralling his neuroses, especially before performing in San Francisco. But managing his turmoil is paradoxically where he feels most at home.
“After performing there for almost four decades, I’m always filled with gratitude and fear that I won’t have the kind of experience I’ve had during many evenings in that very historic city for comedy,” he says. “I’m riddled with anxiety, but that usually bodes well for the sets.”
Perhaps what’s so compelling about some comedians is that they find a way to reach a certain kind of peace in their uneasiness, and turn that into something positive.
“The truth is, what I’ve felt most comfortable doing, almost from the get-go, was to share things that were making me feel miserable, and the more laughs I got the more validated I felt,” Lewis says. “I’d think, ‘Well, alright, I’m trying. At least I’m trying to be happy.’ But when they laugh they’re not just laughing at me. Clearly, they have the same feelings from time to time and they like to hear it said out loud.”
“I’ve had some people come over to me and pick out certain things I say about relationships, and my fear of intimacy, and being a drunk and a drug addict, but tell me that I say it in a way where I’m not ashamed. Because this is just where it’s at man, in life. If you got a problem, you gotta deal with it, or if you have an issue, then don’t run away from it. But I do it as a stand-up comedian and it lightens the load for some people.”
That said, Lewis’ intention each time he takes the stage remains pretty clear.
“I’m not there to help people so much as show up and make them laugh. My sweet spots are my dark places,” Lewis says.
Richard Lewis, Friday and Saturday, Dec. 1-2, 8 p.m., at Cobb’s Comedy Club, 915 Columbus Ave.; cobbscomedy.com