Richard Lewis Brings Christmas Cheer to Jews and Atheists

Between the parties, familial obligations, and financial strains, the holidays can be challenging for those struggling with substance abuse or depression. So New York comedian Richard Lewis couldn't have chosen a better time to bring his humor to Cobb's for three shows on Dec. 26 and 27. The Curb Your Enthusiasm and Blunt Talk star, may have built a 45-year career on complaints, but as Christmas approaches, he told SF Weekly he's grateful for the shows, his new book Reflections From Hell: Richard Lewis' Guide on How Not to Live, his career-spanning 2 DVD package box set, A Bundle of Nerves, and last but not least over two decades of sobriety. He also talked about his friendship with Larry David, how he handles difficulties without turning to alcohol and drugs, and how you, too, can get through the holidays without unraveling. 

[jump] What are some of the topics you'll be addressing in your current set?

I hole up in my hotel in San Francisco, and I'm printing out two to three pages of new material, and I just pore over it. Until they say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Richard Lewis,' I have no idea what's going to happen. So I have no idea. I ad lib half the show, and people who pay money to see me know and expect that. But I'm not for everyone. I never wanted to be for everyone. I am eccentric. I am dysfunctional, and I'm rooting for the most dysfunctional, ethical, nice people who like to talk about sexuality, dentistry, and you name it. But I won't know what I'm saying. 

Apparently, this time it's Christmas, so they're thinking, 'Oh, the funny Jew will get some people out there. If he can't get 400 atheists and Jews, then his career is over. But hopefully, they'll come to see me for my 45th anniversary in the business.

You recently released a new book called Reflections from Hell: Richard Lewis' Guide on How Not to Live, with pictures from New York artist, Carl Nicholas Titolo. What will readers learn? 

Wisdom is in the ears of the beholder. There's an image in there that's pretty dark, but I just had this thought once, because I have really dark dreams and I just snapped into saying that my nightmares have coming attractions, and it just tickled me for some reason. But there's more to it under the surface. The reason I wanted to be a standup comedian is because I wanted to get validated for my dark feelings, so I don't feel so alone and depressed. Most people are in the same place, and we've got to hopefully hang together, but, of course, that's not the case anywhere in the world. Of course, you can always be hopeful and hang out with people who are tolerant and loving, but I wasn't raised by people who were really tolerant of me, so my standup has just been this journey of analyzing myself onstage and trying to get laughs at my own expense.

In Larry David's foreword to your book, he admonishes readers to never give you their number or email, because you'll bombard them with long-winded calls and lengthy emails. Is that an accurate characterization?

After talking to me for 15 minutes, can't you see it?

No, I want you to call me every day. And I'll give you my email when we're done, so you can email me incessantly, too.

You will regret it for the rest of your life. I am obsessive-compulsive, and even people whose lives I may have saved from alcoholism resent my calling them still. I just can't stop rambling, and Larry David has no tolerance for rambling. It needs to be very concise, and it's too bad because a lot of my friends, who are probably emotionally disturbed, love me. They understand that there's a point if they have an hour or two to wait on the phone. I just don't like to get to the point fast.

But it was great. We trust each other implicitly and have helped each other out a lot. He gave me a great job for a decade on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and we had a great time working together and are mutual fans of each other's work and writing. He's a brilliant, brilliant guy. It's trippy being so close to him. We were born in the same hospital ward, three days apart, and I'm convinced he tried to hang me with the umbilical chord. But things worked out, though. 
You've been wearing all black for 40 years. To this day, when I do it, I get comments like, 'Are you sad today,' or 'You look like you're going to blow up a school today.' 

That's quite a leap from 'You're wearing a black Armani suit' to 'You're gonna blow up a junior high.' Who are these people you're hanging out with? I'm worried about them. Black clothes are cool. If it's good enough for Johnny Cash, then it's good enough for them. Fuck your friends. 

So why do you do it?

I think it had to do with me trying to hide onstage because unraveling your psyche is terrifying in front of strangers. So I think the black made me feel like a shadow, so they see me, but they can't, because I can hide behind my clothes. I feel naked when I'm not wearing it. 

You recently played psychiatrist Dr. Weiss on Starz TV series Blunt Talk

That was fun. For me, to play a psychiatrist was almost a punch line.  I would tell people I'm playing a psychiatrist and everyone I told that to fell down as if they were having a spasm. But I could play one.

Was there something empowering about playing a therapist as opposed to a patient?

Well, yes, empowering only in that I was prepared for this. I'd been to not only Freudian analysts, but also psychotherapists of all types. I don't go much anymore. I'm pretty fed up with why I'm the way that I am. I could answer those questions. Psychiatry and psychology mainly helped me a lot and to sober up, figure out who I am, and take responsibility for my actions. But to show up on that set…they talk about Robert De Niro gaining 60 pounds for that role, how about 40 years? Forget about it. I felt so confident and so comfortable playing Dr. Weiss, and they were so happy with how this character turned out. I will always consider it a high point.

How do you handle difficult feelings today without alcohol or drugs?

There are plenty of addictions that are out there…sex, food, drugs, but I won't drink or use no matter what, so I have to make sure not to ruin my life or make my life unmanageable in other ways, because I don't want to lose my marriage or gain 200 pounds. There are other ways to medicate yourself, so what I do is I have a nice group of men and women in my life and some of them are former addicts who I can pick up the phone when I'm alone in my hotel and say, 'I'm in San Francisco and going through some depression,' and I know they will immediately understand how screwed up I'm feeling. I call up people who give me all the time in the world and come visit me. Isolation is the worst thing for alcoholics and drug addicts when they're not using and depressed. I have friends who understand how screwed up my head is. It's the Industrial Revolution inside my head sometimes. 

The holidays are a tough time for recovering alcoholics and depressives. What advice can you offer these people to help them through the holidays?

I stay away from anything that looks like JELL-O or any kind of fruitcake or ham or spam. You avoid that at all costs. If you drink or do drugs, stay away from heavy use. If you're getting loaded, don't drive. Say no to people more than you ordinarily would. Do things that make you happy. I try to make a gratitude list. When I get too moody or depressed, I try to write down some things I should be grateful for. The world's in turmoil. There's a lot of horrible stuff in the news. It's a dark time. Everyone has a lot of shit on our plates, so we have to look at what we have that's not horrible and be grateful. So you have to remember that there's someone across the street who has it worse.

But thank you for this. You've turned me into the Ingmar Bergman of standup. I'm going to call my three shows, 'A Long Day's Journey Into Richard Lewis.' So thanks. 

Richard Lewis, Dec. 26-27, at Cobb's Comedy Club, ($27.50), 915 Columbus Ave, 928-4320 or

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