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Remembering Richard Lewis, a veteran stand-up comedian with a caustic wit

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University. Richard Lewis, the veteran stand-up comedian whose routines were full of caustic takes on love, life and physical and mental health, died of a heart attack Tuesday. He was 76 years old. Richard Lewis was born in Brooklyn in 1947 and made his first appearance as a stand-up comic on stage in Greenwich Village in 1971. It took him eight years to get on television, and he and TV were an uneasy fit. His one starring role was in the late '80s and early '90s, playing Marty Gold opposite Jamie Lee Curtis in the ABC sitcom "Anything But Love." Here's a quick scene featuring the two. His mother is visiting. He's avoiding her, and Jamie Lee's character is trying to get the two to reconcile.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANYTHING BUT LOVE")

JAMIE LEE CURTIS: (As Hannah Miller) She's your mommy.

RICHARD LEWIS: (As Marty Gold) I know.

CURTIS: (As Hannah Miller) Just spend some time with her. Talk with her. Listen to her. Let her tell you about her business.

LEWIS: (As Marty Gold) Look. The only time we were ever alone together without fighting is when she was pregnant with me. And even then, I came out screaming.

BIANCULLI: That series lasted four seasons. But before, after, and sometimes during those years, Richard Lewis worked hard to maintain a high profile. He performed in a series of popular stand-up TV specials over the years, and their titles alone reflected the confessional, complaining territory Lewis had carved out for himself. Some of his TV specials and comedy tours were titled "I'm Exhausted," "I'm Doomed" and "The Magical Misery Tour." And all the time he was touring, Lewis was embraced and showcased by some of the most respected and influential comedians in show business. David Letterman had Richard Lewis on his late-night show more than any other guest.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LEWIS: I've lived here in my life. I come back for the show. And I'm going to go back, and I - you know, I got a call today. And a guy called me up at the hotel 'cause, you know, you publicize where we're staying, which is great. And...

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: This guy was angry at me for - there used to be a game, prisoner ball, in second grade. We used to just try - it was really a sadistic game. You just try to...

DAVID LETTERMAN: Prisoner ball?

LEWIS: Yeah, just kill as many people on the other side. That's pretty much it. And he was angry at me. You know, people harbor these little incidents in their lives. I have thousands of them. And this guy, I'm sure he's in therapy about it now, but he chose to call me, good luck on the Letterman show. And then he said, I hated you. I hated you for that. So that's the kind of mood I'm in. Just - that call happened about an hour ago.

BIANCULLI: Mel Brooks cast him as Prince John in his 1993 movie "Robin Hood: Men In Tights," and Larry David, a childhood friend, cast Richard Lewis as an even more acerbic version of himself in the first episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" in 1999, a show on which he's appeared, off and on, ever since, including earlier this month in a scene where Richard and Larry are riding a golf cart, chatting while driving to the next tee.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM")

LEWIS: (As himself) I did Wordle again today. I'm a Wordle wizard, man. I did it in three tries.

LARRY DAVID: (As himself) Really?

LEWIS: (As himself) That's three days in a row, man.

DAVID: (As himself) Wow. You're really on a good streak.

LEWIS: (As himself) I'm on a huge streak. That's right.

DAVID: (As himself) All right. Let's see if I can continue my streak.

LEWIS: (As himself) I know. You've been unbelievable. What is this all about? How are you doing this?

DAVID: (As himself) You know why? I sat on a bench this morning and overheard a lesson. I've had thousands of hours of lessons. Two minutes on that bench, this guy changed my life.

LEWIS: (As himself) What kind of tips?

DAVID: (As himself) Vertical drop.

LEWIS: (As himself) Yeah?

DAVID: (As himself) Horizontal tug.

LEWIS: (As himself) Horizontal tug?

DAVID: (As himself) Vertical drop, horizontal tug. Now, I've dropped before.

LEWIS: (As himself) Yeah?

DAVID: (As himself) But I never tugged. And now I'm tugging.

LEWIS: (As himself) Maybe I should tug.

DAVID: (As himself) You got to tug.

LEWIS: (As himself) Can you teach me how to tug?

DAVID: (As himself) I'll teach you how to tug.

LEWIS: (As himself) This is fantastic.

DAVID: (As himself) Can I tell you something?

LEWIS: (As himself) Sure.

DAVID: (As himself) I think this is the happiest I've ever been in my life.

LEWIS: (As himself) I don't even know who I'm looking at right now.

DAVID: (As himself) How is something good happening to me?

LEWIS: (As himself) No one on the planet would believe that you're happy.

DAVID: (As himself) How is this possible?

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Richard Lewis twice. The first time was in 1988 to talk about his new HBO comedy special, "I'm Exhausted." It combined his live performance on stage in Chicago with his off-stage depiction of a nervous breakdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I'M EXHAUSTED")

LEWIS: Thank you. I just - you're a great audience. I just - you know, I just - I wish I could feel better about feeling good, quite frankly.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: I just - I'm a hypochondriac. My grandparents, I just - they lived in a place that made me. So out of it in Florida. I think the condo was called Crestfallen. That was the name of it, you know? So I feel, you know - and they bought me little gifts. I mean - well, they were very negative. We had, like, a little depression fair in the backyard for my birthday. And we used to throw wooden hoops around prescription drugs, was a big thing. And they had No Tomorrow Land, which is sort of a big thing. And pin the blame on the donkey was a major game at my house.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: How did the "I'm Exhausted" show come about? Do you go around saying to friends all the time, oh, God, I'm exhausted?

LEWIS: I said that, actually, I think, to my mother moments after I was born. I just have always been exhausted for the fear that I wouldn't do enough work. That's a whole other area, isn't it? I don't always go around saying I'm exhausted. I'm a good friend. If I went to a funeral, I wouldn't be insensitive, say I'm exhausted. I just - I had been exhausted prior to doing this special for HBO. But the problem was the special had to be done in about two weeks. That was like - this should have been an episode of "Nova" - you know? - how a Jewish man with bad posture who searches for perfection is told by executives that, fine, but we have to have it delivered in two weeks. And, you know, we pulled it off, I think. I don't know. But I was exhausted doing it, and I think it shows, but in a positive, affectionate way.

GROSS: Did you enjoy being sick when you were a kid?

LEWIS: Well, I did because I usually wasn't. And - but people did. It was like a hypochondriacal kabuki theater I put on...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: ...For the family. And I had different makeups for different ailments, of course. The flu, I felt, was the dead giveaway. I mean, it was this kabuki, very white makeup, and it was almost a mask-like effect. And it was frightening. I was half a bison, half a Jewish man. And it was - I'd come down to breakfast knowing that my family would shriek and then have me stay home, and they normally did.

GROSS: Are you a hypochondriac now?

LEWIS: Yes, sadly.

GROSS: What are the diseases you most often think you're getting?

LEWIS: Well, I would say, mostly - and not to make light of diseases because they're so horrific, and certainly, the sexual stuff now is so frightening. I basically get worried when I see any kind of rash, even if the slightest rash, I feel it will eventually spread into - just cover me like Elephant Man. And I run to every salve store. There's a lot of salve boutiques in Los Angeles, thank God. And I have a rash man in Beverly Hills who I like. But, basically, it's rashes that scare me more than anything. And also, any kind of back pain, I always fear. And I always did as a kid, sadly. Whenever I got a sore throat, for example, I really felt it would never go away. This was when I should have known then and I - that psychotherapy was right around the corner.

GROSS: (Laughter) Do you ever have audiences who are so well-adjusted that they don't get your jokes about neuroses?

LEWIS: I don't like to consider any audience well-adjusted. Seriously, I hate - I don't - first, I don't like to judge people. And I certainly...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: And I certainly wouldn't judge people in that light. I don't find too many people are well-adjusted, and if they were, I wouldn't go over very well. If I bomb, if I ever bomb - thank God I don't bomb as much as you do when you start out - I would just blame myself.

GROSS: You've done the David Letterman show a lot of times.

LEWIS: Yeah.

GROSS: How many times, do you keep count?

LEWIS: I thought it was somewhere in the high 30s, you know.

GROSS: Do you prepare for it when you go on?

LEWIS: An unbelievable fashion. It's the only reason why I have done stand-up in the last six years, sort of given me an impetus to do it, because I'd never had an audience before, like, on a regular basis. So I write down thousands and thousands of jokes a month. It takes me days and days to whittle it down to 30 or 40 ideas that I want to get to the show, not to mention we ad lib a lot on the show, too. But I prepare in an enormous fashion for the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LEWIS: And I feel I had a problem sexually. I felt, ever since I grew up, I just - and we broke up. She was saying that - she was bad-mouthing me to my pals.

LETTERMAN: Oh, is that right?

LEWIS: She said I gave her an anti-climax, she was telling my friends, right?

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: That could be dangerous; couldn't it?

LEWIS: I couldn't even - well, we couldn't even have foreplay. She wore, like, a Rubix bra when she came into the bedroom.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: And I blame my family. My parents - I know they made love. And yet they - it was like Nixon. It was like Watergate.

LETTERMAN: Yeah.

LEWIS: They would cover it up.

LETTERMAN: Very, very quiet about it, yeah.

LEWIS: Well, they didn't want to let us hear that they were screaming.

LETTERMAN: Oh, yeah, yeah.

LEWIS: My father would go, oh, that's gin. He would say, that's gin.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Doesn't Letterman strike you as a pretty healthy, well-adjusted guy?

LEWIS: I wouldn't go that far.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: Again, I hate to judge people's good health. I'll say this, I think so. I mean, he's so - was such - we're so night and day together, I mean, why I think the chemistry has been effective for him and me. When I sit next to him and I talk about - particularly when I talk about my innermost feelings, and certainly sexuality, I look in his face. He's only a foot away from me, and I - it makes me laugh because I'm not doing this to make him embarrassed, but he does get, I feel, legitimately embarrassed. And it's cute to me. But his eyes start to recede. They go back, like, to the Panama Canal. I can't even see his face. It's like Little Orphan Annie's eyes.

GROSS: Can I ask you what your bar mitzvah was like? And here's why I ask it. For a lot - you know, a bar mitzvah is, in Jewish terms, it's a religious ceremony to mark the beginning of manhood.

LEWIS: Right.

GROSS: But for a lot of people, it's like their first opening act, you know, like, their first initiation into show business because, like, you're the star of the show. There's a band, there's an emcee. You know, everybody in your family gets to dance and everything, and you're the star. Was it like - what kind of bar mitzvah did you have?

LEWIS: Spielberg could not have done justice...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: ...To what I had. First of all, my father, who has passed on, was the greatest caterer in the area in New Jersey and in parts of New York. He was really a genius. So of course, he catered my bar mitzvah. It got off on a low self-esteem note. My father was booked up on the weekend for my bar mitzvah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: And I had to settle for a Tuesday afternoon.

GROSS: You're kidding (laughter).

LEWIS: Early evening bar mitzvah party - unheralded in the Torah. I mean, I heard Moses grumbling, how can he do that to his son, rah? But what happened was I understood, you know, he had a job to do. And Tuesday night was sort of hip, now that I think of it. But before the party, I had to - the Saturday before, I had to read what they call the haftara - or haftara. I'm very bad with accents here. But what happened was that I started screwing up a little bit, and I saw some of the congregation getting a little uneasy. And then I started doing stand-up. I went, oh, I'm kidding, Jonah and the whale, come on. And I started playing the temple like a lounge.

BIANCULLI: Richard Lewis speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. We'll hear excerpts of a more recent conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON CLEARY SONG, "DYNA-MITE")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Richard Lewis, who spent 50 years onstage as a stand-up comic. He died Tuesday of a heart attack at age 76. Terry Gross spoke with him again in the year 2000, when he had just published his memoir, "The Other Great Depression," in which he wrote about his struggles with alcohol, drugs and depression. His father died when he was young, and Terry asked him if his mother was able to accept his comedy about his parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEWIS: Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, my mother had a great sense of humor. And I'm not mean-spirited. I can really say that. And my comedy, when I talk about other people, it's - you know, the craft of comedy, you know, hyperbole certainly is a big part of it. And I would exaggerate, but always the truth. And she would be the first to admit, at least privately, that she would do that, you know?

I mean, I remember one - a joke I wrote like 30 years ago. And I use this because it was very economical. And I'm sort of proud of the joke because it was a good joke. It was about how bored I would be driving across country with my family and how and unspontaneous they would be, and how it would drive me crazy. And of course I embellished it. We never did drive across country. But I had us backing out of our driveway from our hometown in Englewood, N.J., driving to San Francisco and her jiggling something in her hand. And I said, mother, what is that? What are you doing? You're making me crazy. And she says, I have the tolls ready for the Golden Gate Bridge.

GROSS: (Laughter)

LEWIS: And that to me was, you know, would have basically - and audiences always screamed at that because - you know, I had to set it up properly. But that was like, you drive with this family for 3,300 miles. You know, that's where it was at. And when I would say something that would really hit home, she would sometimes - she would never get angry. In fact, she would sometimes call me at the hotel in New York and say, don't forget to mock me tonight on Letterman, (laughter) you know what I mean? So I think she had a love-hate thing with it, you know?

GROSS: Yeah, when you talk about your neurosis, I can relate to some of that and say, yeah, now, that's really funny. And maybe I'll feel a little better about myself. So are you going to feel better about yourself if I laugh at your jokes about your neuroses?

LEWIS: Absolutely. I really do feel validated, you know, that I'm not alone. I do - there's no question I feel less alone. I mean, there's nothing worse when I try to, you know, tell a - have a riff onstage about a problem that's making me depressed. And I'm looking at an audience, be it 300 or 3,000, and there's silence. I'm saying, wow. I mean, there's a thin line between narcissism and entertainment, and that's pure narcissism, you know? And you really try to - you know, my goal is to entertain people. But if I can entertain them and get laughs to boot and applause about problems that I'm having, it only means, like what you just said, that, you know, they can relate. And that's my goal.

GROSS: Well, the last thing you want to do is to share your problems on stage in a way that you think is really funny, and instead of people laughing, they feel sorry for you.

LEWIS: You know, that - yeah. I mean...

GROSS: Has that ever happened to you?

LEWIS: Yes. Once I said, you know, I'm not a complainer. And three dozen people moaned.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: And I almost - I mean, if there was a trap door in that concert hall, I would have gone down it.

GROSS: Your comedy has always been about, well, yourself and neurosis...

LEWIS: Right.

GROSS: ...And hypochondria. How did you know when you started in comedy that you were going to be your subject matter and that your insecurities were going to be what your comedy was about?

LEWIS: Well, you know, when I started out in, like, '71, you know, lot of comedy was, you know, observational comedy. And, you know, one of the reasons I went on stage is because I felt, you know, very alienated. You know, I didn't feel - I didn't get the kind of nurturing that I felt - I just didn't feel nurtured and appreciated as much as probably I wanted to. So I needed the adulation from strangers, really, from audiences. And when I was starting to - I started writing jokes before I went onstage for, as I say, these Catskill comedians and Borscht Belt comedians, and they were rejecting most of the good stuff. And most of the good stuff was my real feelings about myself. And that was a real sign that, you know, I had to go on stage and do these jokes rather than throw them out. And they were about me.

And plus, I didn't really like - I felt so judged growing up that I didn't really like to get on stage and tell audiences, you know, did you ever notice this? Did you ever notice when you do that, that you feel this way? That was the last thing I wanted to do. What I wanted to do was talk about how I was feeling and pray to God that it was relatable and that people laughed. And, you know, three decades later, they - you know, they still are mostly. So I guess I - you know, I struck a nerve.

BIANCULLI: Richard Lewis speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. The stand-up comedian and frequent "Curb Your Enthusiasm" guest star died Tuesday. He was 76 years old. Here's another clip from an early stand-up routine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEWIS: I mean, you know, I don't mind being with the family on Hanukkah because being on the road - like, I was in the Deep South about two years ago on Hanukkah. They thought - I swear to God. They thought Hanukkah was a duck call. That's all they know - is, like, Hanukkah. Pull. Shoot. That's all you know.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: I tiptoed around the Deep South on Hanukkah. Hi. I just want a sandwich. I'll be fine. Just let me have a sandwich.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: But Hanukkah, Christmas - we didn't know what we were, quite frankly. It was sort of a - I really don't know what we were. We had, like - there was a Christmas tree, and yet there was a Hanukkah bush. It was sort of like a...

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: It's sort of like an Elephant Man kind of thing there. It was like they had balls hanging down, and yet there was, like, a picture of Golda Meir sort of over here.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: It wasn't Hanukkah. It wasn't Christmas. It was Chranukkah (ph). We had Chranukkah.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: After a break, film critic Justin Chang reviews the long-delayed science fiction sequel "Dune: Part Two." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "BLACKBIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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