Laurie Stone, writing about comedian Richard Lewis in the Village Voice in 1989, called his act "secular davening, where self-disclosure substitutes for prayer." At the time, Lewis was 42 and almost breathtaking (or painstaking) to watch, with his self-doubt and self-loathing and the relatives and the women and the therapists who had made him this way. His gestures were trademark--the hand pressed to the forehead, for instance--as trademark as the loose-fitting black clothes and the Converse sneakers.
On a new double CD called "Live From Hell," there is a recording of Lewis' first cable special, "I'm in Pain," taped at the Improv in Los Angeles in 1985. Fans of Lewis will be reminded of how often he used the expressions "from hell" and "It was frightening," as if for him they were first-person pronouns. He talked about the grandfather who "donated his grief to science" and the mother who could "throw guilt without moving her conscience." Or the girlfriend who was given to Freudian slips. ("Vermin--I mean, honey bee.")
At the time, naturally, Lewis said he lived in "a predominantly anxious" part of Los Angeles. He still lives in L.A., up in the Hollywood Hills, in an old house that he says has chronic leaks. But Lewis, who will perform at the Roxy in West Hollywood tonight and at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano Friday, is no longer just selling his anxiousness--he is also an alcoholic in recovery, with a book out about his addictions (various addictions, actually). Thus, the anxieties have a new twist--he's in a better place, but it's still not a hacienda.
The book is called "The Other Great Depression," and, because Lewis can ramble and speak in asides, the subtitle is "How I'm Overcoming, on a Daily Basis, at Least a Million Addictions and Dysfunctions and Finding a Spiritual [Sometimes] Life." It's pretty unfunny in parts, which is to say it represents Lewis' earnest attempt to explain--both to himself and to his readers--who is he is and how he became an alcoholic and then an alcoholic in recovery (there were problems with drugs too, and chasing down women, and weird issues with food, but booze was the big kahuna).
Lewis' story of a show business drunk is a bit coy (he'll drop superlatives but not names, as in: "Years later, I was at a famous Hollywood restaurant with very famous people and my not-too-famous-but-drop-dead-beautiful-and-half-my-age girlfriend . . . "). And while the book begins with his childhood (he was the son of a caterer) and carries us into the present, the narrative at times feels crowded with thought--confessions that need pruning. In fairness to Lewis, his New York-New Jersey upbringing wasn't exactly "Angela's Ashes," and he doesn't simply fall back on routines, as do so many comics who put out "books."
"Freaked" about writing a literary memoir, in fact, Lewis says he called Steve Martin, who now writes fiction and pithy humor pieces for the New Yorker. "I told him my basic fear was that it wouldn't sound like me," Lewis says. ". . . He basically said, 'Richard, this is a book, and the one thing you don't want to look like is stupid.' I laughed. I totally got it."
For comedy fans of Lewis, however, the alarming word in the subtitle of his book is "spiritual." With funny people, it's generally best when their spirits remain crushed. And yet, Lewis can still be angsty on his feet. Over lunch at Jade West in Century City, he orders the spring rolls; in the next hour, he eats some of each spring roll but can't commit to finishing any particular one. Asked about it later he says: "I have an algebraic eating disorder. Sometimes I wake up and say, 'Today, it's going to be three-fourths of everything. You caught me on a 50% day."
For those who have never seen him on stage or on one of his many appearances on "Late Night With David Letterman," Lewis is best-known for "Anything but Love," the sitcom co-starring Jamie Lee Curtis that ran on ABC from 1989 to 1992 (Lewis, by the way, says that his drinking never spilled over into his work). There was the 1996 independent film "Drunks," for which he received good notices, and stabs at sitcoms that failed (1990's "Daddy Dearest," with Don Rickles, and 1997's "Hiller and Diller," with Kevin Nealon). But stand-up, which he began in 1971, was where he made his mark.
The steady build of Lewis' alcoholism caused him to quit stand-up between 1991 and 1994, he says. In '94, he checked himself into Hazelton, the famed drug and alcohol treatment center in Minnesota, but Lewis says he left after a day. His therapist termed his condition a kind of impotency--pain buried in booze, drugs and the hunt for orgasms. Sort of like Elvis, only without the fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Lewis eventually found his rock bottom with a cocaine binge, he says.