“I should have called my comedy company Oy Vey Productions,” Richard Lewis quipped.
The 67-year-old comedian has been nicknamed the “Prince of Pain” for his jazz-style riffs on his dysfunctional Jewish family, his dates from hell, his shrinks and sundry mishegas — all delivered as he paces a stage with his hand plastered to his forehead. “I’ve got so many problems, it’s like a Jewish action movie,” he’s said in his act.
On a recent morning, Lewis was both manic and chivalrous as he sipped a cappuccino in the bar area of L.A.’s Four Seasons Hotel: “Can I get you anything — coffee, matzah brei?” he asked. He was decked out in his signature flowing shag haircut, all-black attire and Converse sneakers, with an avalanche of comedy notes, all scrawled in black marker on ragged scraps of paper, threatening to erupt out of his satchel.
Lewis has scarcely slowed down in his more than 40 years in show business. Recognized by Comedy Central as one of the top 50 standup comedians of all time and perhaps best known in recent years as Larry David’s neurotic frenemy in HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Lewis is currently finishing his new book, “Reflections From Hell,” illustrated by Carl Nicholas Titolo, an artist both he and David have patronized over the years.
He’s playing a redneck, against type, in Peter Bogdanovich’s new film, “She’s Funny That Way.” In addition, he’s continuing to tour his standup act, and he has just released a new DVD set, “Bundle of Nerves,” which traces his decades in the comedy biz.
“Nerves” includes his 1977 TV movie “Diary of a Young Comic,” which reminds Lewis of his early days living in a hovel next door to a brothel while struggling to make it; his 1995 dramatic film, “Drunks,” spotlighting Lewis as an alcoholic who goes on a bender after fleeing a self-help meeting that was filmed just six months after he stopped drinking in real life; his 1996 HBO show “Magical Misery Tour,” his first special ever performed while sober; and a new documentary, “House of a Lifetime,” in which he takes viewers on a tour of his Hollywood Hills home, crammed with thousands of images and artworks representing show-business icons who have inspired him.
“I emailed my shrink a link of the documentary, and she said, ‘No wonder your wife wants to move!’ “ Lewis said.
“But I don’t go to therapy very much any more. If I start talking about my mother, at 67, I mean it’s like a joke already.”
Even so, he still remembers how, in 1989, during his stand-up act just a week before he made his triumphant debut at Carnegie Hall, his mother stood up each time he used hyperbole to describe his family, shouting out to the audience that his stories were untrue.
When Lewis was growing up in Englewood, N.J., his life was “a horror show,” he said. His mother was depressed and easily upset, and “I was always wrong,” he said. His beloved father, a kosher caterer, was rarely at home.
“If my parents had listened to me with any degree of interest, I never would have gone onstage,” he explained. “I needed to be validated by strangers and to feel some self-worth, because I had none. And I knew laughter was my way out.”
In 1971, his grief over his father’s death at 57 propelled him to stop writing jokes for Borscht Belt comedians and to try his own stand-up at the now-closed Improv in Manhattan. Lewis became a rising star and bonded with fellow comics such as David Brenner, who would become his mentor, and Larry David, with whom he became best friends.
Once, Lewis even took his pal to a meeting of his therapy group, where the prickly David “just sat there getting more and more red-faced,” Lewis recalled. “Finally, he stood up, annoyed, and said, ‘I don’t need to hear you people whining and complaining’ — and he bolted out the door. And suddenly 12 Jews are all chasing him down the street, all insecure, screaming, ‘You do need us, Larry!’ So he barricaded himself inside a telephone booth, with all of our faces pressed up against the glass, and refused to come out. … It would have made a great episode of ‘Curb.’ “
Even after the two had become best friends, they didn’t initially realize that they had met once before: When both were 12, they were archrivals at a sports camp back East. When they finally figured out the sports camp connection, “we almost came to blows,” Lewis said. “But then we laughed and hugged each other. That’s why our connection on ‘Curb’ is so great. I annoy him because I wear my heart on my sleeve. The relationship was love-hate, and it still is.”
In the ’90s, a string of bad luck, in part, had propelled him from alcoholism to an addiction to crystal meth. Then, in 1994, he went on a six-day binge of snorting crystal meth. He called two friends who took him to Cedars-Sinai, “and a doctor there said, ‘Richard, what are you doing to yourself?’ And I said, ‘I was killing myself, but I’m done with it. I want to live.’ “
Lewis channeled those memories into the 1995 film “Drunks,” his first dramatic role, as well as into his 2001 memoir, “The Other Great Depression.”
He also eventually made peace with his mother on her deathbed in 1999: “I sat with her, held her hand, and said, ‘I was not a perfect son by any stretch, and we all have our own problems, but I love you, and if you still love me, can you show me?’ And she squeezed my hand really tight, and it just blew my mind,” he said.
These days, Lewis’ wife, Joyce Lapinsky, a development consultant for the nonprofit Urban Farming organization, helps keep him grounded. They were married by a Chabad rabbi 10 years ago when “we had to use like 10 of his sons for a minyan; it was like a Marx Brothers movie,” Lewis said.
Together Lewis and Lapinsky now study Torah with a Chabad rebbetzin in Los Angeles, and they’re preparing to move to a new home where Lewis will significantly downsize his collection of show-biz memorabilia. “I don’t need it anymore to define me; I can define myself,” he said. ”I’ve never felt better.”