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Comedian Richard Lewis on giving help for addictions

Thu, Mar 20, 2014

Richard Lewis

Comedian Richard Lewis Photo: Phil Provencio

A lot has changed since Richard Lewis first hit the comedy scene in 1971, but Lewis’s onstage persona has stayed point-on: neurotic, obsessive and cathartically using fodder from his life on the analyst’s couch. Lewis spent many years ignoring, and then facing, his multiple drug and alcohol addictions. Now, almost 20 years sober, Lewis says he still has to take it one day at a time. But there has always been one addiction that has served him well: performing before live audiences. In addition to his success in film and television, he has spent the past four decades touring the comedy circuit and currently enjoys the role of – well, essentially himself – in the wildly popular HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Last year, Lewis took a much needed and doctor-ordered vacation, a six-month break from comedy touring after 45 years. Now he’s back on the road, selling out venues across the U.S.

Sue Zalokar: You have often made reference to hard times or lean times in your past. What were those times like?

R.L.: I never went into the arts to make any money. I went into the arts because I was on a mission to express myself.

I felt like a millionaire, every night, exhausted after two or three part time jobs, living in shitholes. My father had died right after I graduated Ohio State and never saw me perform. And my brother and sister were much older than me and they weren’t around. My mother, she had all sorts of stuff – things that didn’t make us great friends, to put it mildly. So I really was sort of tethered to no one and really had no support.

Understandably, it made it easier for me to latch onto drugs and alcohol.

S.Z.: How has the comedy business changed?

R.L.: I’ve been a comedian for 45 years. Back then there were only really about 100 comedians and I would say only about 10 or 15 of us were doing better than the other 85: Crystal and Leno and me and Kaufman and Freddie Prince and Elayne Boosler and a handful of others.

Here we were: working for free, hanging out in the Village, hanging out in downtown Manhattan, always going out and eating and drinking and talking about each other’s work. It was like a real sisterhood/brotherhood. And then there was the comedy boom and there were a half a million comedians. Which is fine with me, but the only downside with that is the vast majority were so derivative that you had to really think about who you were going to spend time with at a club or on TV. It got increasingly difficult. Those people – not just the masters like Lenny and Pryor and Shelley Berman and Jonathan Winters and Mel Brooks and those people – they were driven only to be funny. Nothing else mattered.

Of course a lot of my life went south because of that. I didn’t have much balance. I never went insane and I am not in the street, thank God. I still have my home and I married a wonderful woman many years ago – my first marriage – we’ve been together for 15 years. So I’ve dodged huge bullets.


S.Z.: With the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman the discussion of mental health and addiction is back on the front page.

R.L.: I used to tease Philip because he was just so lovable. He had, I was told, almost 23 years sober. Of course Philip was one of the greatest actors of all time but he was a person first and sadly an addict as well. I’m sure if he could, Philip would want his death to be a reminder to all addicts who slip and sadly court death, that rather than shoot up, to pick up the phone and ask for help before experimenting yet again with a premature death.

It’s an epidemic – drug addiction and alcoholism. The bigger issue is not for famous people to overdose, but for anybody to know that you don’t have to overdose.

Change the laws. This absurd war on drugs and putting people in jail for life rather than putting them in treatment. Spending taxpayer’s money for keeping them in jail when they should be talking to counselors is insanity.

Clearly, people who are homeless and on the street, are far more prone to want to forget their misery and get high. That’s how it all happens.

But the thing was, when I was high I screwed up a number of great things. I wasn’t a great friend. I quit stand-up for three years. I lost a ton of money. I burned bridges. If they trust me to be on a TV commercial two out of the last three years in front of 120 million people for a Super Bowl ad, I guess I’m not a drug addict in their eyes. (Lewis had a cameo in Hyundai commercial during Superbowl XLVIII.)

By Sue Zalokar
Street Roots, Portland, OR

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