"I had the carpenters set up the stage in the shape of a womb," Richard Lewis says. "I asked for the vagina stage." The prodigal son just made his pilgrimage back to Brooklyn, New York, the place he swears the "accident" occurred: his birth. And while the famously angst-ridden comic is now clean, sober, and in a happy relationship, he remains far from serene.
Thirty years ago, he began his standup career there, working at clubs like Pips in Sheepshead Bay but also sweating it out at some unconventional venues, such as the Gil Hodges Bowling Alley. "Gil Hodges was the first baseman for the Dodgers, and I idolized him -- I use the fact that he never made the Hall of Fame when I have bouts of impotency," Lewis says. "Performing there was like a mental institution. You'd set up your joke and you'd be ready for the big home-run punch line, and then you'd hear 3,000 pins crash and 'Eddie, I got the shoes!'"
Soon, he was playing Manhattan's major clubs, where his hypochondriacal kvetching and stream-of-consciousness self-flagellations raised the neurotic-Jew archetype to new heights, spawning a wave of imitators. And while paranoid accusations of thievery are a staple of the comedic psyche, Lewis' gripes about copycats are more valid than most. "I've seen and heard my inflection, my material, my wardrobe, my bad posture on other people's specials for two decades," he says. "I know it's the sincerest form of flattery, but when I find my riff lifted on their special before mine comes out, I find that despicable and unethical."
But Lewis' comic conspiracy theory gives way to benevolence in his quest to properly pass the torch. "The flip side is when young comics tell me they grew up on me and ask me for advice. It happens all the time," Lewis says. "I tell them I had to have the balls to literally let it all hang out as Richard Lewis and not try to be like anybody else. It takes time, but everyone has that potential. You gotta put yourself in a comedy crock pot and experiment, find your own voice."
All this success has led Lewis to do the unthinkable: take a leave of absence from his therapist's couch. "I realized that I was sober, in a good relationship, in fairly good health, generally acting on principle, and this was about as good as it gets," he says. "I didn't feel like reporting to the commissioner anymore. So I made this big speech, like Truman backing out of the train station, waving goodbye."
Lewis hasn't exactly conquered his demons, and he probably never will. And until his seemingly bottomless well of despair runs dry, he'll continue to revel in plumbing its depths. "I've been making a living at something I love for 30 years, and I'm really grateful," he says. "It's been a pleasure, and it's been absolute torture. And when it stops being torture, I'll never get on a stage again."