Anxiety Unchained

Notoriously neurotic comedian Richard Lewis sounds as if he could well be obsessively touching his forehead and running his fingers through his hair while conducting a phone interview. Those are his trademark stage moves -- the manic actions that go along with his self-deprecating banter about chronic depression and low self-esteem. There's no way to tell exactly what the deadpan, downer comic is up to on the other end of the line, but his comments aren't reassuring.

"I'm standing here on top of the Chrysler Building, dressed up like Davy Crockett going, you know, 'As soon as I hang up, good night,'" he says, threatening to jump. But if Lewis' plethora of neuroses were going to send him over the edge, it would have happened long ago.

"For me standup was a way of feeling less alienated and less alone and dealing with alcoholism, dealing with the fear of intimacy, dealing with feeling you were raised by wolves," says Lewis, age 52. His act has revolved around his mental state since becoming a comic in his early twenties. But after going sober six years ago and hitting middle age, substance abuse and death became even more prominent topics, especially since he began writing his upcoming autobiography, The OTHER Great Depression, two years ago.

"By writing the book, I've been finding that my stage shows have been far superior than anything I've ever done, because I'm absolutely fearless now," he says. "I talk about the horror stories, you know? I remember going out with a model, and saying to her, 'I don't drink anymore. I can't. I'm allergic to alcohol.' And she says, 'Yeah, you're so much funnier and nicer now that you don't drink. By the way, you still want to do cocaine, right?'"

As for mortality? "My fear of death is becoming overwhelming," says Lewis. "All of a sudden I am, like, Beaver's parents' age, and it's driving me crazy. I don't feel any different. I still wear my Converse, and so far whatever hair is left is long, and I'm still a rocker, but I'm a wreck."

At the end of the interview, Lewis finally admits: "I'm not standing on top of the Chrysler Building. I live in Hollywood, and I found this old house where I literally can sit on my toilet and see all of my doctors' offices and all of my ex-girlfriends' places. So it's like my own little Alamo, you know? Especially with the exes. If they're coming to get me, I see 'em miles in advance, and I can turn the alarm on."

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John Ferri