Occasionally, Lewis will need to take a break from staring at his own dysfunctions and addictions to bury himself in the phobias and pain of others--writer Richard Yates, for instance, whose new collection of short stories Lewis keeps beside him. "He's very dark, an alcoholic," he says of the dead author, whose writings are thick with gloom. Or maybe Lewis will pop into his portable CD player a disc by the late confessional folkie Tim Hardin, who wrote so viscerally of his anguish you could taste blood and tears on every track. "Heartbreaking shit." The comedian offers his highest praise.
By the way, Richard Lewis swears he's never been happier.
For some three decades, the 53-year-old comic has gotten laughs by disclosing his sexual dysfunctions, his lonely childhood, his life in therapy and, most recently, his alcoholism and near-fatal cocaine overdose a few years back. Late last year, he even published a book about his boozing and subsequent recovery: The Other Great Depression: How I'm Overcoming on a Daily Basis at Least a Million Addictions and Dysfunctions and Finding a Spiritual (Sometimes) Life. Less a memoir than a series of essays, the book reads like his stand-up act: scattered, hyperbolic, melodramatic, anything for a laugh that catches in your throat. It begins with Lewis drowning out his parents' "horrifying noise" with a Mets-Dodgers game in 1962; he then flashes forward 33 years, as he's being rolled down a hospital corridor after a coke OD. An intern is asking him, "Why are you doing this?" Lewis looks up. At the time, he thought he was trying to kill himself. So did his friends.
"I think it was obvious to a lot of people, because I heard them talking about it," says Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld and, most recently, the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, on which Richard Lewis appears regularly as Richard Lewis, best friend of Larry David. The two attended the same summer camp when they were 13, then became friends again on the comedy-club circuit in 1974; David cast Lewis because he's one of those friends "you can yell at and still remain friends."
The two didn't see much of each other through the '80s and '90s: David was working on Seinfeld, got married, had kids; Lewis remained single and lived some 40 minutes away--light years in Los Angeles. But David knew something was wrong with his old pal. "They said, "He has a real problem, did you see what he did at this particular party?' There was some concern...Now that he's sober, I don't notice much of a change at all. Except he's not drinking. He's as funny now as he was then."
Lewis long ago crossed the line separating "entertainment and narcissism," as he likes to say. There exists little barrier between performer and paying crowd: To the audience that has felt his pain since 1974, when he made his first appearance on The Tonight Show, he's the best friend you never hear from, except when he comes bearing bad news. To the audience that has seen him sitting beside David Letterman some 50-plus times since 1982, he's the therapy patient who charges admission to his sessions. Spend a couple of hours alone with him, and it doesn't take long to realize he's not doing stand-up. He's doing lie-down.
"I have absolutely no need to write anything that doesn't help me understand why I am feeling the way I do when I wake up," he says. "As narcissistic as that sounds, I don't know if that really is. To pull it off and enlighten someone or have someone feel less alone, then it's not so much narcissistic as it is a talent, I dunno. The only reason I'm saying that out loud is it's odd to be always trying to figure out what makes you tick--literally."