Noted comic Richard Lewis. Photo by William Claxton
Noted comic Richard Lewis. Photo by William Claxton

"See, there were these nurses..."

By Julian Wise - August 3, 2006

Richard Lewis is happy to be bringing his standup comedy act to Outerland next Tuesday to benefit the Vineyard Nursing Association.

"I'm crazily looking forward to it," he says, before revealing that sun sensitivity, seasickness, and sore discs in his back will keep him from visiting the usual vacation spots on the Island.

"It's a therapeutic challenge to enjoy myself in a place known for its beauty," he adds. "I'm as stoked as someone with my dysfunctions about vacations can be. I'll only be there a few hours before I go on, so I won't be doing a deal about your mayor or local stuff."

Over the past decades, Mr. Lewis has built a remarkable career around his mix of onstage self-analysis and wry social observations. The Brooklyn-born comic hit the circuit in the 1971 and by 1974 was appearing on "The Tonight Show." His 1980s cable specials "I'm Exhausted" and "I'm Doomed" earned him ACE nominations for best male comic and his 1989 standing-room-only performance at Carnegie Hall remains a defining moment in standup comedy. Sitcom work in the 90s on "Anything But Love" broadened his appeal, while his role as the troubled addict Jimmy Epstein in the film "Drunks" demonstrated considerable acting chops. In addition to a busy touring schedule, Mr. Lewis plays himself on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," alongside longtime friend Larry David.

Mr. Lewis and Mr. David met at a childhood sports camp where they immediately singled each other out as arch-rivals. "We really despised each other," Mr. Lewis laughs. "I had no intention of ever seeing this idiot again."

Years later the two encountered each other in the early 70s New York City comedy scene. At first neither recognized the other. Then, realization sank in.

"We almost came to blows at the bar," Mr. Lewis says. "Then we laughed and bonded in an amazing way. It was a billion to one chance this would have happened. We suddenly became inseparable."

Both endured years of virtual poverty as they scrapped to get their fledgling careers off the ground. "From the get-go we were broke," Mr. Lewis says. "We never looked back. All we wanted to do was be comedians. It was us and the stars with nothing else in between. All we cared about was the show that night and the work. We weren't even thinking about fame.

"I always tell aspiring comedians, it's not about the money. If you're in it for the money, get out now. You have to be on a mission to do it. It has to be at the core of your being."

When Mr. Lewis appears on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," he and Mr. David depict an irascible blend of affection and antagonism. Mr. Lewis says it's a precise depiction of their off-screen relationship. The two are constantly arguing over everything from sandwiches to politics. "We've never changed since we were 12," he says. "To be able to aggravate him publicly is too good to be true. It's a chance to get even."

By Mr. Lewis's reckoning, the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" gig is one of the most sought after in Hollywood. "There's a line around the block who would kill to be on 'Curb,' which is one of the reasons I'm privileged to be part of that ensemble."

Mr. Lewis has published "The Other Great Depression," an autobiographical exploration of his battles with addictions and personal darkness. He describes the book as a turning point in his journey from hidden pain to honesty. "I've been through so much dark stuff and I've come out of it," he says. "I wanted to tell the real story of my addictions so I didn't have to talk about it onstage."

Through therapy and sustained introspection, Mr. Lewis has arrived at a place of greater clarity and groundedness.

"What got me into drinking was my personality and my dysfunctions. I still am the same person, I just don't mask it with alcohol and drugs anymore," he says.

Then, with a perfect comic pause, he adds, "I have so much clarity now that I despise myself even more."

Sobriety, rather than dulling his comic edge, has only sharpened his wit. "As far as I'm concerned, the past few years have been the best of my career. I am feeling so much freer and happier offstage that when I go on I'm much freer and confident about all of my bad qualities and character defects that I'm able to discuss them in a funny way, whereas when I was in denial about my disease I wasn't aware of these areas."

Mr. Lewis has maintained a vital career in what he describes as a "murderously tough business." He attributes his longevity to a blend of drive, skill, and a willingness to base a career around his unique persona rather than trying to follow a cookie-cutter model of comedy.

"The fact that I'm still doing it 37 years later, playing new venues and still wanted all over the country thrills me more with each show," he says. "I have a quiet pride about still being in demand. It makes me want to give more."

Richard Lewis show, Tuesday, August 8, 8 pm, Outerland, Airport Road, Edgartown. Benefits Vineyard Nursing Association. Tickets $50. 508-693-6184.