I've just heard Richard Lewis tell a story about walking through a terminal at LAX, hearing some little 4-year-old girl yell, "There's the Jew!" and wanting to run terrified like the Marathon Man. I'm laughing my ass off because there's no doubt in my mind that this really happened. We're nearing the end of an hour-long phoner (a gracious offering for a man with a schedule that includes stand-up tours, Curb Your Enthusiasm and a DVD box set release of his comedy specials in September), and if I've learned anything about the veteran comedian, it's these three things: He's partial to tangents, he gives credit to fellow artists and he's an open book.
The LAX-Jew incident came after Lewis' three-year stint as Rabbi Richard Glass on 7th Heaven, a departure from his usual nightclub work and 10 years after he was last a prime-time household name on ABC's Anything But Love. "7th Heaven was a trip because I had this whole audience of families I might not have--let's just say it, let's just jump it--right-wing evangelical families that might not watch me be very blue on stage or on an HBO special or on Curb. I'm not saying they're wrong, but let's just say they're not my target market." The newly married Lewis still does network guest spots (an upcoming episode of Las Vegas, for one) but seems most enthusiastic about being in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's improvisational hit series, when he's not on stage.
"It's been a really terrific year for me, I mean, making the commitment to getting married and finishing about a month ago my fifth season with my old friend Larry David," he says. "This is the darkest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. This year is probably the greatest season for me, because luckily Larry got so dark about me." It's no surprise that this makes Lewis happy. Spend an hour on the phone with him, hell, watch even half of one of his specials, and his extra-revelatory, self-deprecating humor makes one thing clear: Dark is good. Exposing your wounds equals laughs, and a laughing audience makes for a happy Richard Lewis. "Personally I always liked darker comics and people that really revealed themselves more," he says. "I like twisted, dark people. Those are the people that make me laugh more. It doesn't get much better than Pryor on that note."
Other inspirations, or what Lewis refers to as "watershed moments" in his comedy career, include watching a George Plimpton comedy special with his family and saying out loud, "I want to do that," and hearing the deafening applause for Jimmy Walker at the New York Improv. "And I'm sitting in the back with, you know, Jay [Leno] and [Andy] Kaufman and whomever, and to myself I'm going, 'Oh my God. I gotta taste this. I am never quitting. I am never quitting,'" he says, slowing down his somewhat manic way of speaking. "And I never did. I never did until people would pay to see me. Then nine years later...Steve Martin came out with a press release on local news in L.A. saying, 'I will never do stand-up again.' I was depressed. I had been a comic for nine years, struggling my ass off, and I said, 'Oh my God, do I have a long way to go.'" Now it's 25 years later.
As we talk, the voice on the other end is that familiar Brooklyn voice, you know, that voice, and it's hard not to picture him putting his hand to his forehead or messing with his hair, and I go from being nervous to totally chummy with this normal, neurotic, incredibly ambitious and enthusiastic person. (Granted, the conversation got so funny I nearly pissed myself about 11 times.) It's like I've only had a chat, but somehow that's the way I think Lewis would prefer it--no big celebrity ass-kissing, no shtick, just talking and a shitload of laughs.