Richard Lewis (b. 1947) is an extremely funny guy (I’ve been a fan almost since the beginning) yet I can’t help but talk about him in terms of other comedians. He seems primarily influenced by Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen (looks a lot like the former, with a soupcon of hip in his speech, combined with an act built around his neuroses, and lots of hand gestures, like the latter). That HUGE mane of hair (when he was young) ally him conceptually with hippie and post-hippie comics like Robert Klein, Richard Belzer, and Howard Stern. His stage name (his real one, as it happens) combines those of Belzer and Jerry Lewis (no relation). And like fellow stand-ups of his generation Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser he got his own high-profile sitcom (Lewis’s was first, but didn’t last as long as those of the other two). And like all those guys, he’s Jewish, and his cultural identity is a huge part of his act. Lewis, you won’t be surprised to learn, was born in Brooklyn and grew up in New Jersey.
I said I’d been a fan almost from the beginning, and that’s because his career goes back farther than you may suspect. I first became aware of him, like a lot of people I’m sure, when he began appearing regularly on Letterman’s show in 1982 (I’m guessing the two were pals from their Comedy Store days). But Lewis had been doing spots on national shows like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and The Mike Douglas Show and Merv since the mid-70s. David Brenner was a friend and mentor in his early years. During the huge explosion of stand-up in the ’80s, Lewis was one of the heavy hitters. You saw him constantly on Letterman and Leno, and at Comic Relief benefits and he had his own specials on HBO. Later, he was on stuff like Conan and The Daily Show.
In 1989, Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis were cast in the romantic sit-com Anything But Love, which featured the pair of them as a couple of writers at a magazine who strenuously try not to fall in love with each other. The show was popular enough to last for four seasons, but endless tinkering by the producers and ABC eventually starved it of its audience. Lewis followed this up immediately with a new sitcom on Fox, Daddy Dearest (1993), in which he played Don Rickles’ long suffering son. This one only ran 13 episodes.
At around the same time, Lewis was prominently featured in several movies. I am particularly intrigued by an obscurity called Once Upon a Crime (1992) a comedy murder mystery directed by none other than Eugene Levy, with John Candy, Jim Belushi, Sean Young, Cybil Shepherd, and George Hamilton, Most of his other films of the time are better known: Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) in which played Prince John; the western comedy Wagons East (1994) in which he was teamed with John Candy; Drunks (1995) with Spalding Gray and an all-star supporting cast; and Leaving Las Vegas (1995) with Nicholas Cage.
In 1997 he launched his third sitcom Hiller and Diller, in which he was paired with SNL’s Kevin Nealon (the pair played a couple of comedy writers). This lasted but one season. In 1999 he was aptly cast as the voice of “Neurosis” in Disney’s Hercules. Staring in 2000, he has made numerous appearances as “himself” in the various incarnations of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (he and David have known each other since they were kids). He’s done guest shots and recurring roles on countless tv shows, and parts in films like Amy Heckerling’s Vamps (2012) and Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way (2014).
Stand-up and personal appearances on talk shows continue to be the main trunk of Lewis’s professional activity. Since the 2001 release of his book The Other Great Depression, a new thread of his material has been his sobriety and his struggles with drugs and alcohol (he dried out in 1994). In this connection, one can’t help noting the apparent toll of drug abuse on Lewis’s looks. Once an extremely handsome guy (leading man handsome, rare among comedians), nowadays he’s got more of a Stan Ross thing going on. Fortunately, for a comedian, that’s not such a drawback.
By the way some, there are classic comedy connections — Lewis was close friends with Jonathan Winters towards the end of his life, and also became friendly with Buster Keaton’s widow Eleanor. Lewis is a Buster fan, owns some of the great silent comedian’s stuff (including one of his hats), and was in Peter Boganovich’s recent documentary The Great Buster.
For more on the history of variety entertainment, including tv variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.