The Naked and Not Yet Dead

Richard Lewis is dying, but he's a happy man. For once, something makes sense. "Being in middle age now, the truth of the matter is, you can't escape that feeling of seeing the end of the line," Lewis says. "I really live each day now, enjoy my life more now, because it's fading away. And that's how I feel about gigs--I want to give it my all."

That's a taste of what to expect when Lewis, whose obsessive neuroses have kept comedy fans spellbound and nervous for more than 25 years, spouts forth "with reckless abandonment" this week at the Comedy Works in Larimer Square as part of "Wreck in Progress," his first club tour in over two years. It's a tabula rasa for Lewis, who seems to be thinking up new material during every waking second--and on this tour, the jokes are exclusively for the stage. "Before, I always had to look down the bowel of a pending special, but this time I have no plans to do any HBO specials. I'm just going to go out and do what I've been doing for 25 years. Nightclubs are made for standup, and I think comics belong in clubs--or in institutions."

So, what's the matter with Lewis these days? For a dying neurotic, not much. "I'm actually in sort of a good groove, because I just handed in my first book, which is to me the most important thing I've ever done," he says cheerily. The Other Great Depression, a collection of essays that draw from his comedic style, offers a concentrated dose of wit as only Lewis can portray it. "I intended it to be autobiographical, but first of all, I don't have enough self-esteem to write an autobiography, and number two--who gives a shit? Essays gave me a chance to sound more like me to people who are fans of mine," he explains. "I took my comedy riffs to a place that allowed me to go where I couldn't go on stage. The craft is so different--I can talk about deeper feelings without having to get laughs. People might even break down and weep while they're reading it."

Turning literary came naturally to Lewis, who admires the stream-of-consciousness style of writers such as Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger and Joseph Heller. "It was an amazing process. At two in the morning, whenever I'm inspired, even if I'm in bed with somebody and we're having an argument and the sex went south, I'll get up and write about it." The loose writing style allows Lewis access to greater intimacy with his faithful audience. "If I had to critique myself--on a positive note--I think what people see on stage as a comedian is the same person I am off stage. I pull that off because that's just the way it is--I'm more comfortable in front of strangers instead of with my own family.

"Not to sound grandiose about it, but I've done a million trillion shows, made more appearances than anyone who ever lived," he says. "I don't have any nagging demon that says it's never enough--I've done enough in that craft. Writing the book made me absolutely take chances on stage I've never done before. I'm more fearless than ever before."

One other thing he's proud of: "I'm prolific. I never repeat a word I've done, because I always write down the stuff that strikes me as funny. When you're lifting a casket or in the middle of intercourse, it's a little embarrassing," he notes. "But I know more about myself than anybody who's ever lived."

While the standup and writing are both good, Lewis is also looking to act and direct more in the twilight of his life. Fired by kudos for his recent dramatic role as an addict in the independent film Drunks, he'd like to branch out, in spite of the predictable dilemmas. "They do pigeonhole you," he laments. "Not to name-drop, but I had an idea to do some music with Lou Reed--he's a friend of mine--and we were having dinner, and I was complaining how I wish I could get some decent dramatic roles. Now, I'm a pretty dark guy, but when you're with Lou Reed, it's like you're sitting there with Edgar Allan Poe. So he said, 'Look, man, you can win three Oscars, but they're still gonna remember you'--and he starts doing an impression of me in this Italian restaurant at midnight in Tribeca, and he didn't do a very good job, either. He might have been doing Abe Vigoda or Monty Hall, I don't know--and then he says, 'All they're gonna remember me by is doo-da-doo-da-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo'...he starts singing the introduction to 'Walk on the Wild Side.' And he's right."

That noted, is there anything else he wishes he'd done with his life? "No. I'm clueless what it would be, and it's too late now, anyway," he says. "As a baby, practically, I was taken by the comedians on TV. I watched all the old pros. I still pinch myself--the other night I played poker with Sid Caesar. Anyway, I watched all the old, great comedians, and then I became class clown. Plus I got some acting help, coaching, from my family--it was unintentional parenting. I had no choice but to try and figure it out on stage."

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