The only thing funnier than Richard Lewis’ talking about his coming “Tracks of My Fears” stand-up show (Helium, Oct. 20 to 22) and the start of his ninth season on old Brooklyn pal Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, Oct. 1) is the first 60 seconds of this interview. The legendary comedian, actor, and author made sport of this writer’s name (“so biblical sounding”), his parents (“they nicknamed us after food, heavy in cholesterol”), and mortality (“don’t say the word last to a 70-year-old, that’s rude”) before getting to the meat of the matter: “the doctorate of me, what made me what I am.”
Q: What do you recall about working as a copywriter for an ad agency in New Jersey before doing stand-up?
A: I told my dad from age 12 that I was going to be a dentist. I couldn’t look at someone’s gums without vomiting. I got a kick out of advertising and marketing. I had to learn finance, which only taught me how I would get screwed over by agents.
Q: Your work also has amazing rhythm and musicality. Why?
A: I listened to Lenny Bruce as a teenager. I knew how high the bar was set. Pryor, too, and Woody Allen. With these guys, each joke was a jewel — perfect premise, perfect punchline, and a persona to fit. I wrote thousands of jokes for my earliest stand-ups, mainly one-liners, but I got bored doing that, so I would start to ramble, tell stories, be me. And get laughs — that was crucial. Now I go all over the joint, and if people like it or they don’t, fine by me. I am not an observational comic. I don’t care about how you lose one sock and can’t find the other. That bores the crap out of me. I’d rather delve into my own psyche.
A: You’ve seen me before, so you know I used to carry notes on stage, three or four hours of material that I never tried before. I thought that was cool, risky. I had an agent who I fired — and I fired several — who told me the notes made it look like a work in progress, that the audience wanted something polished. I had these teamsters at Vegas’ MGM Grand lift a piano worthy of Elton John, only to hold my papers. It got to be a pain in the ass. So I listened and did it the old-fashioned way. Now I have four or five hours of new material, hole up in my room before the show and hope it sticks. I ad-lib a third of the show. If the audience is laughing at something, I’ll go where they’re going.
Q: You mentioned observational comedy, and I know Philadelphia’s David Brenner was a great friend.
A: My best friend in show biz, if not life. He made a choice to be an observational humorist, but he had this sly, sarcastic Philly way to him. He wasn’t just, “Hey, did you ever?” He got me my first Tonight Show, my first nightclub gig, my first tour with Sonny and Cher. Told me when I was ready and not ready. He asked me before I started what it would take for me to quit my menial jobs and do comedy full time. “$1,000.” He pulled out a wad and said, “Now you’re a comic.” I remember being in his townhouse in Manhattan. He was a big star when I was dead broke, and he had such great taste — like, a stapler was Ben Franklin’s stapler. He told me, “I bought this house on jokes.” That always stuck with me. Saved me. When I was bottoming out on crystal meth in 1994, I looked in my mirror and realized that comedy was my only gift. “I bought this house on jokes.”
Q: And that’s when you began sobering up. Mazel tov. Speaking of friends, the ninth season of Curb with your oldest friend, Larry David, is upon us. He’s been off the show for a minute. Did you ever say to him, “Stop with Bernie Sanders impersonations and get to work”?
A: Not at all. I was just grateful to be on Curb, period. I was rooting for him to write a great play (Fish in the Dark), then an HBO film (Clear History). It’s none of my business how he treats his creative muses. I was glad he was coming back. Look, I wear my heart on my sleeve. He wears his heart hidden somewhere in Egypt. He had the magic touch with Seinfeld and used his characters to describe how he was feeling. Larry could do a scene with J.B. Smoove, and if it was a monologue, it wouldn’t work. It is the premise. It’s the interaction between he and J.B. or he and me that works. The premise is gold. He’s the Woody Allen and Norman Lear of this generation.
Q: This season, as with every season, you two are improvising your dialogue. You’re as responsible as David for where you’re going in a scene.
A: I remember when he first came to me and asked if I wanted to play myself. He knew I liked to act. I would’ve been crazy if I said no. I did have one caveat. I didn’t want to be Sammy Davis Jr. in All in the Family — one episode. I wanted five or six episodes to show how our relationship could develop. That’s why it works. It’s us. He has a five-, six-page outline — an arc to the episode — and we go from there. There’s an episode where he and I are racing to a dentist. We don’t know how or what we’re going to say — just that we have to get the chair first — all ad-lib. He does it until he finds it funny.
Q: It’s a weirdly warm dynamic between two friends.
A: Because we play ourselves and have that history. It’s all in there. It doesn’t get better than being able to write my own dialogue as me. And I will tell you this: Larry David would not have come back if he didn’t think that he had a better season in him. I promise that this is the greatest season he’s had — the darkest, most surprising season. When Larry gets positive, that’s rare. Enjoy.
Richard Lewis costars in Curb Your Enthusiasm, which starts at 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO. He'll perform Oct. 19-21 at Helium Comedy Club, 2031 Sansom St., with shows at 8 p.m. (Thursday), 7:30 p.m. (Friday), and 10 p.m. (Saturday). $25-$38, philadelphia.heliumcomedy.com.