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Still All Knotted Up, With a Twist

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Laurie Stone, writing about comedian Richard Lewis in the Village Voice in 1989, called his act “secular davening, where self-disclosure substitutes for prayer.” At the time, Lewis was 42 and almost breathtaking (or painstaking) to watch, with his self-doubt and self-loathing and the relatives and the women and the therapists who had made him this way. His gestures were trademark--the hand pressed to the forehead, for instance--as trademark as the loose-fitting black clothes and the Converse sneakers.

On a new double CD called “Live From Hell,” there is a recording of Lewis’ first cable special, “I’m in Pain,” taped at the Improv in Los Angeles in 1985. Fans of Lewis will be reminded of how often he used the expressions “from hell” and “It was frightening,” as if for him they were first-person pronouns. He talked about the grandfather who “donated his grief to science” and the mother who could “throw guilt without moving her conscience.” Or the girlfriend who was given to Freudian slips. (“Vermin--I mean, honey bee.”)

At the time, naturally, Lewis said he lived in “a predominantly anxious” part of Los Angeles. He still lives in L.A., up in the Hollywood Hills, in an old house that he says has chronic leaks. But Lewis, who will perform at the Roxy in West Hollywood tonight and at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano Friday, is no longer just selling his anxiousness--he is also an alcoholic in recovery, with a book out about his addictions (various addictions, actually). Thus, the anxieties have a new twist--he’s in a better place, but it’s still not a hacienda.

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The book is called “The Other Great Depression,” and, because Lewis can ramble and speak in asides, the subtitle is “How I’m Overcoming, on a Daily Basis, at Least a Million Addictions and Dysfunctions and Finding a Spiritual [Sometimes] Life.” It’s pretty unfunny in parts, which is to say it represents Lewis’ earnest attempt to explain--both to himself and to his readers--who is he is and how he became an alcoholic and then an alcoholic in recovery (there were problems with drugs too, and chasing down women, and weird issues with food, but booze was the big kahuna).

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Lewis’ story of a show business drunk is a bit coy (he’ll drop superlatives but not names, as in: “Years later, I was at a famous Hollywood restaurant with very famous people and my not-too-famous-but-drop-dead-beautiful-and-half-my-age girlfriend . . . “). And while the book begins with his childhood (he was the son of a caterer) and carries us into the present, the narrative at times feels crowded with thought--confessions that need pruning. In fairness to Lewis, his New York-New Jersey upbringing wasn’t exactly “Angela’s Ashes,” and he doesn’t simply fall back on routines, as do so many comics who put out “books.”

“Freaked” about writing a literary memoir, in fact, Lewis says he called Steve Martin, who now writes fiction and pithy humor pieces for the New Yorker. “I told him my basic fear was that it wouldn’t sound like me,” Lewis says. “. . . He basically said, ‘Richard, this is a book, and the one thing you don’t want to look like is stupid.’ I laughed. I totally got it.”

For comedy fans of Lewis, however, the alarming word in the subtitle of his book is “spiritual.” With funny people, it’s generally best when their spirits remain crushed. And yet, Lewis can still be angsty on his feet. Over lunch at Jade West in Century City, he orders the spring rolls; in the next hour, he eats some of each spring roll but can’t commit to finishing any particular one. Asked about it later he says: “I have an algebraic eating disorder. Sometimes I wake up and say, ‘Today, it’s going to be three-fourths of everything. You caught me on a 50% day.”

For those who have never seen him on stage or on one of his many appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman,” Lewis is best-known for “Anything but Love,” the sitcom co-starring Jamie Lee Curtis that ran on ABC from 1989 to 1992 (Lewis, by the way, says that his drinking never spilled over into his work). There was the 1996 independent film “Drunks,” for which he received good notices, and stabs at sitcoms that failed (1990’s “Daddy Dearest,” with Don Rickles, and 1997’s “Hiller and Diller,” with Kevin Nealon). But stand-up, which he began in 1971, was where he made his mark.

The steady build of Lewis’ alcoholism caused him to quit stand-up between 1991 and 1994, he says. In ‘94, he checked himself into Hazelton, the famed drug and alcohol treatment center in Minnesota, but Lewis says he left after a day. His therapist termed his condition a kind of impotency--pain buried in booze, drugs and the hunt for orgasms. Sort of like Elvis, only without the fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Lewis eventually found his rock bottom with a cocaine binge, he says.

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Lately, in addition to the book and the double CD (which also includes Lewis extemporizing on new topics with celebrity journalist Bill Zehme) and the committed relationship with someone he will only reveal as “Gina Lolamatzobrie,” Lewis has found something of the role of a lifetime. He plays himself in the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” created by and starring Larry David, the “Seinfeld” co-creator who has known Lewis since the two attended the same summer camp as kids.

Lewis, currently on a book-comedy tour, was interviewed both at Jade West and over the phone from his hotel room in San Francisco.

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Question: You look thinner.

Answer: I lost weight on the road, because of the tour. I’ll put it back. I mean, 15 cities in 30 days is a joke. I did 20 concerts, about 25 television shows, about 15 national ones, about 30 or 40 radio shows, and about 40 interviews.

Q: As a comedian, you used to bring notes on stage, which is imitated now. Did you have trouble memorizing your act?

A: I haven’t done it for a year. . . . Whenever I would do something on television or on one of my numerous cable specials, I would really try my best never to say [the joke] again. . . . It was coming from a good place, it was coming from a place of I want to be new every night. . . . I never repeated one joke in 25 years of network television. But when I would go on the road during those years, I would keep a diary, and then I would spend hundreds of hours going over my diaries, and premises that made me laugh I would put on this 3-foot yellow sheet, and then I’d put it on the piano on stage or on a stool. But I had already spent hundreds of hours getting it to that sheet.

Q: What did your management think of the notes?

A: The ones who really got me, when I would come on stage and bring out the sheet, be it Carnegie Hall or the nightclub, I’d get applause. From fans. They knew what that was. . . . People that pay to see me would applaud the sheet, because they knew it was all in the material. . . . Some agents and representatives would say, ‘Gee, when you have that sheet and you look down, it takes away from the performance.’ I would say a vast majority of performers do the same act, other than a few jokes here and there, for years. I change my act every night.

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Q: You’re 53 now. Are comics like athletes, where the the physical or mental toll can degrade skills?

A: My feeling is that as long as I continue to grow as a performer, then I’ll get better. For me, I can only say that, only because I put so much great importance on writing new stuff night after night, that if I got to the point that I was physically too tired to do it, I’d quit. If it gets too taxing, I would quit. . . . It’s very difficult if you don’t rely on the stuff that makes audiences laugh. I don’t.

Q: You’re very open on stage, as an artist. And yet you keep a lot private. For instance, you won’t reveal who your girlfriend is.

A: Because I have enough problems with people buggin’ me, why should I have people who love me be bugged? It’s a dangerous business. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky, but I don’t like to involve loved ones in my show business life, as best I can. Because, I mean, there’s millions and millions of people out there, and it only takes two people who are a little wacky, and I don’t want them to bother people I love. Let them bother me.

Q: Do you have problems with that?

A: Not now, but when I did I took care of it. But I’ve been lucky.

Q: What was going on? Were you being stalked?

A: Well, my act is so self-effacing, people would want to take care of me. . . . It was more of an annoyance than a threat. . . . They’d send me thousands of letters and clothes and things, and [say] ‘Can you come visit?’ and ‘I’ll take care of you.’ . . . I learned a very valuable lesson 15 years ago. . . . I’ve never had a stalker, but I’ve had letters from people who were borderline. They exhibited tendencies of like, maybe wanting to go out of their way to meet me. Only a handful in 20 years. I called the professionals, and what these people do is they just try and figure out who these people are.

Q: So what did you drink?

A: When I had my options? Champagne and orange juice. That was my favorite drink--mimosas.

Q: Every day?

A: Not every day, no. I would go sometimes days without drinking. Sometimes I would binge. Bottom line is, toward the end, it’s a progressive disease, and getting high became more important than life. And I lost all gratitude about living.

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Q: Was it just alcohol?

A: I did drugs too. In fact I bottomed on cocaine.

Q: Were you doing a lot?

A: Only in the last year. And not a lot either. But I bottomed out on cocaine, because when I got sober, I knew alcohol was the thing that was doing it, because I was never a druggie kind of guy.

Q: What about marijuana?

A: No. Too paranoid. I smoked it in college. But I didn’t like it. It got me paranoid, and I ate a lot and gained weight, and I have an eating disorder and I don’t want to get fat. Cocaine ruined me sexually, so that was a drag. And I never did hallucinogenics because I was afraid I would jump off my house, my roof. So it was alcohol.

Q: When you were at Hazelton, you took the name Holden Heller, for Holden Caufield of “Catcher in the Rye” and Joseph Heller. But then you left after one day?

A: I was ashamed that people would say, “Oh, there’s so and so.” . . . So I would go, ‘Hi, I’m Holden Heller.’ And everyone would laugh and go, ‘How’s Jamie Lee? With the help of some friends, I flew back to L.A. and met with about 10 or 12 sober, recovering addicts--not just alcoholics but heroin addicts, everybody, and I asked them how to have a sober life, and I went to an alcohol drug abuse specialist. And now I go to him and my regular therapist, just for neurosis, so I have two doctors and I have sober friends. And I go to support groups. And that’s how I stay sober.

Q: Robert Downey Jr. went straight from prison to the set of a hit TV show, “Ally McBeal.” Then, he evidently relapsed. Do you think, as a fellow addict in recovery, that he shouldn’t have taken that role?

A: Do I think he went back too fast? I don’t know if going back to “Ally” got him loaded. You can’t say it did. On the surface, one would think that after flirting with death so often, that one might say, “I think I want to get out of the limelight and do some soul-searching.” But there’s no proof that that would have worked. . . .

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Recovery has to do with someone’s feelings about how he wants to live his life. Who’s to say Junior will never use again? It’s clear to him how much he’s lost by this. Him winning a [Golden Globe] award, he knows that that’s just part of his life. Any addict knows that even if things are going well, if you can’t see your kid, or your marriage is broken up, so what, you’re holding a trophy. Any addict knows if you continue to screw up, eventually you’ll lose everything or go insane. Robert Downey Jr. knows this.

Q: You once joked that a former therapist was recalling her patients because one of her theories had been proven incorrect. How many therapists have you had, over the years?

A: About seven.

Q: What makes you change therapists?

A: Either they die, or they retire, or they get burned out from me.

Q: How often are you going these days?

A: I stay very close with my alcohol and drug abuse guy. He’s in New York, though. And if I’m in town I see my therapist, less now--I do double sessions, [because in] 45 minutes I just get warmed up. . . . I do an hour and a half. I do an hour and a half maybe twice a month. And I speak to my other guy three or four times a week on the phone.

Q: When did you break into therapy?

A: I went through my first therapist when my dad died in ’71. But it was for free. It was a dollar an hour. A hospital administrator, and she was a beautiful Indian. She looked like, if Herman Hesse had a concubine, this would be it. And she never spoke, and it was all about penises. You know, it was Freudian.

* The Roxy, 9009 Sunset, West Hollywood. (310) 276-2222 doors open at 7 p.m.

* The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. (949) 496-8930, Friday, 8 p.m.

* Barnes & Noble book signing, 1201 3rd St. Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 260-9110, Sunday, 7:30 p.m.

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