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Appreciation: Richard Lewis, The Prince of Pain, will rule forever

Richard Lewis, wearing black against a black background, performs stand-up.
Comedian Richard Lewis performing at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on June 23, 1990.
(Clayton Call / Redferns via Getty Images)
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I really thought Richard Lewis had 10 more years left to live. Even after four back surgeries and a Parkinson’s diagnosis, my friend and fellow comedian of 51 years was still so vibrant and full of life I never expected Wednesday’s news “from hell.” How many comedians actually impact the lexicon and become part of people’s everyday language? Richard, credited with coining “from hell” in the Yale Book of Quotations, also brought “quite frankly” into everyday (over)use as a placeholder at the end of sentences, which shows just how deeply a great comedian can get into your head.

The outpouring of love and appreciation for Richard in all media since his death was announced is equaled only by the avalanche of sadness at the news. From stars to fans, everybody loved Richard. They loved him and they loved his work. You can count on one foot the number of comics who appealed to both your grandmother and your kid. He was the Everyman as imagined by a focus group of Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus and Buster Keaton. He revered Lenny Bruce and the sly similarities there are that they both pulled their material from so deep in their lives as a way to keep going. What they did wasn’t a choice, it was the thing they had to do to not spontaneously combust.

“I didn’t have a sex addiction. I had an affection addiction. I wanted women to love me. Sex was just a side effect to my lovemaking.”

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Richard appeared on the scene at just the right time. In the ’60s comedy was still the purview of mostly older, mostly married men, wearing suits — if not tuxedos — complaining about their wives and kids and their lot in life. They were funny and great but spoke more to an older, married audience. It wasn’t a young person’s craft. Almost all of the available work was in grown-up nightclubs or Vegas, or network TV. Clean, establishment, and safe — like your dad’s Oldsmobile. But by the late ‘60s there were a few small places where younger comics were working out, talking about things relating to their lives.

I was 20 years old when I walked into a dive in Hell’s Kitchen for a waitress job in 1973. I’d seen the usual comics on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” But here was this great-looking young guy bursting with energy, leaning back and forth to the crowd (he’d joke he was davening), endlessly running his hand through his leonine mane while seemingly not stopping to breathe, riffing on dating, his mother, being a kid, hating school. What?? Are you talkin’ to me? Are you talkin’ to ME? It was revolutionary.

“Dating is so hard for me. I can’t be direct. I’ll ask a woman, ‘So.. you don’t have anything that rhymes with ‘werpes,’’ do you?’”

Richard was the funniest person you could ever know. Every answer, every sentence, every observation, made you laugh. He just had the most genuinely funny mind without trying and even when it was aimed at you, chiding you, there was never meanness or malice. He called you on your stuff. He saw you and fed you back to yourself and you felt lucky to be seen by him. That’s also what made him so great onstage. He led with his humanity and vulnerability and yes, pain, but not self-pitying pain; pain he teased out in public and beat into hilarious submission along with your pain.

“I’m going to write a sex book. It’s called: ‘Ack! You’re on my hair!’”

Richard Lewis and Elayne Boosler
(Courtesy of Elayne Boosler)

There was no line of demarcation between Richard onstage and off. He was Richard; endlessly neurotic, always vulnerable, hilariously narcissistic. If the tables were turned right now and he were writing about me, he’d be telling you how much I loved him, what a genius I thought he was, what a great haircut I thought he had, how he was my comedy template and how his work ethic and fantastic writing inspired me, and he’d be right. When I didn’t want to be marginalized as a “female comic” in a New York Times Magazine article, Richard gave my interview for me. There he gave me the most beautiful compliment I ever got regarding being a new kind of woman in comedy, “She was the Jackie Robinson of my generation.” There are less than a handful of comedians on the planet who are that supportive of female comics.

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He had to do things his own neurotic way to function at his best, sometimes at the expense of those around him who couldn’t imagine it turning out okay. But Richard was somehow charmed and it always did.

On the morning after Richard’s death, promoter Robert Kotonly sent me an email reminding me of one such example: “Remember the show we promoted with you and Richard in Englewood, NJ 2005? The show that almost didn’t happen? Richard insisted on staying at The Barbizon Hotel in NYC. We told him traffic would be impossible from NYC to Englewood on a Friday at 5pm. As predicted, by 8pm he wasn’t even close to the venue. You said you’d go on and do as long as it took. You did an hour and a half and still no Richard. Then Intermission. No Richard. We were just about to make an announcement to the audience when through the door came Richard. He shook our hands and walked right on the stage. What a fantastic show!” Afterwards I said to Richard “You owe me half your pay for this one.” You could never get angry at him, ever.

Richard Lewis is photographed in John O'Groats diner in Los Angeles,
LOS ANGELES, CA - JAN 10: Richard Lewis is photographed in John O’Groats diner in Los Angeles, CA on January 10, 2024. (Daniel Prakopcyk / For The Times)
(Daniel Prakopcyk / For The Times)

One evening when he was still using, I came out of a restaurant on Melrose and was about to cross the street in front of what I realized was Richard’s car. He looked wasted. I walked to his window and, not wanting him to drive, said, “Pull over, we need to catch up!” He parked and I leaned into his window, keeping him talking for a full hour. He didn’t invite me to sit, mind you. I leaned in as my back was going into spasm. When I thought he was sober enough to drive, I said, “Well, time to go. We can’t let so much time go by again. We need to stay in touch. Give me your number.” He said to my aching back as he drove away, “Oh, babe, I can’t give you my number.”

That’s why comedians love each other. We can give it and we can take it, and we know we will never get mad. And the harder we come at each other, the more we love it. When Richard started his new YouTube show this year, I watched a few episodes where the guests didn’t get much speaking time. I emailed Richard: “What do you do? Invite people to come and listen to you?” So I’m about to do the show on Zoom, sitting in my Mexican-themed dining room. Richard hadn’t looked up yet, complaining to his (amazing, wonderful) wife, Joyce, that he didn’t feel funny today, when he looks up and instantly says, “Look at that place! Where are you? The Alamo?” I am still laughing.

Richard was a comedy rock star, a humanitarian, one of the all-time greats. He inspired and helped so many people get into rehab. For decades he made millions of people laugh and accept their own foibles. He always treated people so well, no small thing. He left it all better than he found it, which is the mark of a life well lived, isn’t it? Just before he passed, we discussed he and Joyce coming over for lunch. He was looking forward to eating at “the Alamo”. We postponed it due to rain. Lesson learned, don’t wait for the rain to pass. It never does.

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