Song & Stage

Richard Lewis at Bay Street: A Career Obituary

He’s been called the “heir to Lenny Bruce” by The New York Times. Comedy Central heralds him as one of the top 50 standup comedians of all time. He performed to a standing-room only audience at Carnegie Hall. He’s acted in dozens of TV shows and movies.

But is Richard Lewis happy?

“I love my life. I’ve been sober for 22 years, met every conceivable person I’d ever hoped I’d meet. But I still have that cloak of doom. It’s hard to shake being this shadow person.” Lewis takes a rare pause. “That’s probably why I’ve always worn black.”

In 2000, Lewis published his memoir The Other Great Depression, which chronicled his years of addiction and subsequent recovery. He talks openly about his childhood, his father’s death and his mother’s mental health issues. “I didn’t have the happiest childhood. It wasn’t their fault, but everyone had their own issues. I was left to my own devices. I was a little kid—I didn’t realize I’d internalized a lot of stuff until I became a comedian.”

On Monday, August 8, Lewis will perform at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. “I’m so glad to be in front of strangers. It’s kind of the core of everything I do. When I became a comedian I realized it was cathartic to talk about my issues. If I can pay the bills by helping myself psychologically, what could be better? I do it for my own health. As long as people keep laughing, I’m not alone.”

Lewis is known for his stream-of-consciousness style of standup, which has been aptly compared to jazz. There’s a method to his particular brand of madness, a rhythm in his delivery that connects topics as disparate as the recently announced new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm (“I just had dinner the other night with Larry David. We discussed the show—I’m back for the ninth season! I couldn’t be more excited.”), this paper (“Dan’s Papers, who puts their name on a paper? I’ve got an interview after this with Aunt June’s Gazette. Then it’s Cousin Waldo’s Magazine at 5.”), his recent purchase (“I just bought a house after 30 years of living in the same place. I mean, how long can you live in a museum to yourself? I’m doing it for my wife. It’s going to be so minimalist”), and aging (“I’m 69. I have issues now but I’m still telling the truth: it’s frightening to be this old.”).

Everything is delivered by a voice that’s the definition of sardonic: gravelly, with hints of New Jersey (where Lewis grew up) and a Borscht Belt cadence. “The bottom line is, if the TV celebrity becomes president…I don’t even know what I’ll do. How far away can we get from this guy with the orange hair? I can’t joke about it. He’s so self-important, so narcissistic. It’s sickening.

“People will read this who voted for Trump and they’ll hate me immediately. My goal is to make people laugh, but this guy is crazily uninformed and crazily bigoted—oh God, this got dark, a long day’s journey into darkness. You’ve got to put this in the obituary column. You’ve just killed my career and split my audience down the middle. You want people to stand up and heckle me at Bay Street. Lewisgate—you’ve turned me into Nixon!”

Richard Lewis will perform at 8 p.m. on August 8 at Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor. Visit baystreet.org or call 631-725-9500 for more information.

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