Rest Easy, Sweet Prince Of Pain

I first saw Richard Lewis perform in 1975 on the historic stage at the old Improvisation in the decidedly ungentrified Manhattan neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. It was a Thanksgiving trip with my college buddies and my sister Marjorie, then a struggling teen comic in New York, got us a table. All these years later the memories of the music and sports events of that weekend have faded but not that night, a cultural experience equivalent to accidentally stumbling in the Cavern Club in 1962 and happening upon John, Paul and George.

Comic after comic, most of whom we had never heard of including one Larry David, hit the stage with killer sets, each one smarter and more inventive than the next, pitching high and inside because you had to know something to get it all. All Jewish, all speaking the dialect of our unique Boomer gestalt with a side of Woody Allen’s classic album The Nightclub Years. And then there was Lewis who, at that moment, was already a working comic, meaning that he could pay his rent and might have already done “The Carson Show”.  Even back then Lewis had claimed a signature stage move of clutching his head between riffs with the refrain of “I don’t know, I don’t know…”

In the months since his passing a lot of effort has gone into describing his act and his work on Curb Your Enthusiasm. The Academy went so far as to put him in the prestigious In Memoriam reel even though his credits don’t extend much beyond Robin Hood: Men In Tights. Kind of shows you the value of laughter in these wildly unfunny times. Since I knew Richard personally and his death came somewhat suddenly even though his health had been failing for some time, I didn’t want to weigh in with some knee jerk reaction and some lame hosannas about how many appearances he made on The Tonight Show. (22 when it was Johnny’s show!) Further, tomorrow marks a new decade in this writer’s life and I have been dealing with my own eroding runway. Lewis wasn’t that much older than me that his passing didn’t send the Big Chill through me, to borrow from Kasdan.

Marjorie became friends with Lewis in what was a fairly small community of Improv and Catch A Rising Star hopefuls. For a time I would say Lewis was something of a stepbrother to my sister. I remember he would hang out at our family home when he was in Toronto and some very close friends of mine reminded me that many many years ago, when Marjorie was in Toronto visiting and Richard was gigging somewhere in town, they all met for lunch at the old Toby’s on Yonge Street. The waitress was talking about the chain’s signature ‘Honest Burger’ when Richard stopped her and asked, “Would you have a Facetious Burger on the menu?”

I saw him live a few times over the decades and when Marjorie was writing for him on Anything But Love. My friend Howard Lapides managed him for a minute after Lewis’ handler Rick Bernstein passed thirty years ago. But after Marjorie passed there was nothing.

Cut to about ten years ago and I was in New York on business and I saw that Richard was playing the old Caroline’s on Broadway and I went to see him, still prowling the stage cloaked in one of his signature black suits – an echo of the old Richard is still okay. Lots of hugs backstage later he told me he wanted to do a DVD retrospective of his best work and because I am in that business and Marjorie would have approved I got involved with what would be a package of Lewis’ more offbeat performances. Included was his role in the obscure film Drunks which coincided with him going sober, and a lost “film” produced by SNL in 1979 called Diary Of A Young Comic. The boxed set, including the HBO special Magical Misery Tour, was appropriately titled A Bundle Of Nerves and Richard provided a portrait for the cover done by one Ronnie Wood (figures that a rock star comic would be friends with actual rock stars) and away we went. He was a mensch throughout the whole misadventure. We stayed friends and we traded emails over the years following, the last one commiserating on the death of Gary Brooker of Procol Harum. Richard was a big enough fan to have “procol” in his email address. I last saw him pre-pandemic when we had a nice lunch which he paid for with a jet black Amex. Always in tune.

His health started to slide long before last year’s Parkinson’s diagnosis and he had hung up his microphone back in 2018 after a remarkable 40-plus years as a headliner. His appearances in the just completed final season of Curb Your Enthusiasm were bittersweet in the truest sense. I wanted to wait on this post until the season was over. Shot last year, Richard’s episodes were funny despite visible effects of his back problems and Parkinson’s. He was slow, gaunt and stiff. It was something of a tribute to the lifelong relationship he had with David that they made a great final lap on what was a twenty plus year Farewell Tour for Lewis. Please see what was probably his last recorded words here. Quite something.

So what to make of this. I posited something in an early draft about Lewis’s death being the end of the Boomer Mainstream Jewish Comic. It holds some weight for our generation that reinvented the Borscht Belt in Yuk Yuk’s and Chuckleheads franchises all over North America. Thanks to Lewis and his contemporaries, stand-up was a rock and roll for nerdy Jews. A chance to get on stage without having to worry too much about being mobbed by gentile groupies. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

There’s something to that. However as I look at the calendar as it strikes midnight for my 60s I think I just fear that my best laughs are behind me. That not only is the current state of standup decidedly unfunny to these old ears (I’ve already written about this!) but that when I do find myself laughing, and I cherish it so, its usually at the memory of laughter, of being reminded of buckling over with my buddies listening to George Carlin’s AM/FM album in my mother’s basement. Yet the fact that my friends to this day still talk about that night at the Improv all those decades ago, is significant in that from that night on, life directed us to find laughter wherever we went, goofballs that we were on occasion.

So with Lewis’s passing we sit some shivah for our own laughter. The cure for that would be the joy of experiencing a grandchild. And joy, at a certain age, will always trump reminiscing over Animal House. I’m gonna miss Richard, perhaps, because like the passing a few years ago of Gilbert Gottfried, another link to Marjorie has lost the ability to tell some stories of the old days. 

If one is to worry about Lewis’s soul I am reminded of an old story about the prophet Elijah who, centuries ago, was in a market with his students when they came across some men clowning around for loose shekels. The students scoffed at the jesting but the old man corrected them with, ”Those men will have a seat at the front table in the world to come for the simple fact that they bring laughter into the world.”

Rest easy, sweet Prince Of Pain. 

  1. JG- Another skillful bit of wordsmithing and genuinely heartfelt. If there’s a lesson here I think that its your 70’s bring body parts that go out of warranty but the laughter stays in place as does your memory of a friend.

  2. What a great stroll down memory lane this must have been for you Jonathan. Thanks for sharing!
    RIP Richard!!

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