There Was Only One Richard Lewis

Interviewing the Jersey-raised comedian, you’d hang on for dear life and let out shrieks—of laughter.

Richard Lewis
Comedian and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" star Richard Lewis grew up in Englewood. Photo: Shutterstock

Chatting with Richard Lewis, as I fondly look back on it, was less an interview than a ride on a wild and crazy comedy roller coaster. You’d hang on for dear life and let out shrieks—of laughter—at his fantastical ad-libs.

This only encouraged Lewis, who’d spin ever crazier stream-of-consciousness riffs on his fears and neuroses and supposedly traumatic memories of growing up in Englewood.

He used to joke that he made so many trips to his school nurse that a plaque to him was erected in the Dwight Morrow High School nurse’s office.

Did he really work as a paper carrier for The Record, his hometown paper, for just one dreadful day?

“I only delivered the papers to therapists’ houses,” Lewis claimed the first time I spoke with him, when he was starring in the ABC sitcom Anything But Love, in 1989. “You can’t throw the papers up against the door, because they might be having sessions, so I would tiptoe…

“I got so nervous, because I was so frightened of dogs. In one house, it wasn’t a dog; I think it was one of these huge box turtles. It was a horror. I blame The Record for most of my fear of animals, because of that one day on the route.”

Lewis, who died on Tuesday of a heart attack at age 76 in Los Angeles, is credited with coining the phrase “(Blank) from hell,” (as in day and date and dream from hell). He was born June 27, 1947 in Brooklyn, but grew up in Englewood. His father, Bill, a co-owner of Ambassador Caterers in Teaneck, died in 1971. His mom, Blanche, was an actress in community theater.

Their son came of age as a comic in the late 1970s and early ’80s, just as cable television was about to make stars out of standups. Lewis’s HBO comedy specials had names like I’m in Pain, I’m Exhausted and I’m Doomed. That last one was nearly identical to a show I saw at BergenPAC in April 1990. Dressed in trademark black, with slightly stooped shoulders, and hands touching his forehead, he’d pace the stage like a nervous panther, periodically stopping to consult a topics list, six feet long, placed atop a prop grand piano.

Lewis made 48 appearances on Late Night With David Letterman and had a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall. But he never stopped performing in his home state—from Englewood to Atlantic City—and never missed a chance to talk to his hometown newspaper.

When Lewis said he’d grown up in “the house that guilt built” (aka “the Suffer Dome),” one sensed that there was real pain behind many of these references. He confronted his struggles with alcoholism and substance abuse in his standup routine and his memoir, The Other Great Depression. Sober since August 1994, Lewis is survived by his wife Joyce Lapinsky, whom he married in 2005. And despite having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease two years ago, Lewis told his fans, via a video he posted on social media last April, that he was doing well and was happy.

Lewis became known to a younger generation of fans thanks to HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, for which Larry David tapped his longtime friend to play a version of himself. As David said in a statement on Wednesday, the two were born in the same Brooklyn hospital, three days apart. But they did not meet up until their pre-teens—at an upstate New York State sports camp. Their on-screen chemistry was incomparable.

While going through my old Lewis clips, I found one from 2010, to promote a comedy show he was doing with Susie Essman at Montclair’s Wellmont Theater. Lewis started off by explaining why he’d mistakenly called me the day before, when I was at a meeting. He blamed the mishap on a nightmare from hell.

“Five minutes before I call you, eight Hasidic dinosaurs were chasing me, saying, “You’re not religious enough,” he said, adding, “ You should see the size of the skullcaps they had on.”

There was only one Richard Lewis.

Virginia Rohan is the former longtime TV critic for The Record newspaper.

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