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Richard Lewis on Stand-Up, Sobriety and Trusting Larry David

Comedian talks about the ups and downs of a decades-long friendship

July 20, 2011 8:30 AM ET
Richard Lewis and Larry David
Richard Lewis and Larry David at the Playboy club in the early 1980s.

Richard Lewis met Larry David at summer camp sometime around 1960. They were both Brooklyn Jews with working class parents, but they hated each other on sight. They became tight years later on the stand-up circuit, and David helped Lewis get his life back together when he quit drinking. Brian Hiatt spoke with Lewis about the decades-long friendship, his sobriety and David's possible return to the stage.

Larry was working on jokes for standup, and he thinks he’d like to do that again. Do you believe that? Do you think he’ll actually do that?
Yeah, I think he will come back because I think there's always something missing for people – particularly Larry – who are magnificent as stand-up comedians. And now he doesn’t have to go through all the great dues of the road. He’s so established, he just has to work on his chops on stage in a few places and then boom. I always learned a lot from [him]. I’ve always had a good work ethic and so has he. We write similarly when things strike us and we are very similar in a lot of ways. We are both in Brooklyn, sort of similar upbringings, and we were cut from a similar core. There are a lot of holes in our 52 years and certainly the alcohol has put a big hole in it and on our friendship – sadly for me. But it wasn’t like he stopped being a friend. I do recall this incident where I was newly sober and I’m in my home and I had stopped stand-up for a couple of years when I was bottoming out on alcohol and drugs because I somehow knew that if I burned that bridge, I would lose everything.

So you didn’t want to do it badly.
I didn’t want to do it badly. Exactly. So when I got sober, two things happened. He had given me advice on how to get back on stage. He said: “Richard, you’ll have to do it new all the time. Just go up there.” I did have thousands of hours of stuff on my computer. “Just go on stage, you gotta go on stage.” He was helping me, giving me confidence. “Just don’t worry about new stuff.” But then, I just was so exhausted of thinking because it was almost like starting over again. And sober. And in my late forties. So it wasn’t an easy task. So I had him come over. I said, “I have something very important.” We were alone and this was before I got married. I said, “Look. I gotta get out of here. I just gotta get out of here. I can’t do this anymore." I said, "Can you come back with a million dollars in cash? For me." And he looked at me and he didn’t say no. He had once lent me money years back, and I paid him back. But this time, I had money. It wasn’t like I couldn’t live. It wasn’t like I didn’t have a career. But I didn’t use it like, "If you don’t give it to me I’m going to drink; use drugs." I just said, “I can’t do it.” He came back or he called me and he basically said that he had spoken to people very close to him and it didn’t seem like a good idea.

And that’s cool. What bugs me about that incident is not that he didn’t give me a million dollars – that would be quite an extraordinary show of friendship. The point is that I was convinced that I said, “Look, I don’t know what’s going to happen to my career. But if I had a really great run, I’ll send you a hundred grand, two hundred grand, I’ll work it down.” He says I said no such thing. I think we will take that to our grave. That really pisses me off. I would have had full intention of paying him back. That said, it was a pretty eccentric ask. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough. You know, a lot of it I’ve learned through the years with all the psychotherapy, it could have been in my head and I never expressed it. He could be absolutely dead on. I don’t hold this over him. We kid about it from time to time.

It’s something you can joke about now?
Oh, absolutely! I was never mad at him. I didn’t expect it. But I was that frightened. I was starting over as a human being. Sober. I was living on cylinders that were fueled by a lot of things including alcohol and drugs. Without that in my tank, I was scared. The point of this harrowing story is that I love the guy so much and trusted him so much and knew that he respected me as a comedian. He is the only person on the planet that I would have the balls big enough to literally make a request like this and not feel like I was a sponge.

Why do you think Larry had so much trouble with his stand-up and then was so phenomenally functional with Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm?
His stuff was so unique and authentic. Initially, he had long stories that were like six-minute runs. So the nature of his material didn’t lend itself to having anything other than total attention. And he then learned to shorten some of his material. But that said, I know that he didn’t make himself that available to do The Tonight Show, for example, which was really the big door opener back then. He didn’t care as much about the traditional route. Someone could suggest that maybe he was afraid to succeed, but I don’t buy it. Maybe he was afraid to do it the regular way; I don’t buy that either. I just think that the art form, the craft, and the writing of the material was the most important thing for him.. Things hit him and he wrote them down on his legal pad.

So when he segued into Seinfeld, he really had control. He’s unquestionably the Norman Lear of his generation. He ran editing. He was an auteur. And he had an opportunity to do that as you asked, unlike he would have had as a stand-up. Because as a stand-up, every night you’re judged. Every show judges you. He had no tolerance for that shit. And that shit happened to be the business.

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JB Smoove On Michael Richards, Larry David and a Possible 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Spin-Off
Comedian Susie Essman Explains Larry David's Genius
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