Interview: Legendary Richard Lewis Shares His 'Bundle Of Nerves' With Us
In the comedy world nothing says genius like an honest funnyman who stands the test of time. Meaning anyone can tell a joke, but really connecting with an audience, baring your soul and getting personal all in the name of making people laugh is something only the greats can keep going for an entire career. And no one is more iconic, more admired and more revered for comedy candor then the legendary Prince of Pain himself Richard Lewis. Having a career that has spanned some forty-five years, Lewis has successfully brought his distinctive angst ridden humor to everything from legendary stand-up specials to movies to even some popular hit TV shows ("Anything But Love" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" to name a few!) – Richard Lewis truly embodies funny. The good news for fans (and even for those Lewis newbies!) is that today sees the release of the most definitive and comprehensive DVD sets paying homage to the life and career of the comedian aptly titled "Richard Lewis: Bundle of Nerves" (out Sept. 2/14 from Video Services Corp.) and it covers the wide spectrum of his work for sure. Included are "Diary of a Young Comic" (a very funny 1979 TV movie featuring a very young and righteously raw Lewis) the famed HBO special "Magical Misery Tour," the underrated cult classic 1995 film "Drunks" (it’s got Lewis in the dramatic lead and who is his AA sponsor – how about a young Sam Rockwell!) and to top it off there’s a revealing new doc titled "House of a Lifetime," where the self-proclaimed recluse for the first time opens his museum like home for a rare personal glimpse at one of the coolest collections ever assembled in one place. But as true fans we wanted to get more insight into the makings of this must-have set and so we set out to chat up the man himself. We succeeded and what follows is some very memorable one-on-one conversation that’s a lot like Lewis’s celebrated stand-up act – real, raw and revealing. Ladies and gentlemen the illustrious...
First off I have to know - where did the name Prince of Pain come from?
Richard Lewis: You know, I don’t know exactly. I don’t think I would ever self appoint myself that. I think there were so many articles and so many reviews and I think someone might have said the Prince of Pain is in town and it sort of stayed with me. But I didn’t wake up saying I wanted to call myself that. The long and short answer is I don’t know, but it was in so many headlines I probably said I might as well take it.
"Bundle of Nerves" spanning your very long career seems like the perfect set for both avid fans and Richard Lewis newbies – were all the selections your idea?
RL: Half was. After forty-five years and you hit fifty or sixty you start to say what are some of the things that have frustrated me? And what happened was I was doing a concert in New York and some guy comes over to me and he says he puts packages like this together and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ But he came into the dressing room and he said, ‘I want to call it "Bundles of Nerves."’ And I just started laughing and I said, ‘Listen I’ll give you a holler.’ So we talked and he said ‘What would you like to be in this?’ And it was very easy. Number one I was asked to star and co-write in a special called "Diary of a Young Comic" that was going to preempt Saturday Night Live early on. It was really a trip and I got happier about it as I got older and realized how much work I had done and how hard it was. It was about a guy coming to New York and following his heart and passion and finding out who he was. It fell through the cracks distribution wise, every which way, and you could only get it on Ebay for like a hundred thousand dollars. And I’ve been a sober guy for twenty years now – I got sober in my forties. But the deal is when I just got sober I was ready to do another HBO special. And this was sober - first one at The Bottom Line called "Magical Misery Tour." I also starred in a movie, which I auditioned for and got the role, a really tight dramatic film "Drunks" which became a cult film. That too fell through the cracks and it was not anywhere in sight and I wanted them as part of my collection. These are things that I really wanted out there – I was proud of them.
And the "House of a Lifetime" tour doc...
RL: My house was affectionately called The Museum by my friends because it really is a museum – it’s a total homage to the arts. The whole house is a museum to all the iconic images of friends I have, friends I never met and people I would love to meet. So after twenty-five plus years all the writing, all the preparation, all the hard times, the good times, the love affairs, the drugs, all of it has been in this house. And my wife said you have to document this for yourself. It was nice of her and she produced this thing and we got this young director Charley Rivkin and he was behind the camera and we worked about five months on it. We put it as a deluxe bonus because it’s sort of unusual. I’ve seen a lot of extras, they’re slick and cool, but if people are really fans and they want to see how does this guy live – how does this nutcase live (laughs) – I wanted to show it all and get everything out. At my age you start to think what do I owe people who have made it possible for me to make a living in the business, and without sounding stupid, I wanted to show how obsessive I was about working and the arts and how grateful I am and the only way I can show it is to put it out there. That’s basically what my stand-up is – just rip my guts out and hope that I get laughs.
And I’ve seen it – it’s fascinating!
RL: Yeah, I slipped it to my shrink. I emailed my therapist cause I figured after twenty-five years you describe the house and what does it look like – here it is. And she wrote back ‘no wonder your wife wanted to move.’ (Laughs) I went aw, thanks! Nothing about the pictures, the house, the things – just ‘no wonder she wanted to get out.’
The cover is of course the work of The Rolling Stones Ron Wood – can you talk about how it came about and what inspired it?
RL: I’m a collector and Ronny was a huge fan of paintings and drawings. And I forgot how we got together, but we became really great friends. I adore the guy. Forget about his legacy as one of the greatest rock guitarists, he’s just one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known. But he’s been to my house and he’s seen all the stuff. What happened about four years ago was he had a gallery opening in LA and I went down there and it was his opening to show new work. So I walk upstairs and he comes out with this picture and they rip the paper off and there’s cameramen there and out of the blue there’s a portrait of me - the one that is one the cover – and I just couldn’t believe it. It was a thank you to me for all sorts of things and I just broke down a little bit. It all came full circle, but it’s all surreal to me. I never really went into the business to be a celebrity. I know I am, but I don’t feel like one. I wanted to simply express myself and see if I could actually make a living doing that because I didn’t want to do anything else. I’ve never stopped working at it. So even if I’m standing there with one of The Rolling Stones, who is a good friend, who paints a picture of me, I still find it almost impossible to believe that it’s happening. I hope I never give that feeling up because then it just becomes not fun anymore. But I sent Ronny an email when he was on tour and I told him what I was doing and I clicked on the image and asked him would you mind if I used this for the cover? Most people are like call my lawyer – he was like right on, rock and roll! That was the contract. We didn’t need an attorney.
"Diary of a Young Comic" is such a raw and real, not to mention young Richard Lewis – what are your thoughts looking back on it now?
RL: When I look at that I have a sense of pride that I didn’t quit. It’s luxurious to see it in a funny little film like this because that’s what I looked like, that’s what I was doing and that’s exactly what was going down. Everything was important – my pictures and I had to have a car. That’s what happens when you have no money and you’re in a strange city as big as Los Angeles. You see all the big stars walking around and in restaurants and you’re trying to put together money for a meal and get a couple of gigs. So I have a sense of pride about Diary and I’m almost in shock that I’m still doing it.
The "Magical Misery Tour" HBO special was not your first for sure, but doing it sober would you rate it amongst the greats for you like the famed Carnegie Hall concert?
RL: I don’t have the Carnegie Hall concert on tape – I wish I did. It was two hours and forty minutes, two standing ovations and it was one of the greatest nights of my life. But the interesting thing about the Misery Tour set was it was a really strong set, the material was funny and it was the last time that I used notes. I would just take a breather with a glass of water and look down and say gee I want to talk about the circus or fear of intimacy. That’s the only reason I had notes like that because I had all new material almost every night for my whole life, so I was just frustrated that I couldn’t remember stuff. But its right up there with the other specials I have on DVD because I was so raw and I was newly sober. I didn’t know what would happen, but it worked out as far as I’m concerned.
"Drunks" is a highly underrated flick – with the material and amazing cast did you sense you were doing something special while you were making it?
RL: When I auditioned, and I haven’t done a million roles, I got a great sense of satisfaction out of it. It’s funny, I was in the first scene in "Leaving Las Vegas" because Mike Figgis tracked me down and he said, ‘Nic and I want you to do the first scene.’ So he sent me the script and I was blown away by the screenplay. And I remember I was sitting outside where we shot the scene and Nic was getting ready for the next days’ shoot and he had someone there who was helping him by describing certain things about drunkenness and debauchery. How it would manifest basically because there was so many levels of intoxication in that movie. I was just eavesdropping because I was newly sober and I was thinking I would kill to be able to one day portray someone who was just out of it. And low and behold I got a call to audition for this guy in New York Peter Cohn. I stayed up all night – I wanted this and as soon as it was sent to me I thought this is it, this is my role. And I got it – he really gave me a lot of respect. It was a three week shoot and when I walked into that set and saw Faye Dunaway and Dianne Wiest and Amanda Plummer and Spalding Gray it was like wow – how did this happen?
The thing that stands out in the fascinating "House of a Lifetime" tour of your collection is your absolute adoration of satirist Lenny Bruce – what did he mean to you and what influence did he have in your career as a comedian?
RL: I’m friends with his mother and his daughter Kitty and she’s sent me a lot of artifacts. I was aware of Lenny Bruce, but I had never seen him live. I was too young to go down to the Village – I was only a sophomore in college. So I never had a chance to see him, but someone came over with an album and he said, ‘Listen to this.’ So he laid Lenny Bruce on me and I was flabbergasted. I mean I was used to being flabbergasted over hearing Hendrix for the first time, John Lennon’s solo album, watching "Dr. Strangelove" when I was fourteen, but when I heard this album I thought this is unbelievable. I understood almost all of it and so when I became a comedian people like Lenny, who was a brilliant comedian and broke every taboo, made me fall in love with that honesty and that free-wheeling style. He would find an opening and he would run with it. I clearly love that style of comedy – I don’t know what I’m gonna say on stage. When they say ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Richard Lewis’ I have no clue how the show’s going to go, what I’m going to say, how it’s ending, what I’m opening with and that’s the way I like it. It’s not for everybody, but Lenny really influenced me. He opened the door.
Finally how much did you actually take of your collection to your new place and is your wife happier now?
RL: Here’s the deal – we’re back and forth so it’s almost done. It’s not completed, but it’s gonna be much less. I’m just picking and choosing stuff I actually want to see. Some stuff will go to charities and some stuff I will keep for a while and change things out. After a quarter of a century I really should throw sh!t out. Maybe my therapist was right – ‘no wonder she wants to move.’
"RICHARD LEWIS: BUNDLE OF NERVES" HITS DVD SEPT. 2/14 FROM VIDEO SERVICES CORP.
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