This year, comedian Richard Lewis found himself in a precarious position -- playing a therapist, Dr. Weiss, on the new Starz comedy, "Blunt Talk," with Patrick Stewart.
"Forget about Robert De Niro gaining 60 pounds for 'Raging Bull,' I put in 45 years of analysis for this role," says the neurotic comic. "Even when I didn't need it, I went knowing that one day it would be useful."
But, Saturday night, Lewis, 68, will entertain Long Islanders with his own woes onstage at The Space at Westbury. Newsday caught up with him in between self-deprecating rants.
How would you compare your on-screen relationship with Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" to your off-screen relationship?
It's tragically the same. Larry David and I love one another, trust one another and respect one another to the max. I'm older than Larry by a couple of days. We were even born in the same hospital ward in Brooklyn. I was premature so I had to hang around for week listening to that little fetus complain. We were fighting when we were only a few days old. I could never figure it out in psychoanalysis. There was always something that was haunting me. Then I realized, it was LD.
How did you end up on "Curb Your Enthusiasm"?
Back in 1999, Larry came to my house and told me he was going to do a series. He asked, "Would you mind playing yourself?" You don't say no to a genius. I knew whatever he touched would turn to gold. He said, "There's no script, just ad-lib." It was a dream.
You struggled with substance abuse. How did you finally get sober?
I bottomed out on crystal meth, holed up in my house for a week. I looked at myself in the mirror and said, "Do you really want to go out like this, you moron?" I called two friends and they took me to the hospital because I decided to live. Aug. 4, 1994 -- that was it for me.
You seem to be in a happier place these days. Does your contentment affect your comedy?
No, it has fueled my neurosis because in my DNA I have a bottomless pit of low self-esteem. I have so much clarity now that I despise myself even more. I've had more than 20 years of sobriety to go over all the craziness and things I did. As grateful as I am, simultaneously it opened up a Pandora's box of remorse.
What kind of role did David Letterman have on your career?
Dave was the one that really got me going. I did more than 60 appearances with him. His show was the platform that launched me. Every six to eight weeks I'd be in New York on the air with Letterman. He told me, "You are so physical onstage. When you come on my show, forget doing stand-up, you are better on the panel stewing in your own neurosis." I took him up on that and since 1982 I've never done stand-up on TV.
What was going through your head when you were playing Carnegie Hall in 1989?
I was so ready for that show. I was lucky enough to say, "Alright, bro, you are going to stay stone cold sober!" I put my notes on this grand piano. The material was pouring out of me. There was six 5-feet-long legal sheets taped together -- it must have been eight hours of material. I wanted to put in every good riff but also ad-lib. I never got to all of it because I'd still be onstage.
How much of your act is done on the fly?
I don't have an act. If the audience is with me, I'll ad-lib the whole show if I can. I have thousands of hours in my head and in my computer. I never went onstage to perform but to express myself and how I'm feeling. I stopped doing specials because I didn't want to go on the road and perfect 52 minutes. I like to riff.
Is it true you were in a fraternity? You don't seem like a frat boy.
I was in Alpha Epsilon Pi in Ohio State University. I was so paranoid about living in dorms with other people, I couldn't handle it. I didn't want to be using the same toilet as 20 people or showering with a rugby team. My dad told me, "Don't worry, I'll take care of it!" He got me in a fraternity house. I said, "How did that happen?" He said, "I can't tell you," and he never did.
Your role on "Blunt Talk" shows off your acting chops. Do you think your talent has been overlooked?
I never got enough acting opportunities because I was so pigeonholed as the neurotic guy. But I get it. Steven Spielberg picked the right Lewis for "Lincoln" for sure. I could have done, "Four score . . . and how many years is that again?" It wouldn't have cooked like it did with Daniel Day. But I can hold my own in some other roles.
How are you enjoying your role on "Blunt Talk"?
This is a dark, authentically written show by Jonathan Ames, which is right up my alley. It's not a sitcom, it's a fearless new genre. Sir Patrick Stewart is a trip. He's one of the hippest, most progressive 75-year-old men that ever roamed this planet. I have never been with a cast like this -- their credits are endless.
Mel Brooks once called you the "Franz Kafka of modern comedy." What do you think he meant by that?
I'll gladly take a Kafka reference whenever I can! I think he was alluding to the fact that being paranoid and uncomfortable is my sweet spot. That's what I'm going to continue to mine as long as I'm up to date with my feelings.
What do you think when you see photos of your hair in the 1980s?
I look like I had a pumpernickel land on my head! Sometimes I'd walk around Laurel Canyon and the birds would want to make a nest in my hair. I was so stoned that I had no problem with it.
You claim the " . . . from hell" phrase is yours. Is that debate still going on?
There's no argument anymore. It's in the Yale Book of Quotations. I really did popularize the phrase. The dentist from hell, girlfriend from hell -- I was always the victim. I wanted to get some kind of credit.
What kind of impact did the passing of Robin Williams have on you?
I was in a funk for a month. I couldn't do a thing. I was in shock. The last time I saw him was a year before he took his life. We really respected each other. He called me the rabbi and I called him the preacher.
Your 1989-92 sitcom with Jamie Lee Curtis, "Anything but Love," ended abruptly. What happened?
We had 20 million viewers but there was some changing of the guard at the studio, and the new president canceled the show. If we had made it to 100 episodes, I'd be talking to you from a hot tub in Pompeii. Instead the show was canceled before we finished the fourth season. It was just horrific.
You've been doing stand-up for 45 years. What's behind your drive to continue?
I always needed to express myself onstage because I didn't get a lot of feedback in life, particularly from my family. I always felt behind the eight ball. Whenever I'd get the crowd to laugh, I'd strike a chord with them, and I'm still doing it. Connecting with the spoken word is the hardest thing in the business because you can't rest on your laurels. You have to want it more than anything.
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m., Saturday, The Space at Westbury, 250 Post Ave.
INFO 516-283-5566, thespaceatwestbury.com