The Comedic Art of Richard Lewis

Freud, “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the Book of Job, and John Coltrane. What do these four have in common? Each of them, and the four together, help us understand and appreciate the comedic and performing art of comedian Richard Lewis. All nearly 50 years of it.

Lewis was scheduled to perform his stand-up comedy for two nights at the Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia. I interviewed him by telephone in anticipation of these performances. He told me then that he had recently moved into a new house — his material life in a multitude of boxes, the fate of many of his belongings in mid-negotiation with his wife. It occurred to me that unpacking these boxes could have been the subject and occasion for a documentary about Lewis’ life, a kind a film variation on Walter Benjamin’s essay Unpacking My Library.

Our conversation may have been more prescient than it seemed at the time, for a few days before Lewis’ scheduled performances in Philadelphia, we learned that he had been forced to cancel. The reason? His sciatica had acted up badly from the activity of moving. Perhaps a new form of HBO comedy special is born: not the comedian doing a show about recovering from an illness or injury, but rather doing his show during and as a part of his recovery. The opening: Lewis painfully elevates himself to a sitting position on his couch, and in his best Kirk Douglas voice proclaims, “I am Sciaticus!”

So sciatica cancels two nights of performances. But somewhere, Richard Lewis is always performing. This is what he has done — because he was meant to do it, he told me, since he was a child, when he realized, with the help of predictably admonishing teachers, that he was the exceptional person who could always make people laugh.

While Lewis’ personal belongings are packed in boxes — and getting to them may aggravate his sciatica — his accomplishments are amply unboxed. As a successful comedian and actor, Lewis has been, what I call, “puttin’ on the witz” for nearly 50 years. Listed by Comedy Central as one of the top 50 stand-up comics of all times, he is frequently likened to the famous comedian Lenny Bruce. In addition to his prolific stand-up appearances, Lewis has appeared in many films and television series, including “Anything but Love” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Lewis’ career is one described in superlatives, but the question remains: what about his art itself? What is it? We still need Freud, “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the Book of Job, and John Coltrane to explain it.

Let us begin with Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis, but who, at times, may have seen himself as an unintended, not-so-covert novelist, and who, in our time, might have been a stand-up comedy artist of rare invention and originality. Writing in 1895 in Studies on Hysteria, he confided: “… [I]t still strikes me myself as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories … the nature of the subject is evidently responsible for this, rather than any preference of my own.”

Freud’s case histories, as a form of literature that include their own analysis and interpretation, form the basis for the comedic and performing art of Richard Lewis: everything that one does not want to talk about or admit, even to oneself, becomes the substance and very purpose of the story.

Why the association with Philip Roth and his novel Portnoy’s Complaint? Because Philip Roth realized the analytical monologue as a new means by which to liberate his literary art. “Portnoy’s Complaint” was the result of the liberation he found. Roth explains that he wanted “to renounce the orderly, coherent development of an imagined world and to advance helter-skelter, in a frenzy, as the classic analytic patient ideally proceeds in the throes of associative freedom.” A most precise description, this is too, of Lewis in performance.

“This is a man,” Roth has said about his character Alexander Portnoy, “speaking out of an overwhelming obsession … . An odd, maybe even mad, way to go about seeking personal salvation; but, nonetheless, the investigation of this passion, and of the combat that it precipitates with his conscience, is what’s at the center of the novel.”

Is there any better description of Lewis’ obsession in performance? As Roth explains, “Inasmuch as the Freudian ground rule is that nothing in a personal history is too petty or vulgar to speak about and nothing, likewise, too monstrous or grand, the psychoanalytic session provided … the appropriate vessel to contain everything.”

Lewis, or the psychoanalytic session, becomes stand-up comedy. What goes on in the psychoanalytic session, Lewis transposes and translates into his stand-up comedy performance.

Lewis is doing what Freud called joke-work, which is a close companion of “dream work.” In other words, Lewis fictionalizes personal facts and factualizes personal fictions, by combining precise personal and social observation — his “witz” — with extravagant and dreamlike fantasy.

Lewis’ comedic art is not, and never has been, one of just telling jokes, arming and detonating punch lines. He is not now, nor has he ever been, any kind of a traditional comedian; he is rather a stand-up short-story teller with a comedic view of life, tragedy and suffering. His monologue is closer to a writer narrating aloud his free writing in a private journal. But, like a water diviner divvies for hidden underground water, Lewis is always divvying for the hidden humor, the comedy flowing through life often undetected and untasted.

When Richard Lewis performs stand-up, he is drawing his material from the never-endingly improvised Lewis book of life. For Lewis, we may say, life is the Book of Job meets Sid Caesar. Very much our contemporary, the Book of Job, along with its avalanche of suffering and catastrophe, is itself full of humor, subversive satire and questioning, combined with a surgical investigation of character, relationships, hypocrisy, betrayal, religious and social illusions and conformities. It traces one individual pilgrim’s progress from devastating loss and a nihilistic death wish to an abundant restoration of life. Lewis’ performance persona — at once himself and other-than-himself, comedically, even hyperbolically, amplified — thus might be likened to that of “an average Job.”

But, in the end, as the Duke Ellington song so pertinently concludes, “it don’t mean a thing, if ain’t got that swing.” Lewis’ art, like that of the jazz musician, is one of improvisation par excellence, using everyday language as his instrument, while not knowing what he is going to say next. He never does the same show twice. Asking him about the material he currently performs is like asking John Coltrane, “When you solo, are you going to play any new material?” Lewis monologues like Coltrane solos, modulating and marrying keys, modes and moods, varying and reconstructing themes, throwing out cascades of references and associations, sustaining or resolving dissonances — all captured in the title of Hayden Carruth’s poem, The Joy and Agony of Improvisation.

Lewis’ “swing” is his honed intuitive sense of his whole story, wherever it takes him, the simultaneity of all its themes, and how he narratively links and relates them. I would even go so far as to say that Richard Lewis at times plays with and upon his own words, from sentence to sentence, like James Joyce plays with his words in Finnegans Wake, that other great dream tale of fall and redemption.

Jewish tradition especially cherishes the person who can make others laugh. Because, generally, the gift of this ability is not such an easy one to bear or its calling an easy one to follow, nor is it a “funny” one per se. When your “material” is the stuff of our everyday pain and suffering, our perplexities and confusions, our fears and mistakes, our emotional turmoil, our repressions and fantasies, it can be a delicate and precarious art to take people more nearly into their own maw of vulnerability, all with the intention to entertain them and to make them laugh.

Lewis’ humor — his “witz” and his ability to make us laugh, as he has done for nearly 50 years — is an essential, obviously deeply resonated, expression of his Jewishness. This maybe is why, when I asked him what he personally finds most funny about being Jewish, he answered with one word: “Survival.”

As Ecclesiastes says, “A generation goes and a generation comes …” Richard Lewis belongs to both the generation going and the generation coming. He is an elder of the past 50 years of American comedy, appearing in movies and on TV. For Lewis, this carries a responsibility. Because of this, and because of his sustaining passion for performing before a live audience, he has been out on the road, appearing at select venues around the country, telling and inventing his stories anew in a way similar to how Odysseus tells and reinvents the stories of his epic homecoming to each new audience eager for those stories.

This is why Lewis’ comedy can be as new for his oldest audience as it is for a generation just now being introduced to it. Not only does he have hours and hours of unused material, but also, he himself cannot anticipate how he will tell his stories. Analogous to the way in which a literary writer works, Lewis projects a light upon his own life, his own choices, revealing things of which he was not aware when he first lived them, but only after he spontaneously says them.

Now that Lewis is nearing age 70, his comedy comes forth from him as a deeply felt gesture — as an act of gratitude, it is not too much to say. Intelligence. Lucidity. Style. Laughter. It is Lewis’ laughter, and our laughter with his. It is the liberating laughter of a contemporary Job who, using his “witz,” has survived — himself.

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