From the Book of Life to the Book of Lewis: Richard Lewis Returns to Philadelphia

This article is a sequel to a piece written by the author for The Philadelphia Jewish Voice in 2016.

After we have so recently been inscribed in the Book of Life during the High Holidays, some choice laughs are definitely in order. Fortunately, for the Philadelphia Jewish community, Richard Lewis is returning to Philadelphia, to perform his comedy, October 19 – 21, at the Helium Comedy Club.

Yes, this is the actor, who is so well-liked — or affectionately disliked — in his role as the recurring character (also named Richard Lewis) on Larry David’s HBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” And, yes, this is the man who has been performing different character versions of himself, in the guise of a stand-up comedian, for five decades.

Lewis is a rarity in American comedy in that he is a comedy artist who reflects the maturity of his life’s work. Reaching for an analogy, I think of jazz musicians, such as Wayne Shorter or Sonny Rollins, for whom each note or phrase played in their public performances may be heard as something of a summa of their life’s work.

At the same time, Lewis is adept at spontaneous live comedy, and at what writer Bernard Malamud calls “the flowers of after-thought.” He does not present — nor has he ever presented — a rehearsed routine or act. In fact, according to Lewis, he does not have “an act” at all.

The comedian “is a cartographer of an imaginary country that he willy-nilly populates and in which he constructs a landscape. He strip-mines his soul. His mental incontinence leaks all over the place. … Emotions tend to fly around in his brain like birds wired on crystal meth.”

Although this sounds like a quote from Lewis’ book The Other Great Depression, it is in fact a quote by writer Jim Harrison, in which he describes the novelist, not the comedian. This quote makes me think of Lewis because, Lewis refers to himself as a writer first, though he writes in the medium of live air, entrusting his work to the collective “notebook” — his audience of the moment.

Imagine Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow or Philip Roth publicly performing aloud their notes, sketches, drafts, thoughts and associations about a story or novel in progress, orally crossing out paragraphs or entire pages, following an idea that turns out to be a digression that goes nowhere, or discovering in a single word an entire premise for a story. Comedy that often would not be joke-funny, but would be pervaded by humor, is what you would hear. Comedy that seeks to illuminate, as Proust says literature does, “real life, life finally uncovered and clarified. … Life in this sense dwells within all ordinary people as much as the artist. But they do not see it because they are not trying to shed light on it.”

Lewis is “trying to shed light on it.”

So when he asserts that he does not have “an act,” does he mean that in all his years of stage performances and TV appearances, he has just been “being himself”? Well, no. As Philip Roth explains in his collection of nonfiction called Why Write?:

[C]reating the illusion of intimacy and spontaneity is not just a matter of letting your hair down and being yourself but of inventing a whole new idea of what ‘being yourself’ sounds like and looks like.

Lewis is himself paradoxical about his own comedy performance. People go to hear him perform as a comedian, but that is not what he is. “Not too unlike Lenny Bruce,” he wrote to me, “I consider myself a human being foremost and not a comedian.”

I am reminded that Hillel is reported to have said, “In a place where there are no human beings, try to be one.” Lewis in his own life has often been in this “place,” and he has had to metamorphosize the art of a comedian into the art of being human.

Like a campfire emitting sparks into the night, Lewis, aflame with conversation, sends forth references, allusions, intimations of what resides in other realms of his memory; they burn quickly and disappear. I want to say to him, in the words of Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, “Speak, Memory.” But a different kind of conversation, a different setting, I realize, is needed for this kind of memory to speak.

Something else I have noticed: there is a silence within the verbal virtuosity of Richard Lewis.

Lewis has a special affinity and love for the work of the comedic actor Buster Keaton, who was well known for his roles in many silent films. Lewis, a person who incessantly verbalizes everything, and Keaton, a person whose comedic medium was silence. For all the torrents of verbal artistry we have heard from Lewis — a 50-year flood of words — there is a silence akin to Keaton’s regarding memory, about which Lewis seems so shy and reticent that we have not yet heard him speak. Maybe all we are meant to receive is the verbal sparks that these memories emit.

As an artist of comedy, Lewis has been narrating what may be called one lifelong “Great Confession” — or with Yom Kippur in mind, one lifelong vidui (the catalogue of transgressions that a Jewish congregation publicly recites together on Yom Kippur). Confession often becomes Lewis’ vehicle for narrating his journey to the center of pain. It is rightly as much a subject for comedy as it is for epic poetry, that is, when comedy can, as Lewis does, metamorphosize through public performance the art of humor into the art of being human.

Philip Roth captures the journey to the center of pain in his book Patrimony when he writes, about caring for his aging father, “Once you sidestep disgust and ignore nausea and plunge past those phobias that are fortified like taboos, there’s an awful lot of life to cherish.” Richard Lewis intends for us to arrive, through comedy and laughter, at the same realization, as indeed he has himself.

Lewis’ comedy is not just human; it’s also Jewish. What Roth said in “Why Write?” about the Jewishness of his own books, by transposition, best describes the Jewishness of Lewis’ comedy:

It’s a kind of sensibility: the nervousness, the excitability, the arguing, the dramatizing, the indignation, the obsessiveness, the touchiness, the playacting — above all the talking. … It isn’t what [Lewis is] talking about that makes [his comedy] Jewish — it’s that [he] won’t shut up. [He] won’t leave you alone. Won’t let up. Gets too close. ‘Listen, listen — that’s only the half of it!’

Finally, I return once more to Lewis’ assertion that he does not have “an act,” because it is a little more complicated than that. He also claims, as he wrote to me, that “[his] humor is basically non-fiction” — and it’s a little more complicated than that too. Again, I resort to Roth in “Why Write?” for an explanation:

We are writing fictitious versions of our lives all the time, contradictory but mutually entangling stories that, however subtly or grossly falsified, constitute our hold on reality and are the closest thing we have to truth.

That, I think, is where the humor is, in the “fictitious versions.”

Fortunately, there is Gustave Flaubert, who comprehends and reconciles both positions when he writes, “Everything one invents is true, you may be perfectly sure of that.” To which Freud provides the perfect complement: “In the realm of fiction we find the plurality of lives we need.”

By attending one of Lewis’ performances at the Helium Comedy Club, we can inscribe ourselves in the Book of Lewis — and add a few lives to our own plurality.

The Helium Comedy Club is located at 2031 Sansom Street. For performance times, tickets and information, visit the website or call 215-496-9001.

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