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Richard Lewis: Punching Back at the Pain

Like any boxer who had a rough childhood and comes out punching, so did Lewis. Instead of punching with his fists, he punched with his jokes. 
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March 6, 2024
Photo by Mark Schiff

“The best way to have an affair without feeling guilty is to sleep with your therapist.” – Richard Lewis

Richard Lewis had Parkinson’s disease and died from a heart attack. He was 76.  When the news broke of his death, the calls came in as if a member of my immediate family had passed. One after another, people texted and emailed me that they were sorry for my loss. So many people knew and loved him. 

That’s the thing about great comedians. People love them. They feel like they know them. A great comedian gets into your soul. They are the ones that many people go to when their lives get dark.

Like any boxer who had a rough childhood and comes out punching, so did Lewis. Instead of punching with his fists, he punched with his jokes. 

“I’m in Pain,” “I’m Exhausted,” “I’m Doomed” and “The Magical Misery Tour” are the names of four comedy specials written by and starring Lewis. His pain was his credentials — he wore it on his sleeve. Lewis also starred alongside Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”  Larry David said after Lewis died, “He had the rare combination of being the funniest person and the sweetest. And today he made me sob and for that, I’ll never forgive him.”  

The first time I saw Lewis live was around 1975 at The Improvisation Club in Hell’s Kitchen New York on 44th and 9th. Lewis would destroy a crowd like so few before him and a handful since. He was dangerous. He was one of the best club comics in the history of nightclubs. 

When I was thinking about becoming a comic, seeing Lewis perform could have easily dissuaded me. Imagine you wanted to be a violinist and one of the first people you saw perform was Jascha Heifetz. When I saw Lewis, my head exploded. Lewis was my Heifetz. His pain was his Stradivarius. He was a genius. Like Michelangelo, he sculpted each comedy bit into perfection. 

At times he looked like a caged animal.  He ran his fingers through his hair, hair needing to be both cut and washed. He would confess his sins and foibles to a room of strangers while under a bright light looking worried and sweating like he was being interrogated. He would look down at the floor and then quickly lift his head to the skies. Free-formed and set loose, he would say almost anything about anything that gnawed at him. And the laughter from the crowd was proof he was not alone. 

More than any of his family, his audience got him. Lewis shared his pain on stage. And trust me, Lewis was in pain. I loved Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, who along with Lewis were the most honest and likable of all the soul-bearers. But I loved Lewis more because I could relate to him more since he was Jewish. 

Thank God, Lewis found stand-up comedy, both for his audience’s sake and for his. He said, “Comedy is the art of turning pain into laughter.” 

Lewis did something most comics can’t do.  He remained a force for most of his career. He said, “I’ve learned that laughter is the best response to adversity. It disarms life’s challenges and gives us the strength to keep going.” And Lewis had adversity. Lewis was an alcoholic and drug addict but thank God, got sober a few decades back. No more needing to dull his soul with drink and drugs. He faced his angst head-on while being clean and sober. I would call him yearly to congratulate him on his continuous sobriety.  

One of the last times I saw Lewis on stage was in Brea, California at The Improv. I sat slack-jawed and bewildered as to how someone could be that open and that funny. 

When I asked him to be on my podcast, he told me he was in too much physical pain. That was maybe two years ago. After multiple surgeries, Lewis’ pain was not relieved. So not only did he spend much of his life in mental anguish, but he also spent his last few years physically in pain.

He did what we are all supposed to do.  What God wants us to do. That is to lift the spirits of our fellow travelers.  

Everyone who knew Lewis spoke of how kind he was. He had a smile that could stop the rain. He did what we are all supposed to do.  What God wants us to do. That is to lift the spirits of our fellow travelers.


Mark Schiff is a comedian, actor and writer, and host of the ‘You Don’t Know Schiff’ podcast. His new book is “Why Not? Lessons on Comedy, Courage and Chutzpah.”

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