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Comedian Richard Lewis, Dark Prince of Jewish Neurosis, Dies at 76

He parlayed his neurotic Jewish personality and self-deprecating humor into a 50-year career as a standup and actor.
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February 28, 2024
Actor/comedian Richard Lewis attends AFI’s 41st Life Achievement Award Tribute to Mel Brooks at Dolby Theatre on June 6, 2013 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for AFI)

Comedian Richard Lewis, who parlayed his neurotic Jewish personality and self-deprecating humor into a 50-year career as a standup and actor, died Wednesday. He was 76.

Lewis had been in ill health for a number of years and last April announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease two years earlier. Although he considered himself retired as a standup, he appeared again as a regular in the current season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” playing a version of himself in the HBO show created by and starring his childhood friend Larry David.

“Richard and I were born three days apart in the same hospital and for most of my life he’s been like a brother to me,” David said in a statement released by HBO. “He had that rare combination of being the funniest person and also the sweetest. But today he made me sob and for that I’ll never forgive him.”

Lewis’ sensibility, in clubs and on screen, could be as dark as the funereal suits he often wore. In a signature joke, he spoke about an uncle who was so depressing that he would sit at home listening to the soundtrack of “The Pawnbroker,” the grim 1964 film about a Holocaust survivor.

He also is credited with the tagline “from Hell,” as in “the ex-wife from Hell.” When the “Yale Book of Quotations” gave him credit for the catchphrase in 2022, he tweeted, “Where is my Nobel Prize?”

Lewis also appeared in a number of films, including “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” Mel Brooks’ 1993 parody, in which he played an extremely Jewish-seeming Prince John.

Lewis was born in Brooklyn and raised in Englewood, New Jersey, the son of a caterer and an actress in community theater. “My father was so well known as a caterer and so booked up that he was actually booked on the weekend of my bar mitzvah so I had to have my party on the Tuesday,” he once told an interviewer.

After earning a degree in marketing at Ohio State University, he began writing and regularly performing stand-up comedy in 1972. The Jewish comedians Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce were obvious role models, although Lewis proved influential in his own right: Comedy Central ranked him #45 on its list of “100 Greatest Standups of All Time” in 2004.

In the 1989 sitcom “Anything But Love,” which ran for four seasons, Lewis establishes his character as Jewish in the first minutes of the pilot. Lewis told a British weekly, the Jewish Telegraph, in 2011 that he was not a synagogue-goer but that he consciously infused his Jewish identity into his comedy — and that he viewed comedy as a deeply Jewish act.

“I have a tremendous love affair for being a Jew,” he said at the time. “I’m so proud to be part of this people. I want to be part of anything else.” He added, “Because of what the Jews have gone through since literally Day One, one of the survival mechanisms was to talk about all the hell that we’ve been through. It’s so much funnier being a Jew than anything else. If we don’t find humor then we’re in deep trouble.”

Lewis struggled with addiction issues for years, proudly explaining in 2016 that he was “22 years sober” and that he mentored those in the recovery community.

That same year, Lewis acknowledged that his health had taken a toll on his performing, but that he would continue to write, act and do the occasional stand-up gig.

“I’ve learned to accept the fact that I’m not like I used to be,” he said. “I try to stay healthy and sober and to give back. I’ve received a lot of help. I’ve lived through a lot of tsuris. The art of aging is being grateful for being alive and having some laughs and helping other people.”

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