Richard Lewis' Last Laugh

Robert Epstein talks to comedian Richard Lewis about his struggles with alcoholism and his revealing book, The Other Great Depression

Funny man Richard Lewis has been doing stand-up comedy For 30 years. And he's good at it. Named in GQ Magazine's list of the "20th Century's Most Influential Humorists," Lewis has made more than 50 appearances each on Late Night with David Letterman and the Tonight Show. He has also appeared on the big screen in numerous films including Robin Hood, Men in Tights and has starred in the sitcom Anything But Love, with actress Jamie Lee Curtis. That sort of success, though, has come with a heavy price. Lewis suffered from alcoholism for a decade and a half. Now sober for the past eight years, he has chronicled his battles in his autobiography. He says that writing the book took three torturous years, but the process afforded him a close look at his life. "I never felt I got as honest as I could on stage. I realized if I could write a book, without the constraints of stand-up, I would be able to tell the truth."

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Robert Epstein: This book is brutally honest. Here's a passage that pretty much sums it all up: "One day I'm going to die. I'm about as sure of that as I am that I'll never learn how to record a show in advance on my VCR. Maybe I'll die suddenly or foolishly, be talked into spending time in a chalet on a scenic mountainside, even though I'm allergic to the great outdoors, and an avalanche gets me. Maybe some bank robbers fleeing the scene of the crime will accidentally shoot me. Something will happen to end it all, but until that occurs, as flawed, ungrateful and self-centered as I can be from time to time, and as full of tears and obsessions as I am, the one thing I'm most proud of is that I am no longer ruled by alcohol." Richard Lewis: I have been sober for almost eight years and my life is a billion percent better. Now I don't have the craving for alcohol, I have the craving for clarity and life.

Being on the road is probably very stressful. Is that what got you into trouble?

RL: There are alcoholics who live in farmhouses in the middle of Iowa. But when I have club dates, it's not as if I'm hanging out at a museum. People are going to clubs to drink and laugh. That kind of environment is dangerous for an alcoholic because booze is so readily available.

It was a major step for you to say, "I have weaknesses." Is that when you began to feel strength?

RL: Yeah, that's true. I finally had to take responsibility for how self-centered I had become. And drinking was just a manifestation of keeping myself into myself and allowing me not to help others, care for others or be with others. Ultimately it hurt my life and career. If you don't admit you have flaws and you don't take personal inventories of yourself, you don't know how to fix it. And I didn't want to fix it for a long time. The first step is to admit you're an alcoholic, and that took about 15 years.

What helped you in your recovery?

RL: I had two interventions. During the first intervention, I had no intention of stopping. These people were close to me, and I lied to them. They left and I drank. A year and a half later, another group of people tried a second intervention. They had a real game plan. They brought a psychologist who specializes in this disease. They said to me, "We're not gonna stick around and watch you do this." It was real tough love.

At the time, the first intervention flashed before my eyes. All the love I got from the first intervention sunk in; it wasn't wasted. Part of the recovery is slipping. It made the second intervention even more important to me. I realized I couldn't lie anymore.

The more help you get, the better. And the more time you spend being sober, the better. If a person has a problem and admits it, even for just a day, it's not wasted. It's never wasted. When you stop waking up in the morning with the same clothes on, feeling hung over, nauseated or sick, your life is better.

How has everyone reacted to your alcoholism and recovery?

RL: I went to a wedding and someone said, "It's a wedding, toast the groom." He didn't know I couldn't have a drink. It's not about one drink. It's about what one drink represents and what it could lead to -- losing my sobriety. I would have to start over at day one. Some people say, "You're not drinking anymore? Oh, have one drink." People don't understand. You've got to be sober for yourself. We were selfish when we were drunks, and now we've got to be even more selfish and vigilant being sober. We have to remember where we used to be.

Now I'm a sober man going back to places I love. I love going back to restaurants where I might have had an embarrassing evening. I go back without fear. That's one of the pleasures of recovering -- retracing your tracks and doing it with dignity. I have an essay in the book about Bruce Springsteen. He is one of my favorites, but I humiliated myself in front of this guy. When I got sober, he accepted my apology. Eight years later, he lets me use his quote to open my book. That's a great beginning, middle and end.

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