Richard Lewis' Last Laugh

Here's how the comedian triumphedover a life of addiction and depression.

By Robert Epstein, Jessica Rogers, published on November 1, 2001 - last reviewed on August 18, 2004

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."

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.