tv Talk to Al Jazeera Al Jazeera December 29, 2015 4:30am-5:01am EST
that story and many others on our website, al jazeera.com. the story stop right now, guinea in west africa being declared ebola free after more than 2500 deaths. the address again, al jazeera.com >> this week on talk to al jazeera actor and comedian richard lewis >> my goal is to make people laugh. first of all, i'm not entirely-- not depressed a lot of the time, either, by the w-- lemme just-- i don't wanna paint this rosy picture. >> often described as neurotic and angst ridded, lewis reflects on his rise from early stand up comedian, to becoming a household name. >> i was broke for a long time. but i was still-- felt like a million bucks, broke, living in horrible places, come-- going into a club and seeing these famous comedians
come over to me, go-- you have it, you're gonna make it! >> he's out with a new book. that showcases his jokes, illustrated by carl titolo. reflections from hell is richard lewis's guide on how not to live. it focuses a lot on his parents. > i had a-- not a great upbringing. was an alcoholic and a drug addict for a long time. i was with a lot-- i was in horrible relationships by my own doing. i wasn't-- wasn't always their fault, i own up to a lotta that. >> as an actor, lewis starred in larry david's curb your enthusiasim. the first met when they were 12. >> in-- a-- a summer camp, sports camp. hated each other, never saw each other till we were comedians. became inseparable best friends. that ran over a course of almost a decade. larry came over my house, you had asked me. and he said, "would you mind playing yourself?" >> and now he's staring in another television series called blunt talk. >> playing a psychiatrist is really a trip for me, 'cause i been in-- in and outta therapy and psychiatry for f--
almost my whole life. >> i spoke to richard lewis in new york. >> you been sober for 21 years- >> almost 21. >> --almost 21 years sober. >> yes. >> you're married. >> married, ten years, you know, son- >> and have a great career. >> it's been goin' on for 45 years, and all sorts of stuff. it's really been-- this is, like, a really great time. touring, and a new book, and a new series, >> i-- (tap) y-- you know, you've got all this great stuff goin' on, you're a household name. so then why in the world do you call your book reflections from hell: richard lewis' guide on how not to live? life can't be that bad. >> no, it's not really-- well, i had a-- not a great upbringing. was an alcoholic and a drug addict for a long time. i was with a lot-- i was in horrible relationships by my own doing. i wasn't-- wasn't always their fault, i own up to a lotta that. made a lot of amends to people. but-- so that was my sweet spot-- in comedy. my-- my father died before i was a comedian. my brother was ol--
that point-- i was really young. i was a mistake, there was no doubt in my mind. i-- w-- when i was born, my parents-- my father looked like moses, and my mother was already doing-- she was already in a eugene o'neill play, going down. my sister eloped when i when was 12. >> (laugh) >> and my brother was reading-- you know-- allen ginsburg poems in the village, and i'm there alone with my poor mother. it was like a combination of long day's journey into night and odd couple. >> and you write a lot about your family- >> so that's why my-- needs this book. here-- but the real-- right to the nitty gritty, cha-- carl nicholas titolo is an artist i met 35 years ago through an old buddy. and i was blown away by this guy. and he's a legendary professor at the school of visual arts in new york for 40 years. but his-- his art style was very close to my riffing, free associating. and-- i always wanted to collaborate with him, but didn't know how. >> and then-- about-- two years ago i came up with an idea, actually, "look, i have some thoughts. they're not jokes. some of them may be jokes, but-- n-- i didn't care about
them, i ca-- "any thought, and i'll call you with five and six--" he goes, "i got-- i like this one, goodbye." and then he would do an image and-- as it turned out, there have been several collaborations like this. not to be grandiose, but edgar allan poe did the raven and manet illustrated it on each page-- >> but, you know, b-- but how 'bout a comedian's jokes being illustrated. is that original? has anybody ever done that? >> probably not. i think it's really authentic, and for me, i been-- you know-- if i don't-- i've had-- i-- i-- when i grew up, i had idols, you know, when-- in the arts. the arts saved my life when i was a kid. the family was really dysfunctional. and-- and so if i saw a movie as a kid and i couldn't believe how great it was, i-- maybe i didn't understand the art form. like, let's say i-- when i was 12 or-- i saw dr. strangelove. i would sit after the movie was over-- maybe i didn't-- i obviously didn't get the total understanding of-- of the-- the-- the russians and this, and the cold war and all. but i knew i saw
something so spectacular that, in my head, something like that, a bar was set. but then i got older and i went to college, and i saw the-- and then the new wave of films came in, with-- with truffaut and godard. and then i saw cassavetes movies, and then i would listen to miles davis and hendrix. then i heard lenny bruce and-- and then became friends, and saw richard pryor. i went, these-- this-- these bars, and that's just-- it's just, you know, one-- a few names. i said, "if i ever go on stage, and i did it about a month or two after my dad died-- i said, "i have to reach for th-- i have to unravel myself on stage, as fearlessly as possible, and see if i get laughs." because i really did feel pretty much like a chagall painting, you know, but i was sort of tethered to nothing. because they were-- i really didn't have much of a family life. so-- the audience became my family >> well, and all that led to what at times was crippling depression, you had serious problems with addiction. wha-- what do you tell people who think, "here's a guy who had s-- all
sorts of successful sitcoms, movies, books, and all this, and they say-- h-- they can't understand-- >> i know. >> --how somebody like you coulda gone through that. >> i dunno even know what-- i know what success means, okay? i get it. and i've learned it-- i've earned it. i-- i-- nothing mattered more to me than be-- than finding myself on stage and becoming authentic. and i was broke for a long time. but i was still-- felt like a million bucks, broke, living in horrible places, come-- going into a club and seeing these famous comedians come over to me, go-- they-- "you have it, >> (laugh) >> you're gonna make it. but you gotta work your ass off. you can't-- you gotta do this 24/7." these were the-- the greats telling me this. >> --has anxiety always been kind of the fuel to your comedy? you've been dubbed the "prince of pain, and you-- a-- and in the book, you know-- you-- you describe yourself as "the best sparring partner-- i can have." so does beating yourself up defuse the anxiety, or does it actually make it better? >> that's a great question.
god, i haven't seen my therapist in quite a while, >> (laugh) >> just reminded me. i am not as unhappy as-- people think i am. but my sweet spot, and there's-- and one of the lines is that "desperation is my sweet spot." that's a craft that i honed. and even though i got so-- i got-- even though i got sober, i got more grateful, i got more spiritual, in my old-- in my later years. still, when i hear, "ladies and gentlemen, richard lewis, and my goal is to make people laugh. first of all, i'm not entirely-- not depressed a lot of the time, either, by the w-- lemme just-- i don't wanna paint this rosy picture. but it's much rosier than being near death on crystal meth, let's put it that way. >> but you write in the book, you've got one that says, "happiness is overrated. there's nothing to fear but life itself." >> well, because life has dealt me a lotta bad blows. nothing close to-- majority of the world. and what bugs me is
that when people say, "hey, hey, you hang out with the stones." or, "yeah you were--" you know, i used to work for the clintons a lot when he was running, and-- and gore, and-- "you're in the white house, and how can you be t--" i go, "hey-- hey-- hey, time out, man. you know, i suffer from depression. i have obsessive-compulsive disorder." i work my butt off, you know, for the-- i-- i have no children, so it's all th-- my art, until i met my wife. and then it was takin' care of her. and my sister has four kids, ten grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and i try to be some kinda role model. >> (laugh) >> sort of frightening, i understand. >> does she let them watch you? >> huh? well, not until they're 30. >> (laughter) you know, talkin' about your family-- your-- your-- your good friend larry david-- he says that you use "shrink"-- as much as teenagers-- use-- "like." and- >> yeah, i know. >> --so pardon me for acting like a shrink, but let's talk about your family. i mean, you really go after your parents in this book, especially your mom- >> i know. >> and you write, "the worst audience i ever had were my parents."
"my mother tried to switch me at birth." >> yeah. >> "after i was born, my mother asked her friends to breastfeed (laugh) me." how much of a role did your mom play in-- in your dark years? >> well, what do you think? >> (laugh) >> listen, i-- here's the deal. i made amends with my mother when she-- my mother was very ill, she had a lot of emotional problems in her late 30s on, and until she got old. and-- i tried my best to-- understand it. but again, realize, back, you know, when she was having her problems, i was an active addict. so, you know, i couldn't have been easy either. so-- i mean, when she really lost it at the end. my sister made-- my older-- i have an older sister and an older brother. she was with her and made sure she would get the best care, and so did i. and-- all of us tried-- to do what we could do. and-- i remember something when she was in the hospital, and she was near death. and she really f-- didn't know who she
was at that point. i-- and i grabbed onto her. and i said, "look, i was far from perfect. neither one of us were. but-- i love you, and-- and-- and please forgive anything i did. and if you-- and if you can-- 'cause i forgive you for everything." i mean, i did, and i do. what's the p-- i didn't ho-- i don't hold onto it. and i said, "just squeeze me." and you have to understand, this is at a point where she was insane basically. and she grabbed my hand and squeezed it, and i'll-- (tap) you know, i'll always remember that. but that doesn't mean that i can't mine those feelings, because we did have a pretty tough relationship. and i-- and i'm no comic if i'm not tellin' the truth. comedian, rather. i prefer that word. >> and one of the truths you like to tell is describing things as being "from hell." and-- >> yes, which is now-- literally-- n-- c-- >> --yes, and i was gonna say, one of the funniest headlines i have ever read was something fro-- that said, "yale university gives richard lewis hell--" (laugh) >> i know. that's-- (laugh) yeah. >> --and what it was referring to is the fact that the yale--
book of quotations gave you credit for that phrase. anything being "from hell" is-- now- >> well-- well, listen- >> --you are the-- the author of it. >> listen. it's-- in light of the fact that the world's gone in-- has been insane forever, anyway. i mean, it's just-- now we're-- now-- we're living now, and we see what's going on. it means very little to me, except in a very small swath of-- of humanity in my life, i popularized a phrase back in the '70s and '80s, when i did about 50 or 60 david letterman shows. and ev-- and i-- and i chose that metaphor, like-- and i was-- probably-- yes, i was an active alcoholic, so i never took responsibility for my actions. so it was like, "oh, i just came from-- a wedding from hell, or "a family reunion from hell." 'cause i always felt like, "i'm the victim." so i used that all the time. and it was then-- but then i got bummed out, because i saw in ads, like in movie ads, "boss from hell." i said, "this is-- this is startin' to bug me, 'cause they're startin' to-- market it." and-- and i know i popularized it, so i tried to get to this
bartlett's quotations-- >> 'cause bartlett (sic) said no to you. >> said no to me. this editor said, "nah, i'm sorry, my-- my nieces--" he was-- he was probably 60s at the time, he says, "my nieces just came back from college after their semester, and they said, 'oh, it was a semester from hell.'" i went, "oh, no kidding. they said that? they-- then they must-- you know-- you mean they weren't watching letterman late-night shows in college, back in the '80s and is-- in the nine--" you know. so i finally couldn't take it anymore, and outta the blue, yale saved the day, and-- > and you've been immortalized as-- >> and bartlett's-- >> --being from hell. >> (laugh) yeah. >> it's the "lunch from hell" >> what? what did you say? >> i'm saying, this is the lunch from hell... >> where did you hear rhat expression? >> girlfriend? >> you see what i mean? kills me... richard lewis and larry david are now the best of friends, but it it wasn't always that way. more on their bro-mance ahead on talk to al jazeera.
>> i'm antonio morra you're watching talk to al jazeera my guest this week, is comedian richard lewis. >> who's-- who's your favorite comedian of all time? >> well, there's-- there's two. lenny bruce, for what he did for the first amendment and his-- body of his work, but perhaps the greatest standup comedian other than, i think, lenny-- and maybe the-- arguably, the greatest standup comedian, is richard pryor. because richard pryor had so many tools. so richard pryor, to me, is the greatest individual standup of all time. and-- and lenny bruce, the most important. >> you became successful pretty early. you started-- goin'-- >> i was on the tonight show, i was on with carson in two-- almost two and a half years, and that's not-- that's pretty
fast. and-- i had a lotta breaks, too. i had-- letterman gave me-- he came over to me, and he says, "you know, you're-- you're good with johnny. some nights are better than others. but when you do standup, the camera's right there." and if i was-- and i w-- i'm real f-- kinetic, and-- no, i-- what did you ask me? >> (laugh) w-- you were talkin' about-- >> it was so prof-- oh yeah, well letterman says, "oh--" >> yes, he did, exactly. he's-- called me in in '81, before his late night show, for-- and he said, "you can come on as often as you want, in fact, you can write for the show, if you wanna move back to new york." i went, "no." i just had moved to l.a. five years or so before. and i said-- but he says, "don't do standup anymore, on tv. i mean, specials is one thing, and concerts and everything, you know." but-- he says, "when you come on my show, he tells me, "you're just gonna sit." and he set a precedent for me, which i never broke. i have never done standup on television. so, like, when new shows come out and they say, "oh, we-- we want-- do five, six--" i says, "no, no. what-- what is this, open mic night?" you know, b-- been doin' it 45 years. it
doesn't happen often. >> ooh i finally got black k-swiss that's a whole other story... anyways... so >> you're goofy... >> i'm g-... >> yeah... you from one little thing from to another, then you start talking about your shoes... >> which by the way... i know you mreant that- in yiddish goofy means- quite a man... >> what do you think-- after all those years of-- being on letterman, and how important he was to your career, the fact that he's decided to hang it up? >> well, i mean, that was his decision. we were never close friends, i was just lucky that he was a fan. >> how important was he to you and to other comedians? >> he was the most important-- show to be on - so then i, you know, auditioned for a show after letterman sort of made me somewhat of a known, you know-- comedian. more than that, after eight or ten years, and 50 or 60 shots. and i auditioned for a sitcom and i got the role opposite, you know, jamie lee curtis. and, you know, me being, you know, her l-- her lover, ultimately, was-- you know, i got ridiculed by j-- i would say over 100,000 cabbies >> (laugh)
>> in america. and before we had television sex, they used to-- the cabs in new york go, "hey, why don't you sleep with her? >> (laugh) >> it's jamie lee curtis." i went, "it's a sitcom, you moron. i'm not the writer." but then i used to get paranoid and i used to fax and e-mail. not e-mail, it was then fax. "when do-- when do i sleep with ms. curtis? this is-- i'm g-- i can't take it. i'm walking around in disguises all over america." >> (laugh) >> so that was great. >> and so now you're back in the sitcom world as you were saying... >> well, then larry-- well, then i-- then, larry david-- >> well then you did, of course you did-- curb your enthusiasm-- >> yeah, and that lasted-- that ra-- ran over the course of almost a decade. and i cou-- and larry came over my house, you had asked me. and he said, "would you mind playing yourself?" i-- because he knew that i-- i did a scene in leaving las vegas. and i did-- i played a junkie in this indie which i really love called drunks. and-- and i like doing se-- some serious stuff. i mean, it was fun bein'-- being in a mel brooks and stuff, but i enjoy doing other stuff. >> so what did larry tell you? >> larry says, "i know, does-- 'cause it do-- it's-- i was typecast-- plenty by then, not getting-- "oh, that richard lewis,
he's-- oh, he's .... >> so you might as well just play yourself, was larry's-- >> yeah, well-- well, he didn't say that, but i had to make the de-- first of all, to turn down larry david would have been a huge career-- at-- at 49-- i was 50. i said, you know, "who gets this opportunity?" and who knew it would be such a cult hit? so i said, "i'm in." but i made-- but i m-- you know, we were born in the same hospital. i had the right to ask him for anything i wanted, and we had others-- >> (laugh) >> other weird, mystical things happen in our life. met when teenagers, hated one another, didn't know each other till we were comics, and then we-- i recognized him. i went, "you're that (bleep)?" >> (laugh) >> "you're that ass?"-- >> you became friends and then you realized he was the-- the guy- >> i-- we were enemies in a c-- >> --from-- from camp. --in a day camp. in-- a-- a summer camp, sports camp. hated each other, never saw each other till we were comedians. became inseparable best friends. i must have put a few back, i went, it was like, "you look like rosemary's baby to me. >> (laugh) >> like, half a sheep, half a comic." whatever i say, i was drunk. and he gets nervous-- he's-- he wasn't a drinker or a drug guy. and-- and then-- and i-- we realized that we were the same
two kids. not to mention, born in the same hospital, and i had to stay around, 'cause i was a-- a premie. so he was born three days later, but i was still there, going, "come on. >> (laugh) >> hurry up." you know, >> (laugh) >> "wha-- what can i be? i don't wanna live with a caterpillar." >> (laugh) >> so things worked out, fortunately. but-- he was mocking me then, he tried to strangle me with my mother's umbilical cord. we fought-- we still fight-- we still fight. but he said, "do you wanna play yourself?" i went, "yes. with you, i'll do anything." and thank god i did. because the show-- >> did it-- did-- s-- > --was such a b-- groundbreaking sitcom. i'm-- i'm a fan of the show. >> i think it's the funniest thing that's ever been on television, personally. but y-- w-- did it change the way people perceived you, the fact that you were playing yourself? >> well, i-- i was more narcissistic on that show than i am, believe it or not, >> (laugh) >> because-- they-- they were-- that's the kinda characters that they were. and sometimes i was a little uncomfortable, and they would make me go a little deeper into my-- into ego. like, you know-- you know-- but some of them it was so hilarious, i an-- he's-- has such great
instincts, i said, "you know what? let it go." you know, "let me just be-- a real jerk." like, well, beautiful g-- he always gave me the most beautiful girlfriends. of course-- and he never let me, you know, ever >> (laugh) eve-- not even the slightest kiss >> (laugh) for ten years. i mean, these were drop-dead killers. >> any chance you could convince him to do more seasons of curb? >> i don't know, i-- i-- but we discussed it, and i-- i had never asked him how many episodes i'd be in, what-- what is the ending. i asked him practically nothing, i-- really, that's the way he wanted to work on curb. he was-- less is way more, work with an empty slate, don't know much about what's happ-- "what's the scene again? (snap) action." you know, that's-- and it came out better that way. and-- when r-- actors who weren't comedians would come on the set of curb, they were freaked out. >> was it more fun for you? >> well, they eventually, after one take, realize, "wait a minute. i can just say whatever i want, i know what the exposition's-- has to be." that's all ya know. "just say i have to get a haircut but i'm afraid of scissors. >> (laugh) >> just-- that's your deal, and i don't care how you say it,
but get it in." >> just go with it. >> "just get it in there." and then they would do it until they were-- larry was happy, and the producers, and they'd move on. but-- it was a blast. for a comedian, it's a dream come true. >> stlll ahead on, talk to al jazeera richard lewis talks about his next role, playing a shrink. stay with us.
>> this is talk to al jazeera, and i'm antonio morra joining me today is richard lewis from curb your enthusiasm. >> how 'bout the new sitcom you're in-- which is gonna-- >> well, this is-- yeah, it premieres august 22nd, it's-- >> --be on starz with patrick stewart, as you said. it-- it's kind of gone full circle, you're playing a shrink? >> yeah, but i'll tell ya, full circle in another way. for-- as playing a psychiatrist, you know, i run into a lot of these actors on-- i don't watch a lotta tv, i like to watch the news and foreign films and documentaries a lot. and-- but,
you know, i know-- i know the c-- the actors, certainly, and some of these shows have been on for-- and i run-- "hey, mr. lewis." "don't call me mr. lewis, r-- please. richard." "hey, you're doin' great, you won five emmys. the show's fantastic." and-- and i-- and they say, "what are you doin'?" i-- and i-- and i-- i-- i don't wanna mention his name, but-- because i've forgotten. >> (laugh) >> but he's a big star, been on a show for, like, 10 years. young k-- probably 35 by now, t-- 40, he says "richard lewis. oh, god, i grew up on you." "oh, thank you." and, you know, that makes me wanna, like, you know, drink when i hear that. not really, but-- >> (laugh) >> you know what i mean. so i say, "call me richard." i said, "you're a good-- what a success at an early age." and-- and i say that, then i'm starting to feel like i-- you know, my grandfather on the railroad in russia, drinking whiskey, playing a psychiatrist is really a trip for me, 'cause i been in-- in and outta therapy and psychiatry for f-- almost my whole life. and-- but, when i got this o-- offer to do this role-- jonathan ames is a brilliant,
eccentric writer. and he created this show, starring sir patrick stewart-- he doesn't like to be-- he doesn't need to be called "sir." and a great cast. an-- an english newsman who's a drunk, d-- druggie, womanizer-- bad father, you name it. and everyone involved in the show has problems, so i'm the network psychiatrist who comes in to try to save the show. and-- it's-- it's laughable, only in that of all people, after 45 years >> (laugh) >> of beating myself up, i'm trying to hel-- as-- in a role. and i'm enjoying the hell out of it. >> having been in comedy for all these decades now-- what do you think about the state of comedy in-- in the u.s.? you know, the old days in new york, you had comedy clubs in all the neighborhoods. now, it seems like it's-- >> changed pretty dramatically. >> you know, i don't-- i don't-- i-- i made it a point not to watch a lot of comedians when i started getting into it,
because i didn't li-- i'm-- i'm ethical, okay? in a ruthless field. >> you didn't want to steal? >> no, i didn't wanna hear other people talk about their grandfather's sweater, 'cause i would block out "grandfather's sweater, even if i had nothing funny to say about it. maybe forever. it's just the way i am. i-- i-- i-- i really am in love with the craft and treat it like gold. but the state of affairs, you know? there's more edgy comics right now, you know that's-- these roasts, i'm not a fan of roasts. i would roast myself, but that's about it. you know, th-- you know, i'm a first amendment guy, so anything goes, you know. but there's a difference between being an edgy comic, and a brilliant edgy comic-- i'm not talkin' 'bout myself. but-- younger comics coming up who think they're edgy, but there's no premise or really nothing profoundly funny about what they're saying. and if they're getting laughs,
it's because the audience is-- getting a lotta that, maybe, sometimes. and it's sort of dumbed down-- dumbs down the audience, and the-- it sorta makes it easier to get laughs. on the other hand, i think there's a majority of comics now who are brilliant and are edgy. and-- and i'm glad that there's moments when, "whoa, he said that? she said that?" because i-- i would ne-- i would be the last person on the planet to say, "you can't say that, you know. le-- i-- if there's gonna be a consequence, let 'em have it. but, you know, let 'em say it, and then see what happens to them. so-- but in terms in of the clubs and the-- the-- the promoters, the buyers, the club owners, they should all live on devil's island. as far as i-- no-- none of that-- it's all about money for that-- we-- and we-- you know, the artists, we're all about bein' funny and makin' people laugh. >> in his foreword-- larry david says that, "knowing you could cost you a
job, a relationship, (laugh) and quite possibly, your life." should th-- i and all of us in this room be worried? >> no. larry should be worried for saying that publicly. i might kill him. but i love you guys. and you're very pre-- you're one of the most prepared journalists i've ever known. >> (laugh) i'm gonna use that-- >> even though i came in and you called me carlos. >> (laugh) >> really a pleasure, richard. >> right back at ya. >> thank you >> you did your research. >> you're one of the most prepared journalists i've ever known. >> go inside the lives of musical icons. >> i was given a gift... i think i've used it well. >> i want the ballet world to be given the respect that it deserves. >> and global activists. >> i feel compelled to do it, because if i don't do it, who's going to do it. >> revealing conversations you won't find anywhere else.
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