Richard Lewis Was a Late Night Favorite—And a Singular Talent

I can’t remember the precise first time I saw Richard Lewis, but I know it was early in his career, before he became a regular presence on late-night television.

It was surely on one of the many visits I made to the emerging center of the stand-up comedy world, The Comedy Store, in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. A group of us, young colleagues from newspapers around the country who were writing about television at the time, made semi-annual trips to Los Angeles in that era, and we made it a point to get down to the Comedy Story at least once during each of those tours.

This was a heady time for stand-up. On any given night you were likely to see a performer who subsequently became a legend. I first saw Billy Crystal at The Comedy Store; he slayed the room like a gleeful gladiator. Robin Williams, on the cusp of his first season as Mork, left the crowd literally breathless from gasping laughs.

We saw Letterman in between his short-lived morning show and the introduction of Late Night. Dave blew the room to smithereens. Andy Kaufman was wild, unpredictable, unfathomable, and hilarious. Jay Leno lived up to his status as the most polished stand-up of the bunch. Richard Pryor made every person at every table sit up and be prepared to have his/her consciousness shook, rattled and rolled.

And regularly, in that mix, was Richard Lewis, who strutted and fretted his minutes on the stage, waving one hand through his massive mane of dark hair, dredging up angst and laughs from his perpetually tortured psyche.

You could always tell which comics the others admired and respected, because they would be standing somewhere on the side or in the back, watching and absorbing the acts they knew were singular and special. Lewis was always on that list.

His was not an act easily elevated to the higher steps on the comedy ladder: the sit-com career, the movie career. He had some movie roles, in films like Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Leaving Las Vegas. And he did manage to star for four years in an ABC sitcom with Jamie Lee Curtis called Anything But Love. That one isn’t widely remembered, and it didn’t launch Lewis to an ongoing career in starring roles (although Jamie Lee did all right for herself).

What continued to distinguish Richard Lewis was his genuine comic id, the one I had seen on stage. It endeared him to the comics who hosted late-night shows, especially to David Letterman, who had him on as a guest no fewer than 56 times. (Thanks to the great Don Giller, the nonpareil archivist of the Letterman canon, for that stat.)

Dave was famously picky about guests, but he did have a number of favorites among his old comedy colleagues from Comedy Store days. Richard Lewis was in the latter group for sure, but he also was among those favored by Letterman because he delivered. There were always laughs of recognition in that agitated, put-upon persona.

The Letterman audience knew that Richard would likely touch something off in Dave, something a little competitive, a little nostalgic, more than a little affectionate. But always funny; reliably funny.

The internal war Lewis seemed always to be waging with that psyche left its scars on him. He had struggles that likely affected his career. But when his long-time pal Larry David handed him the perfect role on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—as a character named Richard Lewis—he enjoyed a revival that his old comedy colleagues celebrated.

Late night TV played a significant role in letting a wider world see the performer I had the privilege see in his career’s early days, along with a hall-of-fame roster of comedic talent. Richard Lewis fit right in.


LateNighter editor-at-large Bill Carter has written about the television industry for over 40 years, mostly at the New York Times, where he was the chief television correspondent for 26 years. 

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