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Richard The Lion – Remembering The Strength Of Richard Lewis’ Comedy

Richard Lewis

As we all do, I find myself comfort-watching, reading, or listening to the work of a dead celebrity near immediately after hearing of their passing. Last night, I chased the news of Richard Lewis’ death by watching his Magical Misery Tour comedy special from 1997. In the special, Lewis is younger but still middle-aged, clad in black, darting across the stage with his magnificent hair flowing (though with less va-va-voom energy than it had in the ’70s and ‘80s when it was an absolute lion’s mane). His hands are gesturing wildly. On the surface, he is a man in turmoil with himself about, well, himself.

It has been 20+ years since I last saw this special. I had forgotten how much energy Lewis brought to stand up. It was like crossing Uncut Gems with a therapy session played for laughs. The special is on Amazon and Tubi. You should give it a watch. It really holds up, but more importantly, it really speaks to something about comedy and culture now.

For whatever reason, Magical Misery Tour was Lewis’ last traditional special. There was an album in 2001 (Live From Hell), stand-up gigs, a couple of books, and pop-ins on TV shows (including as a late night guest, which he always excelled at). But for the last quarter century, Lewis’ comedy was largely defined by his fantastic work on Curb Your Enthusiasm playing an exaggerated version of himself. To be sure, that version of Lewis still mined his angst for laughs, but it’s Larry David’s show, and so the comedy in the scenes they shared has always been more about a dance of annoyance between two old friends and less a pure solo showcase for the “Prince Of Pain” persona that made Lewis a stand-up legend. That’s why watching the special and seeing him in his stand-up element is as recommended as it is revelatory and informative of his on-stage talents. Also his guts.

This is going to take a weird turn but hang in. I’ve been watching a lot of Chef Reactions TikToks where people get dragged for putting 19 cheeseburgers, a tub of cream cheese, and some craisins into a casserole dish to slow-kill their families. Part of the magic comes from seeing how weirdly overconfident these people are in their culinary skills. “This is so good, y’all,” they fib. “My kids can’t get enough,” they outright lie.

In Taylor Tomlinson’s tremendous new comedy special, Have It All (Netflix) she jokes about abundantly confident teens wanting millions of people to see their dance videos and how alien that feels to millennials who would have wanted to die if anyone saw us lip-synching in front of the mirror when we were younger. We’re also watching a court-affirmed con man on the run of a lifetime talking his way into another shot at the White House.

In case you couldn’t tell, I find the power of confidence to be bewildering, dangerous, and fascinating. When someone says they are the GOAT or wears a shirt with their own face on it, I have that thing like people have when they see something that’s supposed to seem human but isn’t: the unconfident valley.

I don’t want to theorize how we got to this place of abundant, exhausting, and reckless overconfidence. Really, I don’t. I just want to note the phenomena and pay my respects to its counter: self-deprecating comedy, an art form that just lost one of its most skilled practitioners, Richard Lewis.

There are, I am sure, all sorts of psychological theories on self-deprecating humor, what inspires it, and what mental health issues it masks. I’m going to ignore all of that and focus on the universal truth of the thing: it’s funny when people fall down and make themselves the point of the bit. Always has been. When I was a kid I used to make kids clap by slamming my head into a table during lunch. This is a base example of the theory that may also explain the scattered nature of this article. There are better, more refined ways to build on this idea and endear yourself to an audience, is what I’m saying.

In the hands of someone like Richard Lewis, “falling down” often looked more like a sprint through his own fears and pain. This brilliantly doubled as a device used to comment on things like addiction, self-image, self-worth, dating, sex, family, religion, and anxiety as an ever-present boot on the neck. Lewis made it personal for us by making it personal for himself, doing it with gusto, creativity, and an allergy to bullshit. It’s why he’s one of the greats, but that kind of comedy and candor scares the hell out of some people. Which makes sense, since our relationship to those kinds of emotions and that kind of comedy is tied to our bent relationship with masculinity and vulnerability and the backward notion that to be open is to be weak and to be strong is to never shut the fuck up about it.

Richard Lewis wasn’t the first comic to get highly personal or channel his insecurities on stage, but he perfected it. There’s a whole wing of comedy dedicated to that kind of thing now, influenced directly or indirectly by Lewis. And thank goodness for it. The term comedic courage is usually defined as telling truth to power, but it’s also having the power to tell your truth and be really seen.

From all accounts, Lewis was loved, lovely, and someone who was grateful for his life and the embrace of his community. I’m sure his memory will be a blessing, as will the lesson he taught us all about not taking ourselves or our problems so seriously that we can’t try to find the funny. Because if you’re not laughing at yourself and your shortcomings, you’re crying. Or you’re a tremendous asshole.