Recovering Comedians

I'm meeting Richard Lewis in a bar, in part because his new movie is called Drunks, but largely because I must, for personal, therapeutic reasons, hear the famously neurotic, anxious comedian kvetch about women and shrinks--two of his favorite topics--while we laugh and cry into large tumblers of whiskey.

I need to see his trademark: a desperate clutch at his head as he recounts dates from Hell even worse than my own. No dice. Lewis orders diet Coke with lemon. I politely follow suit. "For what it's worth," he tells me, "I've been on the road for a long time, so years ago I went on a health kick. Stopped red meat. Stopped drinking." On top of this, Lewis is now kicking stand-up--wrapping up what may be his last comedy tour. "I was burned out after over 20 years," he says. "Not to sound pretentious but I've accomplished everything: sold out Carnegie Hall, HBO specials... I've lost my passion." Wow, he's not joking. That explains Drunks, a deadly serious independent film in which Lewis stars as a recovering junkie and boozer who has a break-down during an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. This is the future Lewis envisions: dramatic roles. But he shakes his head soberly at his prospects. "Switching gears in this town is near impossible. At a screening of Leaving Las Vegas [in which Lewis had a cameo] I saw all these studio heads I knew. They went 'Jesus, you were fantastic--and you didn't touch your head.' It hit me: My God, they have pigeonholed me. So when I did Drunks, I privately said, 'I'm not touching my head the whole movie.'" If Drunks doesn't get Lewis into the right auditions, he says, "I'll join Cirque du Soleil--I'll be in Russia in a week." And if it hits? "In the sequel," he says, finally cracking a smile, "I'll touch my head."