Stand-up comics made good livings throughout the second half of the 20th century feeding the public’s appetite for Take my wife/girlfriend/commitmentphobe boyfriend/hang-ups, please jokes. But with psychopharmaceuticals so readily available and the commitmentphobe for whom the sitcom Seinfeld was named now a committed husband and father, the popularity of confessional comedy routines about men who can’t get it up or keep it under wraps may have peaked.
Such a change in cultural tastes hits a comedian like Richard Lewis particularly hard: Long before George Costanza’s fictional insecurities, complexes, and masturbation fantasies were prime-time material, Lewis’ disarmingly self-deprecatory, fictionalized riffs on his own nonfiction anxieties had made him one of the most successful practitioners of Jewish-neurotic shtick in the business.
And he worked that vein like a masochism junkie. A hit on the club circuit and a favorite on late-night comedy talk shows in his sneakers and black-on-black wardrobe, the Prince of Pain would shamble, slouch, run fingers through his tumble of dark hair, and bemoan his fate as the messed-up son of messed-up parents: He’s bad at sex, bad at relationships, a bad therapy patient, a bad Jew, a hopeless (but nevertheless appealing) mess.
With funny-functioning-family-guy observations replacing funny-screwup-single-guy stories everywhere else, The Other Great Depression, an accretion of essays approaching an autobiography, arrives at a particularly good time in the unmarried, 53-year-old Lewis’ career – and life. The author subtitles his book ”How I’m overcoming, on a daily basis, at least a million addictions and dysfunctions and finding a spiritual (sometimes) life,” and he’s not kidding. Behind the familiar exaggerated personality of a miserable man turns out to be a man even more miserable than comedy-club audiences can conceive. Plus, Lewis announces with jittery courage, he’s a raging, recovering drunk. ”I was an alcoholic for the better part of two decades,” he declares.
Although he’s been sober for almost seven years, Lewis writes with an addict’s jumpy restlessness, staggering from hurt to hurt, from tensely jokey confession to confession, from twitchy spiritual discovery to discovery. His literary style is unsteady and stained with bar-glass rings of cliche (”I was drinking with such reckless abandon that I was spiraling out of control”; ”I was at the end of my rope as they say”). His narrative can’t walk a straight line, and he veers from incident to incident, sloshing and spilling time. ”Alcoholism had me by the throat and my punch lines were willingly put in mothballs,” he writes about a period when he stopped doing stand-up. ”So it went for a few years…this was soon after I had finished four seasons costarring…in the television series Anything but Love.” But then in the next paragraph he begins, ”A few years before I bottomed,” going on to describe his embarrassing, drunken behavior at a fancy movie premiere. Are these few years the same few years?
It may not matter. The weird power of this urgent, nervous, heartfelt book doesn’t lie in the individual facts, however eyebrow-raising (he lost his virginity in his parents’ bed, he makes all his girlfriends watch Last Tango in Paris), but in the amassed mess of those million dysfunctions – of which the messiest is his complicated hating, needing, addictive attraction-repulsion to women.
And this, he forthrightly, unpopularly describes, only became worse once he no longer had drink to fog up his actions: ”Women…came leaping into my life faster than a speeding p – -y once I gave up alcohol.” A priapic success at attracting and bedding beauties, he freaks when they have the bad luck to fall in love with him. ”Acting out with a woman while I’m involved with another woman is, for me, almost like taking a drink again,” he writes; he also wrestles with his erotic predilection for much younger babes (”I think being with someone my age would be like settling for the mother of my dreams instead of the woman of my dreams”).
This isn’t a nice book, a coherent book, or even much of a funny one. But it’s an honest one, which, for a comic, is an act as risky as commitment, and as liberating. B