Richard Lewis: ‘From Hell’ and Back to Atlantic City.
If you were one of the millions of people who remained in their seats to watch the television commercials during this past February’s Super Bowl XLV, you probably saw the debut of a Snickers ad featuring veteran comedian, writer and actor Richard Lewis, along with Roseanne Barr.
Lewis, dressed in his usual all-black wardrobe, plays a logger who “just isn’t feeling” his chain-sawing lumber gig on this particular day and, wearing his trademark dark shades, chain saw in hand, tells his site manager just that. Suddenly, a fellow logger, dressed in traditional lumberjack garb, comes over and hands Lewis (“Tony”) a Snickers and essentially tells him that the candy bar will get him through the day and will get him to feel the job at hand. Of course, once Lewis takes a bite, he’s transformed into the real “Tony,” with a thick red beard, a hulk of a body and arms each the size of Lewis’ trim, 63-year-old figure.
That following Monday, water coolers and coffee machines across the country were doubtlessly surrounded by office workers laughing about the ad, especially the part when Barr gets hit by a runaway tree trunk and is knocked to the ground.
Today, a few months after the commercial originally aired — it has well over 1.2 million views on You Tube alone, at the time of this writing — the 30-second spot represents more than just another well-paying gig for Lewis, who kicks off a spring mini-tour in Atlantic City at Harrah’s Resort on Friday, May 13. In fact, Lewis considers himself lucky to have done the commercial at all as it has brought his image back into the mainstream during the time between Curb Your Enthusiasm seasons (Lewis says he just wrapped up the upcoming eighth season of the award-winning HBO series he stars in with Seinfeld creator Larry David). Now people call him “Mr. Snickers” and even Wikipedia considers the spot as one of the most important things Lewis has done in his career — right up there with 40 years of stand-up, being named one of the Top 50 comics of all-time by Comedy Central, his several TV stints and cameos, his more than 100 appearances on late-night TV shows, his acclaimed film roles (especially in the superb Drunks), his many HBO specials, his recurring role on Curb, and the fact that he is credited — even by the Yale Book of Quotations — with coming up with the popular phrase “The [blank] from hell.” Obviously, it’s safe to say that Lewis has built a respectful career that goes way beyond chocolate, nougat, peanuts and caramel.
“The thing that was really wild,” Lewis tells Atlantic City Weekly during a recent phone chat from California, where he resides with his wife of several years, Joyce Lapinsky, ”was being on a Super Bowl ad for the first time. About 115 million people saw the first ad and then YouTube. So now I walk down the street, and it could be like people who have no clue what the history of American comedy is, and they call me from their car like I’m a Snickers hand puppet, [or a] Muppet. A lot of little children and people from other countries are like, ‘There’s Mr. Snickers!’ Then I find myself defending myself. I mean it’s a good thing. I love Snickers. And I freeze them in the refrigerator, but . . . .”
Lewis feels equally gracious about the upcoming season of the overwhelmingly successful Curb, in which he plays himself as lead man Larry David’s best friend; his role in the upcoming movie Vamps, which he stars in, along with Alicia Silverstone, Wallace Shawn, Sigourney Weaver and Malcolm McDowell; and even his Friday the 13th show in Atlantic City, the city where Lewis has a long history, dating back to when he used to stroll the Boardwalk with his family, who drove down from the northern part of the state during Lewis’ childhood summers.
“First of all, I love playing in Atlantic City,” says Lewis. “Occasionally my family [which lived in North Jersey] would go down to Atlantic City. I was real young and it was so boring for me.”
But once Lewis started making a name for himself in the comedy world in the 1970s, he was actually playing the resort, as well as “nearly every venue” in Las Vegas and across the country.
“I was trying to think of places I haven’t played,” says Lewis. “So I played Utah for the first time. It was unbelievable! I went to Armageddon [mode] immediately in my brain, but I don’t know how to say it other than I got four standing ovations in a row and these were Mormons. I had no idea. I went on Wikipedia an hour before the show, so I had some semblance of what their belief system was.”
Lewis, whose 2001 memoir, The Other Great Depression, tells about his life as a recovering alcoholic, has been sober going on 17 years.
“I’ve been in A.C. out of my mind and crazed,” recalls Lewis of his drinking and drugging days. “I’ve been in A.C. sober and the latter has been better; my shows have been better —but it doesn’t matter. I remember years ago, after I had made my rounds of just about every venue in the country, from Carnegie Hall to nightclubs to steak houses, you name it, and I said I just want to be picked up and led, almost blindfolded, to the backstage and get there a couple minutes before, and hear my name announced and be riddled with fear because, you know, I don’t ever really know what I’m going to say, and I don’t have an act and I don’t bring notes on stage — I haven’t for years.”
Between work writing a new television pilot, which he just completed with an old friend from Saturday Night Live, and wrapping up filming on the new season of Curb (“I have a feeling that it’ll premiere in a few months and I also think that I’m really heavy in the first half of the year. I did one episode in particular [with a lot of] nudity, but it was the most fun that all of us I think ever had — because all of us are in it together. It was my favorite episode in the eight years.”), Lewis has been spending “about 80 hours at hotel rooms” in recent weeks, “going over thousands of premises that I will hardly remember three percent of, but that’s the way I prepare. And I’ve been off the road for a while, so my first show will be there, in Atlantic City. So I’m going to be like shot out of a cannon when I get on that stage.
“I’m starting to pack now. Another one of my addictions. I start packing for tours like weeks before and my wife is like, ‘Why are your suitcases out?’ And I go, ‘Well, I have the socks done.’ So that’s a problem and I’m trying to work on that. It really is. I go, ‘I have all the underwear and all the socks. I have all my AA batteries and my tapes.’ It’s really pathetic and it ruins the bedroom because I have all these suitcases out. But, you know, I’m out of my mind. I’m crazy and she knows it and she tolerates most of this stuff thankfully.
One of Lewis’ many TV cameos was on a 2004 episode of the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, which stars Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen. So, what does a recovering alcoholic and drug user who lives in Los Angeles think of what’s happened to Sheen in recent months?
“I think the whole thing is relatively pathetic, mostly for his children,” says Lewis. “I mean, I know Charlie, I know his family, I’m friends with Martin [Sheen, Charlie’s father] and I tried to help Charlie years ago. He obviously has a lifestyle that he believes in, and I don’t moralize about that, but [Sheen’s recent stand-up] tour, I mean — even if you’re an active drug addict or an alcoholic, it’s almost impossible not to see that this is a death waiting to happen.
"I know a lot of sex addicts. And you know, it’s all the same thing — food, sex, drugs, booze. It fills a hole and life’s tough for everybody, I get it. But if he wants to live a life like High Hefner, there’s nothing wrong with that, but — I had a close friend who was a sex addict and I mean that’s all he lived for. But it’s the same thing with doing drugs, you miss out on a lot of things, like the kids. And I’d ask my friend, ‘How’s your kid?’ And when you hear things like, ‘I think he’s running for Senate,’ you know what I mean? He doesn’t know what’s going on. He might as well be loaded. But the problem with telling a sex addict is saying ‘You’re having too much fun.’ So that part of it, it’s [Sheen’s] choice. It certainly doesn’t seem like a great environment to raise children in, so on that side of it I’ll moralize a little bit, but the drug side will kill him. If he wants to have it all, you can’t. No one can. He’s gotten tons of support out here [in Los Angeles] you know, and we’re like, OK, you did your thing, but you need help.”
Lewis, on the other hand — aside from his tour-packing disorder — is doing just fine, and experiencing a tremendous wave of creativity these days. The man who on stage is known for his peripatetic presence, “pacing, clutching at his hair, doing a kvetch ballet during each performance,” as described by one writer, may be known as the Prince of Pain, or the King of Neurosis — due to his edgy and always intense performances — but at least it’s better than Mr. Snickers. A more apt moniker, however, could be “Mr. Busy,” as Lewis has had a very busy first half of 2011.
“I’ve been working,” he says. “Trying to get that [pilot] done before I get to Atlantic City. But Curb’s done, the movie’s done, so I have all these things done. It’s all good.”
Where: Harrah’s Resort, A.C.
When: Friday, May 13, 9pm
How Much: $20
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