Richard Lewis’ Stand-Up Start Came From A Dark Place

One event ‘catapulted’ Lewis to the stage
Richard Lewis’ Stand-Up Start Came From A Dark Place

Young Richard Lewis sold jokes to other comedians rather than taking the stage to tell them himself. Then a tragedy changed everything. When his father died while Lewis was in his early 20s, the son was left with a “tremendous void,” according to Betsy Borns’ book Comic Lives: Inside the World of American Stand-Up Comedy. He filled that emptiness by finally taking matters — and the microphone — into his own hands.

“My father died and two months later I was onstage in Greenwich Village. It catapulted me there,” he remembered. “I was going to do it eventually, I think, but it got me there much faster. And for the next few years, my life was consumed with stand-up.”

Lewis’ father, Bill, was a prosperous and charismatic businessman. “My father was so well known as a caterer and so booked up that he was actually booked on the weekend of my bar mitzvah,” Lewis once said, “so I had to have my party on the Tuesday.”

In a strange way, his successful father’s passing finally freed Lewis to fail. “There was nothing for me to lose,” he said, “as far as being embarrassed or ashamed if it didn’t work out.”

From there, it was simply a matter of finding his people. “I always tell comics, ‘Hang out with people on your level and those just above you,’” he later told Vanity Fair. “You’ve got to see the craft that’s good, and you have to be able to feel less alone if you’re with a group of people that are still trudging along to try to find a way onstage. I hung out with comics who were successful and my friends—Elayne BooslerLarry DavidJimmie Walker, Michael Preminger, David Brenner, and Steve Landesberg. Those six people, we really cared about each other’s sets. We’d go to the club and listen to the sets. We didn’t think twice about going, ‘Hey, you know, instead of that joke, what about this?’”

In other words, clubs were where young Lewis found a surrogate family. He thought of Rodney Dangerfield as “an amazing great uncle.” Phyllis Diller was “like the mother I never had who loved my work, saw my shows, called me,” Lewis said. “My wife and I would go to her house often, and she’d take me out to dinner.” Jonathan Winters was a childhood idol Lewis visited regularly over the last ten years of the older comic’s life. “It was heaven,“ he said. “His brain was Picasso in stand-up.”

But none of those replacement family members could take the place of the real thing. “I worshiped my father,” he posted on Twitter/X just last year. “I first went on stage about 8 weeks after he died. I guess I always hungered for his approval in his absence. It’s a bottomless pit. I don’t recommend it.”


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