Say what you want about veteran comedian Richard Lewis, odds are he's already said it. Settled into his role as a comic foil for Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lewis revisits his improv roots at, well, the Improv next week. We caught up with him to hear him fall apart firsthand. He did.

"I'm the man who lives for Orlando!" he effused over the phone. One gets the sense that he doesn't really mean it, but anyone bewitched by his nearly 40-year career of self-flagellation should know better than to care.

So what are you wearing right now, Mr. Lewis?

You can call me Richard. I'm wearing a Bob Marley, a phenomenal T-shirt of Bob Marley, and a black suit so when I go to … I've got to do a little post-editing looping for Larry David. We finished the season and there are a couple of lines he said that I apparently mumbled in my Jewish Brando. So he was screaming at me to come in. This is how I dress anyway. But he's so square, Larry. So I walk in there — I might even wear a bandana when I walk in just to get him pissed off — because I'm like an old hippie and he's not. I don't know what happened. We went to school at the same time and I don't know how he missed out on rock & roll. I just don't get it.

Well, I guess internally you've kept similar neuroses running for a good 40 years.

You're absolutely right, you know. We didn't fall far from the tree, from Woody and those kind of guys — born in Brooklyn, neurotic, our mothers not understanding us. The thing about Larry, though, is I love to aggravate him. We just finished the sixth season, which I'm very proud of. `Curb Your Enthusiasm` is a cult kind of show, and I'm just proud to be with a guy I've known since 12.

That doesn't happen very often.

No, it doesn't. Like the e-mails disappearing or the Nixon tapes, there was a gap in our friendship for 13 years. We despised each other at this camp. At the Improv in New York where we both got our big starts, we became literally inseparable and best friends until one night when he just spooked me. And the billion-to-one shot that we would have become best friends as young comedians, and having forgotten that we had already met each other at 12 and hated each other, we laughed and then we almost came to blows again. On Curb Your Enthusiasm — those who watch the show will know — we fight almost all the time.

Was it difficult to bring your kidneys into the whole thing as a prop for comedy?

It's all out of him.

It's all out of him.

But your kidneys are fine, though?

They're fine, but I got to tell you, an old friend of mine, Debra Winger, called me up a year ago when there was a really quick shot of me walking out the hospital looking like a Jewish Scrooge walking right to the cemetery. I had the makeup artist make me up like I was near death, and she was great at it. And Debra Winger said it was one of the best acting performances she'd ever seen, and she's a two-time Oscar nominee … and an old friend, I might add, but who's counting. Coming from people like that, it meant a lot to me, because I lost like 10 pounds for that shot. I did a mini-Raging Bull, except the opposite way.

Did you feel responsible for the psychotherapy boom of the mid-to-late 1980s? Any thank-you cards from the APA?

I can't tell you how many times a frantic publicist would say, "Psychology Today! They need these three quotes!" The professor of psychology at the University of Czechoslovakia — "They need to know what you think about manic depression in 25 words!" It was ugly. All I was — I'm obsessive, I'm compulsive, I'm a recovering alcoholic and drug addict for 13 years, and unbelievably depressed a lot of the time.

But don't you think you beat yourself up so much that you became sort of an unlikely sex symbol? An unofficial straw poll of everybody I know shows that all of them at one time or another have been in love with you.

Really? Well, I exploited that as much I could. I had a great time! I don't understand it totally. I'm in my tragically late 50s now. I wasn't a hokey, funny-looking guy.

But you had that sort of raw, Jewish mullet-power kind of charm.

Mullet power! When people call it a mullet now — I just got the DVD of Anything but Love, and I hope they put them all out — but I looked at my hair, and it looked like a pumpernickel had landed on my head and it was balancing for about a decade.

Everybody is always really hot about you and Jamie Lee Curtis on that show, but wherefore the fabulous Ann Magnuson?

Oh my gosh! Maybe one of the great bodies and talents of our times. Singer, writer, you name it. I love Ann. Jamie Lee Curtis, sex symbol and all the rest. But trust me, Ann Magnuson. Tragically, I was dating someone then. And also tragically, I think she had zero interest in me. It was killing me, but there was nothing I could do.

Any romances on the Seventh Heaven set?

No, not when you're the first Jew ever to be on the set and even Happy the Dog was a neo-Nazi. When Happy the Dog starts nipping at your heels while you're delivering your lines …! My goal was to know my lines, show up and run.

Is it hard for you to find your place in today's world of comedy?

Not for me. I have to be honest with you, when I started in 1971 at the Improv `what followed here was a long, rambling historical diatribe on comedic camaraderie that involved a discussion of everybody from Andy Kaufman, Phyllis Diller and Elayne Boosler up to the recently deceased Richard Jeni, plus the ethics of comedy` …. In truth, though — ah, I was just onto something really important. This is me onstage. My memory loss now! If I'm doing a great riff on Bush and I'm cooking and I forget and I'm starting to talk about French toast, remind me.

Let's talk about French toast, then.

Oh, God. I make great French toast. The key is, you've got to put a little bit of water in there and really blend it well, and when you put the French toast in there — oh, I'm confusing it with an omelet, I'm sorry. You put cream cheese in the middle and it kind of blossoms into a fluffy kind of skullcap kind of deal. I don't know, it's hard to describe. I clearly don't cook much.



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