My Special Day With Richard Lewis

Many people have idols in their field, people who have inspired them, … and some of them even get to meet their idols. It’s rare but it does happen. Even rarer is to actually be friends with someone who’s your idol, and in my case that someone is Richard Lewis.

Jeffrey Gurian with his friend & comedy idol Richard Lewis in the Billy Crystal Bar of The Friars Club!

Let me try and explain the kind of caring individual that Richard is. We know each other for a long time, but when he agreed to meet me at The Friars Club at lunchtime the day after he opened at Carolines, I was going in hopes of just having a few laughs, and to take a few photos of us for my national column Comedy Matters.

I had hoped for, but didn’t really count on being able to do a video interview. Our plan was to meet before he sat by himself for hours at a time preparing for his show that night at 8 P.M. It’s nothing for Richard to sit for 6 hours reviewing his “premises.” I certainly didn’t want to impose on his time. But from the moment he walked in, he was nothing but accommodating. He actually suggested shots and things I could do to make the video shoot more interesting.

We went into the dining room first to get photos of Richard under his caricature done by the legendary Al Hirschfeld, which was a great honor and source of pride to Richard.  There we encountered the force known to the Friars as Frank Capitelli, the long-time Maitre-d’ who runs the dining room with an iron fist.

Richard Lewis in a calm moment with Gianfranco "Frank" Capitelli the long-time Maitre-D' of The Friars Club.

He and Richard suddenly started berating each other as only big stars can do with Frank, and Richard grabbed Frank’s lapels as they mock-threatened each other while barely being able to keep from laughing.

Richard grabbing Frank's lapel and threatening to ruin his Italian-made custom suit, if he didn't give him the table he wanted! (LOL)

The interview itself was similar to Richard’s act. There was no beginning, middle or end. All of a sudden you were just in the midst of it. It was happening. At one point he told me he didn’t need me that he could just interview himself.

It was one laugh after the next. And when it finally DID end, it was only with assurances from Richard that if I had any further questions, all I had to do was ask, and he’d answer them right away. And that’s because Richard is a “Mensch”!

For the book I’m doing on the history of The Comic Strip, I’ve interviewed some of the biggest stars in comedy. ALL of them were nice while they were there, … except maybe for one, who will go unnamed , … for now!

But it’s the effort it took to get some of them there that made the difference. Most it was easy.  Richie Tienken or I  just had to ask.  Some people are grateful for the help they received in getting to where they are now, like Chris Rock, Ray Romano, George Wallace, Larry Miller, and Jerry Seinfeld, while others want to conveniently forget where they came from and who helped them get there.  None of those names will be mentioned!

But it begs the question – HOW CAN YOU NOT BE GRATEFUL TO SOMEONE WHO HELPED YOU BECOME SUCCESSFUL??? HOW CAN IT BE SO DIFFICULT TO SCHEDULE ONE HOUR OF YOUR TIME,… LITERALLY ONE SMALL, MINISCULE HOUR OF YOUR TIME TO COME AND REMINISCE ABOUT YOUR PAST, WITHOUT HAVING TO MAKE A WHOLE “MEGILLAH” ( a big deal! ) OUT OF IT, AND INVOLVE YOUR MANAGERS, AGENTS AND ASSISTANTS TO SCHEDULE THE THING? DON’T YOU TAKE AN HOUR FOR LUNCH EVERY DAY? DO YOU HAVE TO SCHEDULE THAT THROUGH MANAGERS AND AGENTS? AND THEN MAKE IT DIFFICULT TO GET A RELEASE FROM THEM AFTER THEY DO IT??? WHY WOULD YOU SHOW UP FOR SOMETHING AND THEN NOT GLADLY SIGN A RELEASE???

But, I digress! That’s a topic for a whole other posting. By the time I’m finished with this I’ll have enough ideas for postings for the next decade! Back to Richard Lewis.

Richard prepares for his show like he does everything else in the world, … obsessively. To a fault.  And he’s the first to admit it!

He writes his premises in a notebook, about 5 times the size of regular letters, and fills the book with notes which he studies continuously for hours, by himself, coming up with thoughts on the topics he wrote.

During a conversation, something could strike him about his wife, as an example, and he’ll jot that down as a premise. Never the full joke. Only the premise. He’s one of those comedic geniuses that can actually develop a premise on stage. He’s been doing that for 41 years.

Sitting with Richard is to me like it would be sitting down with Bob Dylan, ( in the early days!), or Mick Jagger, ( which I did only once!)  or Salvador Dali (which I actually also did for a few hours, and which will be the topic for another posting!). Icons that most people don’t get a chance to know.

Sitting with Richard Lewis in the corner of The Friars Club dining room under the Al Hirschfeld drawing of Richard, of which he is very proud! ( And rightly so!)

For better or worse, ( in terms of my own sanity!), Richard encompasses everything I understand about the world. He also encompasses everything I DON’T understand about the world. He speaks for me. His sickness is MY sickness.

This is not to say that I think I could compare myself to Richard. Only in my private moments alone, when I wonder how things would have been if I had started performing back in the 70’s, would I allow myself to think I could have been good enough to be in that esteemed circle of Richard, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, David Brenner, … like that. All of whom I know from back in the day. It’s only when you’re coming up with guys, that you can allow them to see you grow as a comic.

In order to do that they have to watch you fail miserably many times. It’s the only way you get good. Every comic knows that. You have to try many things sometimes to find the thing that works. When you’re all starting out together, you’re kind of in the same boat, so you bond over that. You empathize with what the other guy is going through. So what am I saying here???

I’m saying I relate to Richard Lewis’ humor so much, that it feels part of me. I feel like he’s speaking for me. There’s an identification that goes down to the DNA. When I say I’ve had a stomach-ache since 1954, I know that HE knows what I mean because when I sat down with him today at The Friars Club, he told me he wants a plaque above the toilet in the Men’s Room, and referenced the drug Imodium.( Which is probably the only drug he can take anymore!)

Imodium is a great comedy word. In MY act, I reference the drug Lomotil. I didn’t think of Imodium. It’s a much funnier word. But I’m too late. Imodium is Richard’s and I’m stuck with Lomotil! ( As long as it works!) LOL

So we met in The Billy Crystal Bar, and as a matter of fact when Billy was honored with a ceremony at the club, the bar was roped off to Billy and his friends while the regular Friars just stood and stared past the velvet ropes, like they were looking at animals in the zoo.

I went up to the rope and before they had a chance to chase me away, Billy looked over and said, ” Hey, I know that guy. Let him in.” And they did. And everyone was shocked that Billy Crystal knew me. Jean Pierre who was the Executive Director of the club at the time was standing there, and he just smiled, as if to say, ” It figures that he would know you!”

Billy knew me from Jack Rollins. From the days when I used to hang out in Jack Rollins office on West 57th Street. Those were the days when I was married, was a dentist, and was living in Westchester, coming to the city every Wednesday to try and make my way into show biz.

I had sent a letter to Jack Rollins himself, ( on my dental stationery no less! ) telling him about the short films I was making and how everyone always compared my comedy to that of Woody Allen. How surprised was I to actually get a phone call from Jack himself, inviting me to come down to this office. It was a dream come true. Woody Allen’s manager asking me to come and meet with him.

Jack actually suggested a sitcom about me, a dentist who was trying to break into show biz. That’s how I met Billy. He thought Billy would be good to play me, and he only wanted to get involved if he was representing the star. So he introduced me to Billy, but Billy was already doing many other things. it could have been SNL or maybe Soap.

That’s when I suggested a young comic I had met who I really liked, Paul Reiser. Jack had never heard of him, because he was so new, but I raved about how funny he was, and Jack said I could call him and ask if he was interested. I remember calling Paul from the municipal parking lot on West 54th Street near what was then Studio 54, and asking him if he would consider playing me in a sitcom, if Jack Rollins was involved.

Jeffrey Gurian, Paul Reiser, and Richie Tienken at The Comic Strip for Paul's interview for the book they are doing on the history of the club!

He said he would be glad to, and then about two weeks later, I think he landed a sitcom or a movie or something, and that was the end of that. Are you starting to see a pattern here???

Just a few years ago, when I wrote the award-winning short film “I Am Woody” about a mob boss obsessed with Woody Allen, I sent him the script to read.  In one of our many phone calls he said to me, ” How come I never managed you?”

The question hit me like a lightening bolt. In that one brief moment I felt elation and sadness at the same time, like I had never felt in my life. The elation that the legendary Jack Rollins who had managed Woody from the start, and produced every one of his movies, would have thought to manage me, was one of the biggest honors I ever had.

Then the incredible sadness of realizing the opportunity I had missed, and the courage I had to come up with to ask, ” Is it too late?”, not wanting to hear the answer I knew was coming.  He said it was too late for him in his career as he had retired years before.

I remember being there in his office for the first time like it was yesterday. And after he saw my films, he got on the phone and personally called the late Herb Sargent, who went on to become Pres. of The Writer’s Guild East, and who was running the writing team up at SNL at the time, and asked him to meet with me.

Herb was actually responsible for the name, ” Not Ready For Primetime Players”, and was in charge of shaping the legendary News Update, whose early hosts were Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Dennis Miller, who turned out to be my nemesis for getting on the show.

When I went up to see Herb at the SNL offices he said to me, ” I don’t even have to look at your stuff. If Jack Rollins says you’re funny, you’re funny!” But he DID look at my stuff, and liked it enough to set up a meeting for me with a guy named John Head, who in those days was in charge of film acquisition for SNL.

In those days I was doing films on “Monty-Pythonesque news topics”, like “Several men were arrested today for smearing creamcheese on the ankles of elderly women who wore their stockings rolled down like bagels. One of the victims, here only one month from Ireland gave us her account of what happened. She granted us an interview on the stipulation that she remain anonymous. Her name is Mrs O’Goyim,and she lives in The Bronx, but to honor her request, and protect her identity we’ll simply call her Mrs X.”

And then I got my dear grandmother, Nana Fay, to roll down her stockings which she would NEVER do, and let me put creamcheese on her ankles.  She also made believe she had a thick Jewish accent, where she explained that, “you know we have two kinds of stockings, … one for milk, and one for meat, ( an Orthodox Jewish “Kosher” reference! ) and this crazy man came over and shmeared creamcheese on my “Flaisheke” (meat) stockings and I can’t get it off!”

She said, ” Jeffrey, only for you would I do something like this!” She had such a great sense of humor, and was in other films of mine as well. But it was ALWAYS comedy news for me. That was my favorite thing in the world.

I think maybe because all news sounds ridiculous to me anyway. I think it’s the cadence. I got my “news announcer” training from Chuck Scarborough when I worked with him to prepare for his Friars Roast back in the 80’s.

Anyway, when I got my meeting with John Head I made what was to be one of the biggest, if not THE biggest mistakes in my life. I was no longer married and I was trying to impress this young model/actress I had been running around with. This must have been around 1986. Dennis Miller was doing News Update. I get my meeting at SNL to show my films to John Head. I call this girl and ask her to come with me. WHAT KIND OF SHMUCK TURNS A BUSINESS MEETING INTO A DATE?

As I’m writing this all these years later, I still can’t believe I did this. I bring the girl with me, as if her presence was going to make my films funnier. Talk about low self-esteem. I wasn’t enough on my own. I had to have someone else who I thought was more special, to “validate” me!

We walk in and of course everyone takes notice. Especially Dennis Miller who was single at the time. We had already known each other from other friends of mine who were in the cast since I had been going up to SNL since around 1977. We also hung out at a place called Columbus Cafe on 69th Street and Columbus Avenue.

Dennis immediately takes notice of the girl, asks why I’m there, I excitedly tell him I’m there to show John Head my comedy news, not realizing that Dennis does comedy news, and he asks if he can sit in on my meeting. I, … like the moron I was, … was thrilled! Dennis Miller will laugh his ass off, John Head will be impressed, and I’ll become part of SNL.

What happened next is still almost too sad for me to tell, but I have no choice. We show the films and everyone’s laughing. John Head’s words were burned into my memory. He said, ” I see no reason why you shouldn’t be doing films for the show. I’ll set up a meeting with Lorne Michaels for next week. Call me on Monday.”

I was ecstatic. I was out of my mind with joy. I was going to be making films for SNL. A dream come true. I called John Head on Monday like I was asked to, and was told that Dennis Miller liked my stuff so much that HE wanted to be the guy who brought it to Lorne and that I should call him instead.  John said he was out of it.  I was a little shocked, but still ok that Dennis liked it that much.

Then he never took my call. Many messages later, I realized he wasn’t going to ever take my call, or call me back. Not only that, but he took the girl’s number who I was with and went out with her, adding insult to grievous injury.

Making it even worse, ( it that was even remotely possible!) they went out socializing with Billy Crystal and Robin Williams and didn’t invite me!   I almost lost it over that. It was a lesson that haunts me to this day, about trying to be a bigshot and wind up looking like a putz!!!

I ran into Dennis some time later at Columbus Cafe where we all hung out. I asked him why he never got back to me. Rather than give me an answer he said, ” You wanna write for me? The show wants me to do remotes and that’s not my style. It’s YOUR style. Come up with a few ideas for me and if I like them, I’ll do them on the show.”  Then came the kicker!  “But I need them by tomorrow!”

Needless to say, I stayed up all night coming up with ideas to get them to him by the next day. It’s more than 20 years later, and I still haven’t heard from him.  Nice, …  right???

It took me a long time to just let that stuff go.  It doesn’t mean I don’t remember it, but I don’t let it make me ill!  It’s not worth it.

This blog, on the other hand, is getting to be like Richard Lewis’ act, … kind of like free association, but nowhere near as funny! When I saw him last night, among the million things he discussed,and let me say that there was one moment where he almost finished a sentence, … he told about missing the huge Woodstock festival in 1967 because it was drizzling, so instead he went to the movies and saw Fred McMurray in Flubber, which was one of his biggest errors in life!

And then he went on to tell how when he called his Mom to tell her he got The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which should have sent her into a state of rapture, she simply asked him who else was on with him!

That was one way we differed. My Mom would take every opportunity she had to brag about me.  She would brag about the way I coughed. Did you see my son cough? Amazing. Your son may cough, but not like Jeffrey. When he clears his throat there’s nothing like it.  Rest in Peace Mom, you were the best!

Go see Richard at Carolines. He’s still there tonight, Sat. March 26th for two shows and one final show tomorrow on Sunday. Trust me, it’s not to be missed. Caroline herself came to see him on opening night and stayed through the whole thing.

If this post gets any longer, I’ll need a book publisher, and a literary agent to even GET the book publisher!

Jeffrey Gurian with Richard Lewis after one of his sold-out shows at Joe's Pub in NYC!

To be continued!

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