Richard Lewis opens the telephone interview with a self-deprecating riff on why he was six minutes late calling, blaming the tardiness first on Siri (an Apple computer program that works as a personal assistant) for not waking him up on time, then turning on himself, saying “I’ve gotten her so crazy, she says things like ‘Stop hocking me!’”
It’s classic Lewis, who has built a comedic persona grounded on low self-esteem, and who has been dubbed the Prince of Pain.
Lewis will be the featured performer at the Jewish Association on Aging 110th anniversary event, “The Art of Aging,” on June 2 at the Heinz History Center.
Lewis praised the institution and its good work.
“The truth is, the JAA is celebrating 110 years of being an advocacy group that helps to enhance lives,” Lewis said. “It’s an honor to be asked to perform.”
The show will not be a traditional stand-up performance but instead will be more intimate and will include a question-and-answer component.
Lewis plans to “rap about life, aging and family,” he said, adding that the gig will give him an opportunity to goof on himself for being in his 60s now.
Still hysterically funny, Lewis is nonetheless a bit reflective and sensitive to the issues associated with aging.
“I have a funny, eccentric family,” he said. “I was the baby, and I grew up surrounded by rapidly aging people. I think [the JAA] picked the right person to have a heart about this.”
If anyone knows the secret to the art of aging, it is Lewis, who doesn’t seem to be slowing down much, continuing to take on new challenges. He has been doing stand-up since the 1970s, and has a list of television credits that includes “Anything But Love” in which he starred with Jamie Lee Curtis, and Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which he played a version of himself. Last year he joined the cast of Starz’s live-action comedy series “Blunt Talk,” playing the therapist of Walter Blunt (Patrick Stewart).
Beyond performing, though, Lewis, who struggled with addiction issues for years, proudly explains that he is “22 years sober” and spends a lot of time mentoring those in the recovery community.
In addition to keeping active, to master the art of aging, Lewis said, one also needs to be “a little more careful and realize you’re not in your youth. One tip is to try to chill out.”
“I’ve learned to accept the fact that I’m not like I used to be,” he said. “I try to stay healthy and sober and to give back. I’ve received a lot of help. I’ve lived through a lot of tsuris. The art of aging is being grateful for being alive and having some laughs and helping other people. I will be dreadfully honest about how I feel about aging [at the JAA show].”
Lewis grew up in New Jersey. His mother was an actress, and his father was a popular kosher caterer.
“He was King of the Jews,” Lewis said of his father. “He did weddings, bar mitzvahs. He was booked on the Saturday night of my bar mitzvah, and I had to have my party on a Tuesday night. I blame that for causing my alcoholism.”
It was a great party, though, Lewis recalled, and lasted until 3 a.m.
“None of my friends went to school the next day,” he said. “Only I showed up and blew their cover. I was Eichmann to them the rest of the year.”
Lewis said he feels a strong connection to his Judaism.
“I’m so proud to be a Jew,” he said. “It’s what we’ve been through since day one. It’s the inherent strength.”
Although Lewis has been in show business for decades, he feels that he is now doing some of his best work.
“I’m so honest now,” he said. “Without sounding morbid, I don’t know how long I’m going to be healthy enough to go on the road. So I leave it all on the floor.”
A prolific writer, Lewis is constantly introducing new material into his act but also ad-libs about half of it.
The JAA is launching a new comprehensive memory care initiative, the details of which will be unveiled at the event, according to Deborah Winn-Horvitz, president and CEO of the JAA. Longtime Pittsburgh volunteer/activist Bobbee Slotsky Kramer also will be honored that evening.
Proceeds of the event will benefit local seniors in need.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.