Honestly Neurotic

From an ordinary sap, any mention of intemperance might come off as crude, possibly even mean-spirited. Yet a rare talent such as Richard Lewis can zero in on this uncomfortable, unpleasant subject and somehow make us feel a little better about our own greasy, frantic lives.

Lewis still wears the same '70s hairstyle he sported as a guest on the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, though more hair products seem to be required to keep the dwindling layers in proper poof. He has done what comics have to do: endless turns in front of those ubiquitous brick walls on cable comedy shows; a lame but well-meaning sitcom (Anything But Love); an indie movie that banked on the misguided notion of what being a victim, and what being noble, means (Drunks). Now he's back to doing what comics should do: presenting genuine insights about our wretched lives.

Surprisingly, the man who has appeared hundreds of times on Letterman as the self-doubting neurotic -- the guy, in fact, who introduced the modifier "from hell" into common parlance -- doesn't think he's been shooting straight with his fans. "After nearly 25 fun-loving, excruciating years of devoting myself solely to expressing my innermost feelings publicly for laughs, attention and a living," Lewis says, "it suddenly dawned on me that not only wasn't I being as honest with my audiences as I thought I was, but much more importantly, I wasn't honest with myself, and was soon spiraling out of control as a raging alcoholic."

Though his comedy may not be appreciably better or worse for his recovery, Lewis's personal life is much improved, and he now has a second career as an author. His memoir, The Other Great Depression: How I'm Overcoming on a Daily Basis at Least a Million Addictions and Dysfunctions and Finding a Spiritual (Sometimes) Life, was released last Christmas. So now we can get a little empathy for our insecurities in book form.

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Edith Sorenson