This is the first installment of our newest online feature. The Dick Staub Interview will appear every Tuesday on our site. Staub, who hosts a daily radio show on Seattle's KGNW (also broadcast on cable's Total Living Network), is the author of Too Christian, Too Pagan: How to Love the World Without Falling for It. He's also the founder of the Center for Faith and Culture, which examines intersections between popular culture and religious belief. His interviews appearing on our site will examine many of these intersections, as he talks to writers, theologians, and other cultural influencers.
Our first Dick Staub interview is with comedian Richard Lewis, whom Mel Brooks called "the Franz Kafka of modern-day comedy." Known for his neurotic standup comedy driven by personal experience, he becomes even more personal in his recent book, delving into his alcoholism and spiritual recovery. Staub talked with Lewis shortly after the publication of the book, titled The Other Great Depression: How I'm Overcoming On a Daily Basis at Least a Million Addictions and Finding a Spiritual (Sometimes) Life.
You've been using your life as the source of your comedy, and now you take a whole different look at it.
I sure do. I've been in show business for 30 years, but the sole reason I went on stage back in '71 was to feel less alienated and to feel authentic somehow. The laughter did that.
What was the first time you remember making people laugh and thinking, "This is a way to get rid of some of my pain"?
I absolutely used humor for every defense mechanism you could think of. What finally happened was my dad died before I became a comedian. And I was writing these jokes, and the ones that were most personal, these comedians were rejecting. And the ones that were most observational they liked. But I had very little interest in writing about what other people think, what I think other people see.
Your father casts a huge shadow over this book. You write that you let your father "define you."
Yeah, I don't know if I let him as much as I had no choice. I sort of think that my father was an amazingly talented caterer. A workaholic, like I am, but he was never around. I never could be as big as him.
You make the statement repeatedly in the early parts of this book that you had no idea who you were. It's almost like there was nobody to be in reaction to. Is it the absence of the father?
I had a tough couple of years. I was there with my mom, who was drifting slowly but surely into her own world. The flip side of all this is that I can make light of it as a comedian and find the humor in it, thank God. But there was pain behind it all. I had millions of jokes and routines about feeling alienated, and when people laugh it's reassuring to them that they're not alone, and it's always reassuring to the artist. But at home, in reality, I really did feel alone.
It was not funny.
No, it was not funny.
When did your alcoholism start, how bad did it ultimately get, and what was driving it?
I think after I turned 30, I realized there's no looking back on this career. But I also said, "Wow, what if I don't make it?" I'm in a place where I'm judged every single night. On a television show, a Tonight Show, 10 to 15 million people can say thumbs up/thumbs down. And in nightclubs, drinking with people is constant. I don't know what the words are medically, but I soon became powerless over alcohol. I was just trying to obliterate my feelings, and not only the bad feelings. It turned out that I didn't even want to feel good. So, when I did Carnegie Hall back in the '80s, I got two standing ovations, and afterwards I was so uncomfortable in my own skin that I got so drunk I had very little recollection of it.
What has to happen inside before you finally say enough is enough?
I'd had people do that tough love thing, saying we can't watch you die like this. But one night, I chose to hole up in my house, and I just felt impotent. I felt pathetic. I felt that I was throwing away my life. And then, you know, I felt some sort of spiritual awakening. I always felt there was something a little more going on in this universe than, you know, we're floating around here. I figured it's 50/50, and I'd go with something else, there's something a little more evolved than just us humans. Something spiritual. But it was dark for many years. The alcohol blotted that out. And I was washed over with this feeling I had to do something because life is precious. I called friends and said, "Take me to a hospital. I don't want to die in my own home." And when I got to the hospital, I had no shame anymore. I didn't say I'm proud I'm an alcoholic, but in my gut I was proud that I could say it, and then I knew that, just like I knew when I became a comedian, there was no looking back.
When you say you were always spiritual, what does that mean in your life?
I was born into the Jewish faith, and I enjoyed learning that story. And likewise, I enjoyed learning about other religions. And I think I did because I actually felt that it was something very beautiful and very life affirming about it. But the more I saw what's going on in real life, and how millions and millions of people are killed under the name of that kind of deity, that became a source for me to become agnostic at the very least. It seemed meaningless to me, and it seemed like trying to have a fake belief system. So for many years I lost any interest in trying to find that kind of spirituality and belief. I was pushed into it again because I really did try everything humanly possible to stop drinking and I couldn't. Even atheists will go, "Oh God, help me get out of this traffic jam." They might not be calling on anyone in particular, but I am. When I hit my knees, I'm calling on a little private God that I have that I know exists for me. Just for me.
Part of my own journey with God has been not only to come to an understanding that God exists, but to believe that that God has some sort of love.
I choose to agree with you on that. But on a more mortal level, on a more psychological level, what I've learned also is that it's easy for me to say that God is looking out for me. On the other hand, I also have to look out for myself. I choose to have compassion for me. Even though that might sound very self-centered again, it's the flip-flop of what the alcoholic does. It's like nothing matters but getting high. And now, nothing matters more than not getting high.
Is there some kind of common thought every day?
It's a day at a time to lick this disease because it'll never go away. I'll die an alcoholic, but hopefully a sober one. But I try to get myself out of the equation because, quite frankly, being an alcoholic so many years is such a self-centered existence. You don't have to be an alcoholic to know this. If I tried a million times in my lifetime to create this scenario, it would never work out.
Copyright © 2002 Dick Staub
Visit DickStaub.com for audio and video of his radio program (4-7 p.m. PST), media reviews, and on news "where belief meets real life." The full text of this interview will be for sale on the website soon.