Richard Lewis in “Magical Misery Tour”: The Prince of Pain’s late 1996 HBO stand-up special

By on April 28, 2016

Late in 1996, angst-ridden stand-up comedian and actor Richard Lewis took the stage at the Bottom Line in New York City’s Greenwich Village to tape his latest stand-up special, Magical Misery Tour, during which he brought a list of miseries to the stage to remind him of all of the miserable things he wanted to remember to talk about. That TV special aired on HBO on December 14, 1996, and you can watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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The 49-year-old native New Yorker talks during the show about what his life had been like up to that point, which of course means adjusting to living in Los Angeles, and he seems excited to be back onstage in NYC again, although excited probably isn’t quite the right word to describe it.

As you might expect, Lewis runs his hands through his long dark hair and paces back and forth on what seems to be a sparse little stage (especially compared to the larger venues where comedians are typically taping their HBO specials now), telling the audience that the cancellation of his ABC sitcom “Anything But Love” (which had aired from March 7, 1989 to June 3, 1992, spanning four seasons and 56 episodes) had made him re-think what he was doing with his career.

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Holly Fulger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Joseph Maher, Richard Lewis, Richard Frank and Ann Magnuson in “Anything But Love”

He’d taken a break afterward, in fact, beginning in 1993, in order to re-focus on his film career, and he then spent much of his time trying to figure out what he was doing wrong, and why he wasn’t getting the acting opportunities he wanted.

He never quite stopped working, though; he continued to appear onscreen in a variety of mostly-forgotten TV shows, but played himself in a memorable episode of Garry Shandling’s wonderful HBO sitcom, “The Larry Sanders Show.”

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Perhaps more significantly he did end up getting few film roles here and there, appearing in Mel Brooks’s film Robin Hood: Men in Tights and he also co-starred in Wagons East!, the 1994 comedy western sadly notable for being actor John Candy’s last film (Candy had a heart attack and died during the last days of the movie’s production).

Lewis — sometimes nicknamed the Prince of Pain for his self-deprecating humor — wasn’t happy that his career seemed to have stalled and he continued to contemplate what to do next when director Mike Figgis called him up, asking him what he was doing. That call led to a straight dramatic role, playing an agent who has to deal soberly with an alcoholic screenwriter played by Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.

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It proved to be a great career move, and Lewis wanted more of those kinds of opportunities, and so he made some lifestyle choices, like getting sober himself, but his own agent said that the best way for him to really keep his profile up and secure more acting jobs, dramatic or otherwise, was to continue to do do stand-up.

And so Lewis somewhat reluctantly hit the road again, in July 1995, beginning what he was calling his Magical Misery Tour, and his agent turned out to be right: he was able to land the lead as an alcoholic who falls off the wagon after attending a particularly wrenching Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, in a film called Drunks.

During his audition Lewis reportedly ad-libbed and fell back on his Method training and he was so good that he reportedly even made director Peter Cohn cry.

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Lewis knew the part was going to be a game-changer in his career, and so he dove headlong into his research for it, going to AA meetings, and he made conscious attempts to do things differently, even pledging to himself that he wouldn’t touch his head or run his hands through his hair, which was by now had become something of a trademark.

Drunks premiered at Sundance and then had a theatrical run before airing on the Showtime cable network to critical acclaim. Lewis, meanwhile, continued his Magical Misery Tour, and this taping was his first major comedic special since he became sober, which is just one of the many rapid-fire topics (along with prostrate exams and TV fishing shows) that he covers, cramming a lot of material (not all of it miserable) into the allotted amount of time.

Watch Richard Lewis’s Magical Misery Tour HBO TV special now on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.