Richard Lewis was the wraith ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ needed

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” was a late-in-life stroke of luck for Richard Lewis, the beloved but tragically underemployed comedian who died Tuesday at 76 of a heart attack nearly a year after wrapping the series’ 12th and final season. But making Lewis a recurring character was also the best thing that “Curb’s” creator, Larry David, could have done for the show. Clad head-to-toe in black, needy and needling, and most crucially a truth-teller in a world of polite lies and shallow eruptions, Lewis was a specter haunting the show, its dark jester and, in many ways, its conscience. He reminded Larry — and the rest of us — that not even the wealthy and self-satisfied can escape the mortal bind.

It helped that David and Lewis were the oldest of friends — to a point. They hated each other when they first met in Jewish summer camp at age 12, but a decade later they hit it off as young comics in New York. Over the years, they seem to have developed the verbal lifelong tennis match that would supercharge “Curb.” The Larry David of the show is an irritable man with a wife (Cheryl Hines), who eventually leaves him, and a sidekick (Jeff Garlin), who is his manager and yes-man. Larry respects almost no one except Richard, the one person who is always honest with him. And while he isn’t exactly kind to Lewis, he does give him a kidney. It’s hard to imagine him doing that for anyone, including his parents.

End of carousel

This isn’t to say that Lewis, the comedian known as “The Prince of Pain,” brought warmth to the show. Over decades of stand-up and acting roles, he took the figure of the death-obsessed New York neurotic to an absurd and yet somehow believable extreme. The Yale Book of Quotations credited him with coining the term “[blank] from hell.” In “Anything But Love,” he brought sardonic wit to the tired format of the will-they-or-won’t-they sitcom. His acerbic but affable routines were a highlight — 48 times! — of “Late Night With David Letterman.” But pain takes its toll, and “Curb” finds his darkness in extremis, especially in the later seasons. Richard has his moments of joy and poetry — usually when dating a much younger woman — but he is, not to put too fine a point on it, a wraith.

Over the last decade, the comic endured multiple surgeries, and two years ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The physical comedy he made out of his frailty in “Curb” was fearless and, in its honesty, paradoxically subtle. His graying, thinning hair, tense figure and pouchy eyes could pierce Larry’s otherwise impenetrable ego. After Larry accuses a woman of stowing Richard’s signed Mickey Mantle baseball in her oversized genitalia, Lewis’s face contorts him into a gargoyle of incredulous disgust. It’s the perfect button on an outlandish scene. (Larry happens to be right, but at what cost?)

Two moments of full-body comedy stand out. In the first, Larry and Jerry Seinfeld sit in a diner booth while Richard strolls up and invites himself to join them. They can’t decide who should scoot over for Richard, and by the time they look up from their argument, he is gone. Ten seconds later, he stalks past the window, doing his trademark shrug and gesture to the gods: Lord, save me from these imbeciles.

The second moment caps one of the show’s most memorable story arcs: Larry does everything he can to avoid donating his kidney to Richard — until he senses the game is finally lost. At the hospital, he walks down a dim hallway and sees a sinister backlit shade approaching, limping ominously over a cane. It’s Richard, who pauses just long enough to douse Larry in a guilt-inducing glower (the type known for decades in my Jewish family as “the Grandma look”).

In fact, Lewis’s comedic grimness wasn’t largely physical. His strength was still in his patter. Unlike, for example, foul-mouthed Susie (Susie Essman), he was always funniest when deadpanning the plain truth, to which Larry had no reasonable answer. (“Stop lecturing the world on your point of view!”)

And in this heavily improvised show, it was the bickering between these two best friends that showcased their true genius. The final season, currently underway on HBO and Max, has been teeming with it. There’s the scene in a golf cart in which a discussion about their wills devolves into an argument over who will live longer and, finally, an exchange of threats to give away Wordle answers. (“I’ll call my friend in New York!” “I’ll call my friend in London!” “I’ve got a friend in Israel, what do you think about that?!”)

Perhaps the best meta-joke about Larry and Richard’s incessant grumpy-old-man shtick pops up in Season 11, when Irma (Tracey Ullman) shushes them during an event and hisses, “You mid-level celebrities, you think you’re so smart with all your banter.” It’s a fun gag, in light of Ullman’s own career, but it’s triggered by another clearly improvised highlight.

Larry and Richard have just been going at each other. “You hate people. Your wardrobe sucks,” Richard says — and Larry retorts with a dig at Lewis’s famously monochromatic wardrobe. Finally Larry says: “I can’t even look at you — I get depressed. When are you gonna die? Can you please die?”

The best thing about that moment is that David is clearly breaking; he’s wearing a huge smile. These two are testing one another’s boundaries and ours, too. But they’re also just cracking each other up. As it always is with these two, the more morbid the joke, the funnier it is. In its irony and its genuineness, it’s a fitting capstone for Lewis’s career.

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