Richard Lewis: the Curb favourite and standup legend who never hid he was having a great time

<span>Larry David and Richard Lewis in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Lewis has died aged 76.</span><span>Photograph: John P. Johnson/HBO</span>
Larry David and Richard Lewis in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Lewis has died aged 76.Photograph: John P. Johnson/HBO

Just last night, before I woke up to the news that comedy legend Richard Lewis has passed away at 76, I was watching him duke it out with Larry David. There is a very funny scene in the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, a gloriously volcanic tête-à-tête on a golf course where the two men – playing heightened versions of themselves – start bickering, hardly for the first time in the show’s 12 seasons.

“I’m leaving you in my will – I’m tweaking it and you’re in it,” Lewis snaps, triggering the following vein-bulging exchange:

David: If bequeathed, I will not accept!

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Lewis: Well, I’m bequeathing.

David: Well, I’m not accepting!

Lewis: Well, you have to accept!

David: Don’t give it to me!

Lewis: Don’t hurt my feelings!

David: I’m not gonna keep a penny of it!

Lewis: You’re hurting me!

David: Thank you, but I don’t want it!

Lewis: I’m giving it to you anyway, pal!

David: Oh my god, fuck you!

This absurd moment perfectly encapsulates how well these two old friends worked together. “Richard and I were born three days apart in the same hospital and for most of my life he’s been like a brother to me,” David said after Lewis’s death was announced. You can feel the very real affection between these guys, though neither would stand for schmaltz. It is why any Curb fan can watch them argue ad infinitum – and also because a fight over their relationship’s “obligation imbalance” could somehow become a discussion of the linguistic similarities between Mussolini, the dictator and Mucinex, the cold and flu medicine.

Lewis’s schtick was a slightly calmer counter to David’s, but always acerbic and always ready to pick and needle. Both on camera and in real life, he was almost always dressed in all black – in Curb he was sometimes overdressed in black, one vaguely military-looking outfit prompting David to ask him: “Are you vying for the title of the most pretentious man in the world?” And on and on we go. Watching these guys go to town on each other never gets old.

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So often when Lewis performed, you can see a cheeky, impish gleam in those big eyes: he was having a great time. Much of his career was in standup comedy, positioning the bulk of his work in live and ephemeral art as “the Prince of Pain”, as well clocking up a whopping 48 appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. His film credits include Prince John in 1993’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights, directed by Mel Brooks who once said that Lewis “may just be the Franz Kafka of modern-day comedy”. Lewis brings a hilariously manic, bulging-eyed energy to the role, such as when he insists that the Sheriff of Rottingham must deliver some bad news “in a good way” (then, of course, admonishes him for making light of a terrible situation).

Lewis also starred alongside Jamie Lee Curtis in the well-loved late 80s sitcom Anything But Love, bringing the funnies as neurotic journalist Marty Gold. In the opening scene we see him board a flight while desperately trying to “forget the fact that five million pounds of metal is slightly heavier than air”. In no time he’s engaged in a spritzy banter with Hannah Miller, played by Curtis, another of Lewis’s great conversational sparring partners.

It was 30 years before his final turn in Curb, but even then you could clearly see Lewis was enjoying himself, loving the banter and relishing the comedy, but never winking too hard at the audience. He will be missed.