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Richard Lewis: Bundle of Nerves
The first and arguably weakest program is "Diary of a Young Comic", a short produced by Lorne Michaels back in 1979 as a lead-in to "Saturday Night Live". The film tells the story of Billy Gondola (Lewis), a young man leaving home for Los Angeles to pursue his dreams of being a stand-up comedian. Co-written by Lewis with Bennett Tramer and directed by Gary Weis, this semi-fictionalized account of Lewis' own experience features a number of guest stars, including Stacy Keach, Dom DeLuise, and Michael Lerner, and a special song by Loudon Wainwright about Lewis' character. Lewis has a reputation for being a bit acerbic and even aggressive as a comedian, but "Diary" is quaint in its sweet, softball humor about Angelenos all working other jobs while they endeavor to do something else, extreme hippie sects, and the lunacy of showbiz, such as a photographer who puts Lewis in a number of costumes and dramatic situations only to tell him to smile before snapping each picture.
The strangest thing about "Diary", from a Lewis standpoint, is that he almost ends up playing second fiddle to everyone else in the hour-long special. The guest stars come in and grab the spotlight (with equally softball material), and there's also an actual plot involving Billy's parents and whether or not they'll be disappointed in him, as well as Billy's relationship with the Marilyn Monroe look-alike (Linda Kerridge) living next door to him in his cheap motel. According to the commentary on the disc, some of the bits where Lewis interacts with various oddballs are actually documentary footage, of Lewis bantering with real people, but the film is so loose that it's kind of hard to tell the difference, building to a fairly obvious ending that still works better than the 60 minutes that come before it because it actually gives Lewis a moment to show off his skills. Wainwright's song is probably the most memorable part of the movie, commenting that Billy would sell his soul to the Devil, "or Johnny Carson".
This is followed by "The Magical Misery Tour", an HBO special Lewis shot shortly after he became sober. Mileage for Lewis fans may vary, but again, this set feels a little softball, with the comic repeatedly qualifying his jokes about women and the intimacy of doctor's visits to make sure nobody is offended. At least the recovery narrative provides a real sense of honesty and humanity. Lewis' observations about everything from sharing urinals to acting like a rock star can come off kind of canned in the same sense as a "What's the deal with airline food?" jab at Jerry Seinfeld, but the man is clearly enthusiastic, laying his notes out on the piano and energetically delivering each bit for a crowd that seems engaged with his openness. In some ways, the hit-and-miss nature of this special is probably part of the appeal for Lewis, a televised instance of him finding his sea legs again (and coming out ahead, in the end) after conquering his demons.
The best thing in the set is Drunks, a 1995 feature that casts Lewis as Jim, a man who hits a low when he's forced to speak at an AA meeting. The film is split between Jim's downward spiral and the confessions by the film's stunning ensemble cast (Faye Dunaway, Sam Rockwell, Amanda Plummer, Calista Flockhart, Dianne Wiest, Parker Posey, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Spalding Gray) who stay at the meeting. Films about a subject as raw as addiction and recovery can stumble into a number of traps, including being overly maudlin or manipulative, and some folks online have suggested it paints a dramatized portrait of AA. At the same time, director Peter Cohn and screenwriter Gary Lennon don't push too hard, presenting the events as straightforward and raw as they can, with a minimum of melodrama.
Lewis is particularly fantastic in this piece, a man who is actually weakened by the degree of support and love he has at his disposal. The pressure placed on him by his advisor (George Martin) to be there for the other people, to tell his sob story, is what breaks him, because Jim doesn't feel that his story is worthy of the meaning the other members place on it. It's incredible to watch Lewis throw himself into such a complicated portrayal of addiction just after recovering himself; it immediately makes you wonder about his stability. One scene he shares with Tanya (Anna Levine) is agonizing in its twisted, desperate humanity. With all that Jim goes through, it's especially impressive that Cohn and Lennon find a resolution that doesn't feel overly pat or overly fatalistic, striking the perfect balance.
The final feature on the disc is more of a supplement: "House of a Lifetime" is a 46-minute tour of Lewis' home, looking at the wide range of collectibles and memorabilia he's collected over his lengthy career. At times, his recollections and pieces can be fascinating (he relates most of the purchases to the point in his career he was at and what was going on in his life at the time he acquired them), but a more ruthless editor could've trimmed some of the fat (it seems likely that, while the special isn't exactly padded, the mandate may have been "the longer the better"). More for fans than for newcomers -- pretty much the vibe of the whole package.
Bundle of Nerves is brought to DVD with a very nice spot-gloss slipcover featuring an image of Lewis painted by his friend Ron Wood. The back of the slip has the names of the specials, with comments on them by Lewis explaining his thoughts or memories on each one, as well as a dedication. Underneath the slip is more standardized art, featuring a photo of lewis sitting in a chair, and on the back, more straightforward, fact-based summaries of the four "feature" presentations, and the bonuses, with another photo of Lewis. The two-disc set comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case with a flap tray and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Specials produced for television during the analog era are always doomed to look a certain way on home video, and the first two programs bear that out. Diary of a Young Comic and Magical Misery Tour are both presented in 1.33:1 full frame with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Unsurprisingly, the more recent special looks better than the older short film, but both have a dated appearance. Faint interlacing, color bleed, and a degree of softness (the former more extreme than the latter) are par for the course on both, but they also look pretty clean for what they are -- no lines or tracking problems, and a fairly minimal amount of flecks. Sound for these programs is pleasingly clean, crisp, and nicely separated, although there is a consistent hiss on "Diary" underneath the dialogue and sound effects.
Jumping over to disc two, things improve significantly. Drunks is presented in a fresh-looking 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that offers impressive detail and extremely vivid color, with natural-looking reds and blues. "House of Lifetime" was actually produced in 2014 for this set, so its' presentation has the crispness and clarity of modern digital video. Again, both are offered with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, and both sound just fine, easily capturing the ambience and atmosphere of what are mainly dialogue-heavy programs. All four main presentations offer closed captioning, for those with televisions that offer that function.
The set opens with an introduction by Richard Lewis (2:05), which features him extolling the virtues of the collection viewers have in their hands. Lewis also returns to introduce the individual presentations (0:44, 1:13, 0:47, 0:36) with a memory or two.
The only other supplements are two audio commentaries featuring Lewis, on "Diary of a Young Comic" and Drunks. He is joined by co-writer Bennett Tramer and producer / director Peter Cohn, respectively. Both of these commentaries are lively and informative looks back at the making of the respective pictures, with Lewis particularly animated and interested in discussing his work. He marvels at his wardrobe choices in "Diary", and discusses his sobriety and working with the phenomenal ensemble cast on Drunks. His co-commentators are no slouches either, discussing the writing and developing process of their respective projects.
For fans, "Richard Lewis: Bundle of Nerves" is probably a nice little supplementary archive of Lewis' other odds and ends, with the highlight for them and newcomers probably being the feature-length Drunks, which is arguably good enough, with impressive A/V and a feature commentary, to be worth the purchase price of the set alone. Just be aware that this is more "leftovers" than "main course" and the set is worthy of a recommendation.
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