Thomas Wictor

I feel bad, but I also don’t

I feel bad, but I also don’t

Richard Lewis has made some great art. Some of his jokes are exceptional, and his movie Drunks is really top notch. (I may have liked the movie because I’m a drunk, so I might not be the go-to guy on whether or not it’s a good movie.) The ending is one of the best I’ve ever seen, period.

I attended a reading he did for his memoir The Other Great Depression: How I’m Overcoming on a Daily Basis at Least a Million Addictions and Dysfunctions and Finding a Spiritual (Sometimes) Life. Nine years sober at the time, I understood his evangelism. He’d recently discovered something and wanted people to know how it had helped him. I should point out that I stopped the booze and drugs entirely on my own. That doesn’t make me special; it’s just that I don’t respond well to therapists or group settings. I tried group therapy a couple of times, and I got the impression that too many of the people there were performing.

To me, my boozing and drugging were serious problems that I wanted desperately to stop. The two group sessions I attended had a scripted quality that turned me off. It was more of a social gathering than anything else, and the therapists struck me as power-mad frauds. I became what AA calls a “dry drunk,” meaning I didn’t address the issues that made me want to get sloshed and high. But at the time, it wasn’t possible for me to address those issues. The important thing is that I stopped drinking and getting high, and then a few years later I went to Dave, The Best Therapist in the World.

My approach to therapy was as idiosyncratic as the way I kicked the booze and drugs. You can read about it in Ghosts and Ballyhoo on pages 144-145, 269, and 274. I had to find a psychologist who understood how important it was for me to keep him at arm’s length. A therapist can’t help you without getting inside you, but I can’t tolerate any form of invasion. It was a conundrum that Dave and I solved handily. When he told me that he had no vested interest in me getting better, that made me trust him. To do something as intimate as psychotherapy, I needed the therapist to see me as simply a project. His scientific detachment allowed us to explore horrors that I couldn’t have confronted otherwise.

Vital to the process was his impartiality. The worst thing in the world for me is the Dianne Sawyer Tented Eyebrows of Compassion. That’s why I’m lucky to be housebound. No TV appearances! Nobody expressing pity to my face. I love In the Heat of the Night, but I always fast forward through the scene in which Rod Steiger very hesitantly asks Sidney Poitier, “Do you ever get lonely?”

“No more than you, man,” Poitier replies, which makes Steiger go nuts.

No pity, black boy!” he shouts.

I can’t watch that scene because even though I understand Steiger’s reaction, Poitier wasn’t expressing pity. He was expressing solidarity, the exact opposite of pity, and he got a racial epithet in return. Classic bait and switch. I’ve experienced too many bait and switches to watch that scene ever again. Once was too much.

Okay, here’s another tangent. I was about to say that Sidney Poitier’s persona would be the perfect therapist for me, and that reminded me of someone calling him the archetypical “magical Negro” who helps white people and isn’t threatening. Have you ever heard worse claptrap in your life? Poitier transcended race. That was his appeal. As for him being “non-threatening” to whites, he slaps a white racist across the face in In the Heat of the Night, and he slaps the racist Shelly Winter’s hand in A Patch of Blue. And this was in the early sixties.

I hate it when agendas blind people. Sydney Poitier was no more a “magical Negro” than I am. If I ever went to another therapist, I’d want him to be like Sidney Poitier’s onscreen presence. So there. Watch The Slender Thread and you’ll understand.

Back to Richard Lewis.

At his reading he told a great story about a friend of his who recently got sober and went to a wedding, where the father of the bride kept trying to force a glass of wine on him, and finally Lewis’s friend said, “Okay, so I’ll drink your glass of wine, and then I’ll drink another, and then another, and then a whole bottle, and then I’ll go out and buy a key of weed and get high, and then I’ll get on the phone to my old connection and buy some heroin and get hooked on smack all over again. Is that what you want? Is it?”

The oblivious father was shocked and confused, as were many people in the audience. But I got it. Sometimes you have to talk to people that way to reach them.

So today I read a Tweet from Richard Lewis that said, “I’m an American 1st, not a comedian. The pitiful lack of civility when I Tweet a political feeling is our problem not Syria’s and it sucks.”

Richard, I love you, but come on! If you’re going to jump into the political arena, you’re going to make people angry. I was raised to never discuss religion, politics, and money. What that means is don’t do it with strangers. I discuss religion, politics, and money with people I know, but I have friends who are on the absolute opposite side of the political spectrum as I am. I would NEVER insult them by criticizing the politicians they support or the ideologies they espouse.

My friend the Russian colonel is an ardent supporter of Vladimir Putin. I would NEVER criticize Putin to the colonel. The Russian colonel knows what my views are. I know what his views are. End of story. What would we accomplish by fighting over geopolitics? I don’t feel compelled to challenge someone whose political views differ from mine.

Richard, people feel very, very strongly about politics. If you choose to go public with your politics—especially in a way you know will anger the supporters of the politician you’re criticizing, as you did in your original Tweet—you’re going to get a lot of spirited reaction. You can call it a “lack of civility” if you want, but it’s always been that way. Lincoln was depicted in newspaper cartoons as an ape. When Grover Cleveland ran for president, it was revealed that he had an illegitimate child. His opponents showed up at his rallies and chanted, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”

This is why I choose to steer clear of politics and social issues. There’s no real upside for an entertainer. Also, I think it’s a bit…rude to ask people for money and then criticize their politics, lifestyles, etc. If you feel strongly enough that you’re willing to sacrifice your career, the way James Woods recently has, then go for it. Woods is willing to pay the price. He’s not decrying the “lack of civility” or demanding that people continue to hire him or see his movies. He knew when he became political that it would impact his career, but he did it anyway.

The reason I feel bad for Woods is because he’s showing that there’s no real freedom of speech in Hollywood. Too many of your colleagues only pay lip service to their ideals, Richard. Why don’t you condemn that? If I can genuinely love people whose politics are diametrically opposed to mine, why is your industry notorious for destroying the careers of those who think differently? Doesn’t that make you furious, sickened, and horrified?

What James Woods did was assign priorities, and then he made an informed choice. I’ve done the same. For me, it’s more important to try to entertain everyone than it is to announce what I think politically and socially. There are more than enough people speaking out, so I don’t feel the need to add my voice.

But if I did speak out, I’d fully expect people to react strongly. And I wouldn’t criticize them for doing so.

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