Watch the documentary Never Be Done: The Richard Glen Lett Story, and you’ll see a man hit rock bottom. It’s an agonizing, uncompromising chronicle of the Vancouver-based comedian’s gruesome plummet from touring Yuk Yuk’s headliner to psychotic, homeless addict. And then on—mercifully—to recovery.
“I think the brain deliberately blurs and obscures trauma so that we don’t really have a vivid recollection of what that was like,” Lett tells the Straight during a break in shooting the indie film All Joking Aside. “Fortunately for me, Roy was there to film every motherfucking second of it.”
Roy is Roy Tighe, former Vancouverite and, at one time, an aspiring comic intrigued by Lett’s reputation. In 2009, they agreed to collaborate on a documentary. On the very first night of filming, Lett was ejected from the second-to-last club that would still book the increasingly out-of-control comic. Over the next few months, Tighe chronicled his subject’s accelerating decline, ending with a mysterious 10-day disappearance after Lett’s exasperated neighbours forced the abusive, out-of-work entertainer out of their building.
“It’s sort of like seeing your own ghost,” says Lett, who finally saw the finished film when it premiered at the Whistler Film Festival in late 2018. “And I’m embarrassed by some things, certainly some of the language that I used, the various forms of bigotry I expressed, whether it’s dropping an N-bomb or saying ‘fag’, I dunno, what, 30 times?”
In fairness, the truth is a little more complex. As a comedian, Lett set out to offend, but generally from a position of righteous outrage and disgust. Eagle-eyed viewers might catch a Bill Hicks quote scrawled on the wall of his apartment, and he reveals that his career aspirations began when he read Albert Goldman’s bio Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!!.
“Like Bertolt Brecht said, ‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,’ ” Lett remarks about one of his most notorious bits, the seethingly ironic “The Ballad of Bobby Pickton”.
“Addiction, though, doesn’t care if you’re on point or not, and that’s the thing that crept up on me.”
Indeed, by the time Tighe’s camera is rolling, Lett’s satirical edge has curdled into nonspecific hostility and, well, saying “fag” 30 times. The ambivalent relationship between a brilliant man consumed by his demons and an industry that pours gas on the fire—until it dispenses with him—is one of the implicit themes of Never Be Done, which makes for a powerful closing-night addition to the Vancouver Just For Laughs Film Festival, where the doc receives its local premiere at the Vancity Theatre on Wednesday (February 20).
More positively: Lett has nothing but gratitude for the filmmakers who, at one of his lowest points, and right on camera, became yet another target for his viciously wounding invective.
“My friend Kathleen said that she prayed for extra angels for me during that time. To me, those angels were Roy and [DOP] Graeme [Morgan],” he says. “Addiction is brutal, and we’ve lost a couple of people just in the time it took to have this conversation. It’s an epidemic out there, and it really does require a team. For me, the biggest thing that I want from this film is for people to see that collectively there is hope. To see all those people that were involved in getting Richard Lett to live.”
Tighe reunited with Lett seven years after his final flame-out, when he spent those 10 AWOL days dropping harrowing phone calls on his remaining friends while suffering a full-blown psychotic episode. What came next, he says, was an encounter with grace.
“There was a moment when I woke up in my car and I needed a cigarette, and like I said, ‘If you can’t bum a cigarette outside of an AA meeting, you have no skills at all.’ So I went there, and someone helped me. I almost died, but I didn’t. It was just that moment. There are so many turning points in people’s lives where they just go, ‘I go zig or I go zag.’ ”
Lett zigged, and now, nine years into sobriety, “I’m on set.”
As it happens, Lett’s role in All Joking Aside is “the best and only friend to an alcoholic, washed-up comedian” played by Brian Markinson. Presumably, he’s offering some technical advice on the side?
“I consult on the funny, yeah,” he answers.
And what about the “alcoholic, washed-up” part?
“No, I think a lot of people have experience in that area,” Lett replies, with a hoarse chuckle. “It’s being a recovered alcoholic where we see there’s a shortage of knowledge.”