Jerry Lewis is, in spite of it all, still alive. Whether the 88-year-old wants to be is another story. At 2 PM on a recent Saturday in the sleepy suburb of La Mirada, California, he sure as hell wasn't acting like it. Sitting, perturbed, in a director's chair embroidered with his own signature, he waited for the screens flanking him to jump to life and play a 60-year-old a clip of himself pranking his former comedy partner Dean Martin. Said screens, however, weren't jumping fast enough for his taste. "Jeff, what the hell is going on?" he yelled. "We've only been rehearsing this for seven days, for Christ's sake." Jeff, suitably shamed, rolled the clip; Lewis watched it in silence, his hand covering his mouth. As the crowd surrounding him burst into riotous laughter, his face remained expressionless.
An hour earlier, an enormous bus filled with members of the Greatest Generation had rolled up; a woman pushing a walker was the first out, followed by others of similar mobility. The theater slowly filled with canes, walkers, wheelchairs, antiquated hairstyles, and bedazzled pantsuits no doubt purchased at J.C. Penney. As the audience took their seats, a CD of mediocre ballads played overhead. "Is this Jerry Lewis singing?" my friend Jeff asked. "Yes," I sighed.
The afternoon's "Evening With Jerry Lewis" began, as to be expected, with a highlight reel, 75 percent of which involved scenes of Lewis mugging into camera. Once onstage, Lewis cracked mediocre, race-based jokes; again, this was to be expected. A wrench, he explained, was where Jewish cowboys lived. Have we heard about the Mexican firefighter who had twins, he asked? One was named "Hose-A, the other Hose-B." The Polish were comically eviscerated, the implication being that they hadn't been through enough. A rabbi and a priest were—wait for it—on a plane. Hilarity ensued. "Do you know what mixed emotions are?" he asked. "Mixed emotions," he explained, "are a man watching his mother-in-law drive off a cliff in his new Lincoln Continental." The Lincoln Continental was discontinued in 2002.
In between off-color jokes, he played dozens of clips from his 83 years in the entertainment industry. In one, introduced as "one of the most important dates in television—September the 16th, 1976," an extremely intoxicated Frank Sinatra reunited the extremely intoxicated Dean Martin and questionably intoxicated Jerry Lewis on stage in front of a room of equally intoxicated people. The two hadn't spoken for 20 years. A group of elderly folks in wheelchairs in the back of the theater loudly, confusedly, talked throughout the clip; they were told to "Shut up" by no less than ten people.
A Q&A eventually began, a welcome respite from the endless montages and ethnic jokes that had preceded it. A heartbreakingly sincere woman approached the stage. "Thank you for giving me so much laughter growing up," she told Lewis. With tears in her eyes, she confessed that there "wasn't much to laugh about" in her childhood. "How old are you?" Lewis asked, apropos of nothing. "I'm 51," she replied. "You look every day of it!" Lewis quipped. After cracking the fuck up at his own insult, he then gave the woman a fake hotel room number. ("You'd probably show up," he said, shaking his head.) "You look like Barbara Crawford, anyone ever tell you that?" he asked. (According to the internet, the only Barbara Crawford of note was the first woman to earn a bachelor's degree in general engineering from the University of Illinois in 1946.) After calling the woman an "oversexed broad," he then moved on to the next paying customer.
An excitable young woman named Terry hit on him. He asked if she were gay. A woman reminisced, "I ran into you in 1976 at the Sunset Gower Studios... I'll never forget that moment. You were such a gentleman, as you always have been." As she gushed, he began to mock snore. "Are you done?" he asked, cutting off her praise.
Everyone, it seemed, had a personal anecdote involving Lewis. One asked if he did something "on purpose" during a concert in 1951. Another asked, "Why did you call me Veronica Schwartz on your Jerry Lewis Show about forty years ago?" "I have no idea what you're talking about," he replied, before putting an entire water glass in his mouth for a cheap laugh. Yet another, crying, asked if Lewis would sign a book for her father's 88th birthday; after all, he was "so nice" to the two of them on the set of The Bellboy. He refused. "Does this mean I'm not getting an autograph on this fabulous book of yours?" she asked, still crying. "That's about right," he replied.
The Q&A was a shambolic mess, yet beautiful to witness. With the exception of the people who made a reference to the troops or the "Korean conflict," Lewis raked absolutely everyone over the coals for loving him. After each zing, he'd throw in a disingenuous "thanks for coming." He was relentless. Cantankerous. Jerry Lewis.
One woman, after dishing out requisite praise, asked how Lewis got his start in the business—he told her to read a biography. "Have you always been a son of a bitch?" he asked her. As a woman, she was confused by this inquiry. "Am I a...son?" she confusedly replied. Another praised him for how much he genuinely cared for the kids he helped via his MDA Telethon. Zoning out, he rested his head in his hand. "When somebody puts their head in their hand," he told her, "that means you've been on too long." He then disingenuously thanked her for coming.
A woman, near tears, begged to shake his hand. "This is an opportunity I'll never get again," she cried. "May I, please? Please?" Shaking his head no, he told her, "Don't come any closer, you could be catching." After a chuckle, he sarcastically told her, "I hope we can get together again sometime, because this was very meaningful." Mean, dismissive, and insincere, he was a force of nature, a sight to behold. No matter what he did, nor what he said, people hooted and hollered and applauded like mad. At times, he even got the crowd to turn on each other. When an autistic-lookin' guy holding a VHS tape—sans case—of something Jerry did in the early 50s asked him to sign it, the entire audience began to boo. "Uh, you have someone behind you that might be interested in what you're talking about," Lewis told the man, gesticulating at the borderline elderly female usher he sent to do his dirty work. As she led him away, the man muttered obscenities under his breath.
After a touching performance of a song from Cinderfella (the film he had to quickly run up 64 steps for... it put him in the hospital!), he began his dismount. "All of the wonderful things people had to say in the Q&A," he said, "I appreciated very much. Having to make jokes and kibitz with the people, sometimes it becomes insensitive. But in order to get the laugh, sometimes we have to be a little insensitive. But I thank you for understanding." With that simple line, he absolved himself of guilt for the atrocious way he had treated his fans. And they forgave him. The show's program was right—Lewis was "HOLLYWOOD'S TRUE KING OF COMEDY."
Wrapping up with a "God bless you, and God bless the United States of America," I thought, No. God bless you, Jerry Lewis. You incorrigible sack of shit. Never die.
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