Early in the session to promote the upcoming Encore documentary “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis,” Lewis declared, “I’m the happiest old man you saw in your whole life.”
He then proceeded to spend the next half hour doing a spectacular impression of a much grumpier one.
Asked about the prospect of hosting his final MDA telethon this Labor Day, Lewis disputed that it would be his last, pulling a Brad Falchuk and blaming the news reports: “Do you remember when The New York Times printed ‘Dewey Wins’?” he asked. “Everything you read, read it twice.”
Asked about what a young comedian needs to do to break into the business today, he instead launched into a long monologue about “The Biggest Loser” (“Who gives a s–t?”), “American Idol” (“The kids who are on ‘American Idol,’ they’re all McDonald’s wipeouts… and of course, they’re all playing guitar, which takes the place of music”), the lack of appointment TV (in his day, “We ran home to see (Milton) Berle on a Tuesday night. Now, nobody wants to run home and see anything. They come home and hope there’s something.”), the woes of the movie business (“They put all of their product on the goddamn stupid phone. You’re gonna put ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ on that stupid sonuvabitch? That gets me crazy, pal”), and more. He even objected to the use of pop music to score movie and TV scenes, insisting, “You’re putting this vocal at the top of a film’s big moment, because they don’t want to spend what I spend on an 80-piece orchestra to score it.”
Asked to name his favorite physical comedians today, he of course named Jim Carrey (very influenced by Lewis, but also someone who’s tried as much as possible to move away from his physical comedy roots), and when pressed for more names, mentioned Billy Crystal and Robin Williams because, “They’re veterans. You never saw a young kid just in the business a few months get up and absolutely hypnoitize an audience. You need a veteran for that.”
(Somewhat ironically, one of the comedians paying homage to Lewis in the documentary is Eddie Murphy, who essentially did just that as a 19-year-old “Saturday Night Live” rookie.)
After a while, it seemed like the reporters in the room were just looking for other things for Lewis to complain about. I can’t think of another explanation for why he was asked for his opinion on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
“I think it’s wonderful for people that enjoy using it,” Lewis said, trying to be positive…
… before that monologue ultimately led to the phrase, “But we’re not going to have human beings in 20 years, that’s all. People are not conversing with people.”
“Am I depressing you folk?” Lewis eventually asked, recognizing how far afield things had gotten. “That wasn’t my purpose, I swear… Old people get crotchety, I’m told. I’m told.”
Finally, a reporter tried to circle back to the telethon question, but Lewis refused to clarify what his situation was, instead saying he’ll hold “an international press conference” the day after the telethon, “And I will have plenty to say about what I think is important, and that’s the future, not the past.”
The session should have been over at that point, but Lewis the old pro apparently realized he should end on a joke, rather than his tense interaction with the reporter asking about the telethon. (At one point, he said his future with the telethon was “none of your business.”) So he told the story of the time he took his daughter for a ride on the New York subway, and a punk in a leather suit with multi-colored, spiked hair caught Lewis staring at him and asked, “What’s the matter, old man? Didn’t you ever do anything extraordinary in your whole life?”
Lewis told him, “Yes, 25 years ago I had sex with a parrot. I thought you were my son!”
Jerry Lewis, ladies and gentlemen. Please, try the veal. (Or, failing that, go watch the amazing “Hearts of Twilight” episode of “Animaniacs.”)