SEPTEMBER 7, 2017 – I met Jerry Lewis when I was in my early 30s. My comedy writing partner at the time, Doug Kor, and I had one main client: Marc Price, fresh off his stint as Skippy, the nerdy next door neighbor to the Keatons from the hit series “Family Ties.”
What happened next was unbelievable. Jerry Lewis was a huge fan of Marc’s. He watched “Family Ties” (which ran from 1982 to 1989) and saw a lot of himself in Marc’s physical comedy prowess. Jerry wanted to remake one of his movies, with Marc as the star. He asked to meet with us ASAP – in Las Vegas, where he lived.
Jerry enthusiastically greeted us outside Caesars Palace in a very dapper, all-white tennis outfit and quickly led us inside the hall of bling. Walking through Caesars Palace with Jerry Lewis was akin to walking through a zoo … but with the most popular animal and the zookeeper – merged into one – strolling next to you.
Everyone recognized Jerry. Every Caesars staff member we passed greeted him reverentially as if he was their boss – Jerry ran the place!
At lunch, Jerry was everything: funny, contemplative, ridiculous, offensive, self-indulgent, the ultimate raconteur. He was putting on a show for us so Doug, Marc, and I just sat back and went for the ride. There were stories about him and Dean Martin: “Everyone thought Dean got all the women, but actually I did better; they all wanted to burp me.”
Who was this guy?
Jerry Lewis was a great comedic master, I thought, a brilliant film director and television pioneer. Jerry Lewis was that guy on TV who got me to care about human suffering, so that I would spend weeks each summer collecting money door to door with a rusted Folgers coffee can. Jerry Lewis was an insanely creative, childlike, comedic presence who helped me cope with lonely Saturdays with his funny and comforting films.
Jerry Lewis, born Jerome Joseph Levitch, was a lot like me: the awkward, misfit Jew, a classic cut-up. But somehow, he made it so big in the ’60s that nearly an entire continent – which had mostly ignored the Holocaust just 15 years earlier – considered him one of the greatest artists who ever walked the earth.
Jerry wasn’t “The Nutty Professor” when he told us this that day in Las Vegas:
“Comedy is all weights and measures.”
He went on. “In the movie ‘The Patsy,’ the Jerry character bumps into a lamp on a nightstand, the lamp falls, but the Jerry character quickly grabs it just before it crashes onto the floor. But for one second if that lamp doesn’t quite look heavy enough for an audience to believe that it will smash into pieces on impact, there is no laugh. We spent hours finding just the right weight of the lamp to make the gag work. It’s all weights and measures.”
Wow! Jerry had just shared the essence of my life pursuit – there is no comedy unless the situation is believable. Here is where the anguish of the comedy writer resides – in making it convincing – the weights and measures! My God, Jerry Lewis is actually … Jerry Lewis!
We left Vegas renewed and beaming with optimism.
A few weeks later, we had the big meeting at the studio in LA to fund the film venture. Only New World showed real interest. Jerry pulled up in a limo and he was amazing. The Hollywood suits were in full form, flattering him with over-the-top adulation while conversely deriding him for his recent cinematic flops – all obvious posturing to get him to go much lower on his fees.
But Jerry would have none of it. “My films have generated a billion dollars and most of them were made when ticket sales were 25 cents.” That shut them up! At least in the meeting.
Jerry would not give in to their low-ball offer (of course for us, it was boatload of cash).
New World passed, and life went on. We lost touch with Jerry. Doug and I left the management company, and Marc hit the road as a stand-up comic.
A few years later, we were all stunned but not surprised to see an announcement in Variety that Eddie Murphy and Universal Pictures were remaking Jerry’s classic, “The Nutty Professor.” Jerry was right not to agree to terms with New World. There was a big payoff for him in remaking his films.
We never got our big payoff, but Jerry’s sage comedy advice and his unwavering self-confidence in his comedic ability rubbed off on me, and that might have been enough. Not long after, I finally achieved my dream: I was made editor-in-chief of National Lampoon.
Jerry Lewis is gone now. But he lives on in every smiling child anywhere in the world who happens to gaze on his funny movies; in any charity event or silent auction that someone puts together to raise money to end human suffering.
He lives on in me as a comedic genius who rests on my shoulder and reminds me of weights and measures.
Scott Rubin is an Indie film director/writer. His new film, “The Rainbow Bridge Motel,” will be released this fall.