Jerry Lewis in Morristown: Fans allowed no funny business at his last gig here

Jerry Lewis has a laugh in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Jerry Lewis has a laugh in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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When legendary comedian Jerry Lewis, who died Sunday at age 91, brought his one-man retrospective to Morristown four years ago, I braced for a caustic, cringe-worthy evening.

Lewis could skewer fans if he was in a sour mood, making the late Don Rickles, the “Merchant of Venom,” look warm and cuddly by comparison.

Instead, it turned into a love fest at the Mayo Performing Arts Center. Lewis half-apologized; he could not launch any zingers during the Q & A. Fans were too busy eulogizing him.

So it seems fitting to re-run our review, originally published on April 8, 2013.

R.I.P., Jerry.

“I wake up in the morning, and when I open my eyes, I’m a hit! I don’t have to do anything after that. Once the eyes open, and I know I have another day, I’m happy as a clam. That’s the way you gotta be.” –Jerry Lewis at MPAC.

Jerry Lewis finally meets his match, in Morristown

April 8, 2013

By Kevin Coughlin

A funny thing happened at the Mayo Performing Arts Center the other night.

Jerry Lewis played the straight man.

This probably was historic; his fans could tell you for sure.

They may have derailed a train wreck, if such a maneuver is possible.

HOLD THE MAYO! Jerry Lewis hams it up at MPAC. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
HOLD THE MAYO! Jerry Lewis hams it up at MPAC. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

A friend who saw the legendary comedian’s two-hour retrospective a night earlier in Bergen County described a brutal question-and-answer session, with Jerry abusing adoring fans in a manner that would have made Don Rickles blush.

This squared with memories of Jerry’s final Labor Day telethon, a slash-and-burn exercise in bad taste that was a sad coda to his heroic efforts on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, for which he raised, by his count, some $2.6 billion over four decades.

Friday’s show in Morristown started on a promising note. Jerry cracked jokes and showed movie and TV clips that had the theater roaring.

Few comics cleave as sharp a divide as Jerry Lewis. One camp worships this Sultan of Silly, who at 87 still proudly taps his inner 9-year-old. Others scratch their heads and wonder why the French have made him their favorite American import.

We have been among the head-scratchers. But Friday’s clips made us resolve to give his movies another look.

Please click icon below for captions.

‘WAITING FOR A WACKO’

Then came the audience Q & A.

Two long rows of the faithful queued up like lambs being led to slaughter.

Jerry’s orders were blunt: Please don’t waste everyone’s time gushing, “I love you, Jerry.”

But the fans paid their money and would not be denied.

This was a gush-fest worthy of Niagara Falls.

Jerry endured emotional thanks for raising all that money for MDA. And for providing inspiration to cope with a chronic illness. And for lots of laughs.

A mom trotted her tween to the microphone and related the boy’s frustrating efforts to spread the Gospel of Jerry to clueless pals.

Jerry Lewis cracks wise to appreciative fans in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Jerry Lewis cracks wise to appreciative fans in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

One fan practically burst into tears recounting a phone call from Jerry. Another tried to hand him a script. Fans did schtick, fans did impersonations.

There were queries about Jerry’s boyhood haunts–a bagel shop in Newark, a sledding hill in Irvington, gatherings at Uncle Bernie’s house in 1945.

Someone asked about a zany high school incident; another fan wanted to know the precise Manhattan corner where Jerry first shook hands with Dean Martin–and was it the northwest corner?

Jerry cut a few people short, questioned some genders, and mostly steered clear of Memory Lane.

“I’m waiting for some wacko to get up here so I can have some fun!” he lamented.

But resistance was futile. When a fan observed about how great Jerry looked, the comic retorted: “What did you expect, a cadaver?”

The evening did feel a little like a wake–except in this case, the not-yet-dearly-departed could enjoy the eulogies. And the roses smelled good.

“I usually get crazier in the Q&A,” Jerry said, almost apologetically. “But there’s lovely things coming out of the mouths of these people, and it’s difficult to do comedy against passion and a spirit and an energy that an individual comes up with. So you really have to give up on some things that might be funny when they don’t really belong in this particular venue at this particular time.”

‘HAPPY AS A CLAM’

No blood-bath tonight, happily. If we had a quibble, it was Jerry’s reluctance to share. He hinted that inside baseball would be boring. Hardly.

Jerry allowed how he regretted splitting with Dean Martin in 1956, but revealed little about their relationship. The Kennedys, Marilyn, Sinatra…the names flew fast.

What were these characters really like?

Jerry left the telethon, he said, simply because he no longer had enough physical stamina. But he said he just finished filming Max Rose, and is bringing The Nutty Professor to Broadway in October.

As a movie director, Jerry was a technological innovator. At UCLA, he taught a young Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. A few minutes about that would have been fascinating.

However, he shared some advice for aspiring auteurs.

Jerry Lewis has a laugh in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Jerry Lewis has a laugh in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Follow your heart. If you follow your heart in a field that you love, you will bring a passion to that, and you will bring an energy, and a spirit that you cannot find elsewhere but within your own heart. Do that, follow your heart and go after it with a passion and a spirit and with a hope and a prayer that it works out for you.”

As for these concert tours, he said, there is no point in stopping.

“Stop for what? Why would I stop? I love what I do. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish. And I have a spirit and an energy that drives me constantly. And it’s good because it’s real. And if you got something real, there’s nothing better than that.”

With a medical history that would fill several volumes, Jerry wisecracked that his biggest goal now is just making it to 88.

“I wake up in the morning, and when I open my eyes, I’m a hit! I don’t have to do anything after that. Once the eyes open, and I know I have another day, I’m happy as a clam. That’s the way you gotta be.”

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