Jerry Lewis can’t control himself. If an off-color gag is ricocheting inside his brain, it will come flying out of his mouth a second later. There’s no point in trying to stop it. For the past 70 years, this has mostly been a good thing. It’s made generations of people temporarily forget their misery and, in the process, made Lewis a very rich man. But when he steps on stage at the Kodak Theatre next month to receive the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, there’s no telling what’s going to happen. Not even Lewis knows.
”My staff asked me, ‘What are you going to do at the Oscars, J.L.?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to make it brief. I’m going to go up there, grab that award, and say, It’s about f—ing time!’ And walk off.”
Lewis doesn’t laugh. But he is kidding. We think.
The legendary comedian is a month shy of his 83rd birthday, but he looks a decade younger. Having rebounded from recent health woes, he’s now as impishly naughty and lightning fast as he was on stage at the Copa with Dean Martin, back when he was the antic man-child riffing next to the cool-as-ice straight man. Or back when he was doing double takes and pratfalls in his hit string of 1960s solo comedies like The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor. Or when he was bleary-eyed and ad-libbing for 48 hours straight, milking laughs and donations on his annual muscular dystrophy telethons.
Lewis’ office in Las Vegas is a time capsule of a bygone golden age of comedy. Everything is hermetically clean, superstitiously orderly, and most important, red: the carpet, his old-school IBM Selectric typewriter, the telephone, even the bowl of hard candy on the coffee table. The walls are covered with posters from his movies, flattering letters from Stan Laurel and Steven Spielberg, and a museum’s worth of photos of him with Dean, him with JFK, and him with Robert De Niro on the set of 1983’s The King of Comedy. He could charge admission at the door.
Behind a large, wooden wraparound desk sits the King himself, sharply dressed in a red argyle sweater over a crisp red button-down shirt. He wears a pair of black velvet slippers with gold filigree. His jet-black hair is slicked back with Vitalis as it’s been for the past 40 years. There’s also a plate of Krispy Kremes sitting just beyond his reach. Lewis eyeballs them every few minutes, until the uncontrollable voice in his brain can’t be quieted any longer. ”They look good, don’t they?” he asks. ”I honestly don’t know whether to eat ‘em or f— ‘em!” Maybe the producers of the Oscars should get that five-second tape delay ready.
Right off the bat, without prompting, Lewis says that he was floored when the Academy called to tell him about his honorary award — the result of 56 years of work on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). Lewis has raised more than $2 billion to help fight the neuromuscular disease — a cause he first got involved with after a friend whose nephew had the disease asked if Lewis would make an appeal for donations on The Colgate Comedy Hour, which he hosted with Martin.