The Day I Opened For Jerry Lewis — Sort Of

Published by Rick on Tagged Uncategorized

We were on the same bill, anyway. It was early September, 2002, and my friend Stephen Alan Green was putting together a comedy show for a charity known as High On Laughter. The event was to be at The Palladium Theatre in London, and I was excited to be on the bill, not so much because Jerry Lewis was headlining, as much as it reminded me of Lenny Bruce’s classic 20-minute semi-autobiographical bit about a lounge comic getting his chance to play the celebrated venue. Lewis is mentioned in the course of the bit, as in “He’s helping Muscular Dystrophy, which he brought about,” then uttering “Hey Dean” in Jerry’s trademark voice.

Stephen had gotten some notables from both sides of the pond to participate, including from UK, the 2002 Edinburgh Perrier winner Daniel Kitson and musical comic Earl Okin among others, and from the US, Paul Provenza, Bobcat Goldthwait, Margaret Cho, and future star Zach Galifianakis. To get Jerry Lewis on the show required much politicking and shmoozing, also involving a lesser known comic (since passed on) named Max Alexander, who was Jerry’s close friend, and the liaison between Stephen and Jerry. It made me cringe to see a very obese and unattractive man talking on stage about viagra, but the rest of the acts were all pretty top-notch. All the US comics worked for travel and lodging, though I was already here, so I worked totally gratis.

A few weeks earlier, I had been working in Portsmouth, and was hanging out talking with some people in the club about this gig I was doing at The Palladium, and the headliner was Jerry Lewis. The first response was, “Was he the one who married his cousin?” Not a good sign if they confuse Jerry with Jerry Lee! And it showed a few weeks later, as attendance at the 2286-seat venue was well under 1000. Kitson had one of the more memorable, albeit slightly tasteless, comments of the night when he said, “Great, only a third of a house here to see a dying man.”

Jerry, being the person we all suspected him to be, was making near impossible demands right up until the day of the show, backing out numerous times. Stephen had to pay first-class airfares for Jerry and his entourage, as well as for a five-star hotel, and also hire an orchestra of 20-25 musicians. So at least Jerry made it to London and was at the Palladium for the first time since he and Dean Martin had played it nearly 50 years before. Jerry was also supposed to be there earlier in the day to rehearse with the orchestra, but failed to show up for that.

Each comic was to do about 15 minutes, with a total of maybe 12 on the bill, and I believe it was after Goldthwait’s set that it was Jerry’s turn to take the stage. I had seen him earlier in the day sitting in his dressing room looking bloated and miserable, and it was only right before the show started that I learned of some of the craziness that had been going on for most of the previous month. Jerry had agreed to do the show only if Stephen stayed completely out of his way. So the glimpse I had seen of him was that of someone who really didn’t want to be there.

Before introducing Jerry, there was a video montage of some of his classic TV and film moments, though of the five minutes or so that was played, the only thing I recognised was his famous “lip-synch to Mario Lanza” bit. Absolutely nothing with Dean in it, which may have been another of Jerry’s demands. As the video was showing, I was sitting in the third row of the regular seating, near one of the stage door entrances. One of the stage managers was sitting near me when someone came rushing up to her from that side door, summoning her backstage immediately. I didn’t even have to guess what was going on, as there was a look of urgency on both their faces. Then with the video done, Stephen had to come out and try to make light of the situation, blaming technical difficulties, but fortunately there was another comic on reserve who was able to fill some time.

What happened was Jerry had collapsed while standing in the wings, and was having to be administered oxygen. What I heard later was that he really did have a seizure of sorts, but it was the sort of thing he could turn on and off and use if he felt it was necessary. By the time the ambulance arrived, he was up and breathing, and shunned the offer to be taken to the hospital, asking instead to be taken back to his hotel. Stephen didn’t know this at the time, so he gave a sombre announcement that Jerry had collapsed and was being taken to hospital, and sending out prayers. That other comic, whose name I can’t remember unfortunately, could actually put on his resumé that he headlined The Palladium, thanks to Jerry.

In the aftermath, Stephen lost over £100,000 producing that show, and there were no apologies or any other type of real communications from Jerry. He was at least able to turn the debacle into an Edinburgh Festival show the following year, called “I Eat People Like You For Breakfast,” a thing that Jerry had said to Stephen during one of the more heated moments. As for me, I got a positive mention in the Evening Standard newspaper’s review of the show, but also got a terrible review on the UK comedy website Chortle, which stayed for a couple of years until the reviewer saw me again and gave me an even worse one.

I can say I was only a few feet from Jerry Lewis, but never spoke a word to him, so unlike my show biz stories I’ve told before, I never got to meet the man. Maybe that’s just as well.

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