No, Jerry Lewis’ Rude Interview Isn’t Funny

This week The Hollywood Reporter posted “Creative Until You Die,” a series of interviews with ten legendary entertainers who are still going strong in their nineties. It included such beloved figures as Cloris Leachman, Don Rickles, and Dick Van Dyke. “Nine of the interviews went great,” THR stated. “One was a trainwreck.”

The trainwreck was a torturous, seven-minute interview, if it can be called that, with comic icon Jerry Lewis. It consists entirely of Lewis glaring impatiently and defiantly at his off-screen interviewer Andy Lewis (no relation, hopefully) and spitting out terse non-answers as Andy struggled to get something from the man THR charitably called “the famously difficult comedian.”

Andy Lewis wrote that he had “a bad feeling” about how things would go the second he stepped into Jerry’s Las Vegas home. “He looked angry. I already knew Lewis’ reputation for being difficult and acerbic with his audiences and in interviews. And he’s a well-known control freak.”

“Throughout the photo shoot,” Andy continued,

Lewis complained about the amount of equipment in the house, the number of assistants and how the shots were set up. By the time we sat down for the interview about an hour later, Lewis had worked up a full head of steam, and it seemed like he was punishing THR by doing the interview but being as uncooperative as possible.

“Have you ever thought about retiring?” Andy began.

“Why?” Jerry shot back, unsmiling.

“Was there never a moment that you thought it might be time to retire or that you would—”

“Why?” Lewis interrupted forcefully. And the interview went downhill from there.

Asked if he saw any similarities between himself and other nonagenarian entertainers, Lewis cut off the question with “None.” Asked if there was any difference between the Vegas of 1947, when Jerry first played there, and the Vegas of today, Lewis responded, “None.” Was the audience then any different from today? “No.” Do you have a favorite story of partner Dean Martin or any other entertainer you’ve worked with over the years? “No.” None at all? “None.” Anything else you wanna— “No.”

At one point Jerry cruelly mocks Andy’s uncomfortable laugh. It’s not a merely awkward moment—it’s an ugly one.

When the interview ends, Jerry immediately rises and says to the crew, “All right, clean it out of here.”

THR made light of it all, calling it both “awkward and funny” and claiming that it demonstrates just how “vital and completely engaged” the ninety-year-old still is. “He’s just engaged—almost happily so—in being difficult,” THR concluded. Ordinarily, being vital and completely engaged would be positive attributes for anyone of any age, but being happily engaged in being “difficult” at 90 is sad and shameful.

Many commenters beneath the THR article sided with Lewis and criticized the interviewer and his crew as amateurish, incompetent, and unprofessional. They felt that the old-timer Jerry had earned the right to be cantankerous and not to suffer fools gladly, and that the interview was funny. This too is a sad and shameful perspective.

Regardless of how uninspired Andy Lewis’ questions or interviewing style may or may not have been, Jerry’s undisguised antagonism insured that he and most other interviewers would be left floundering and self-conscious.

In any case, the interviewer’s role in this unpleasant exchange is frankly irrelevant. Assuming that THR’s version of the story is correct, Jerry Lewis was simply and inexcusably rude. Nothing justifies his mean-spirited non-cooperation. Neither advanced age nor professional stature nor fame earns one the “right” to be uncivil. But sadly, we tend to give celebrities a pass for being “difficult,” either because we expect artists to be or because we are undeservedly in awe of the rich and famous.

If Lewis was in a cranky mood or didn’t feel up to doing the interview that day, he could have postponed it. If the interviewer had been the antagonistic one, Jerry would have been justified in calling him out for it on camera or shutting down the interview, neither of which would have necessitated cruelty or incivility.

If the interviewer and his crew were amateurish, Jerry could have shown some professionalism and mentoring generosity by turning the interview into a “teachable moment,” as Barack Obama might say, and helping them up their game for the future. Granted, that’s hardly Lewis’ responsibility, but it would have earned him the crew’s gratitude and respect, and his profile in THR would have highlighted Jerry’s magnanimity and class rather than his belligerence and malice. As it is, his interview is certainly the most talked-about of the series, but for all the wrong reasons.

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  • Ray D.

    “They love Jerry Lewis in France – does that make him funny?” ~Steve Taylor

  • I had the opportunity to work with Jerry Lewis early in my career and there’s no question that generation interacts differently, and he can be a curmudgeon. However, in his defense:
    – This isn’t an interview, it’s just a list of questions. This interviewer wasn’t making any effort to engage him in conversation, just run down the list. And it was a random list to boot. Very little seemed to lead from one question to the next.
    – Because of that, I can see where Jerry didn’t feel much respect from the interviewer.
    – I wonder how much Jerry was prepped. It’s tough to do a compelling interview – particularly with someone his age – without spending time on the front end.
    – Speaking of preparation, I also wonder how much the interviewer studied Jerry’s life and work before he showed up. Doesn’t seem like he knows much about Jerry, and as I result, I can see why Jerry blew him off…
    – And finally – when you’re 90 and above, all bets are off… 🙂

  • Shelby McPherson

    Mr. Lewis is a living legend. The interviewers first question “Have you considered retiring” is simply an awful way to begin his interview. You clearly know nothing about him. I don’t blame him for his reaction. I hope (if you do make it to your 90s) the younger people around you will give you the respect due. Respectfully, in your 80’s, 90s’, you can do as you please. Your attempts to put Mr Lewis is a poor light won’t impact him at all. The bigger question is, who are you, and what’s been your contribution to humanity, that gives you the feeling you can skewer Jerry Lewis?

    • Peta Johnson

      Lewis is a total and complete jerk. He was 60 years ago. A leopard does not change its spots. Even Nixon hated him.

    • NOLIKEO

      You need to do some homework. Been an a$$ his entire life.

  • Lucas_D

    Given today’s society, I don’t think I’d be so openly antagonizing of my fellow man at an age when my hip bones are so easily breakable, but apparently getting to 90 earns you special rights to be mean-spirited, abusive and free to assume that it will always be safely tolerated by everyone. I guess that’s one way to justify clean living…

    No wonder Deano was an alcoholic.

  • stubbs

    If the man is ninety is it really out of the question that his hostility is simply an effect of age? As far as I know, most people lose some intellectual abilities by that age. But this story doesn’t raise that possibility. That is telling. And yes, I do know that there are happy and clear-thinking ninety-year olds out there.

    In my teenage years I worked for an ambulance service that did business by taking old people from a rest home to appointments with doctors about twenty miles away. I can tell you from that experience that there are many olld people who are not happy with the people around them or life in general, no matter their wealth or quality of care.

    My guess is that this interview should not have taken place. Once it did, it shouldn’t have been made the subject of an entire magazine article. Sometimes it would help to have an adult in the room who says this was simply a mistake and doesn’t try to get further mileage out of it.

    • Peta Johnson

      No, not in Lewis’ case. He is a total jerk – always was.

    • NOLIKEO

      He’s been a jerk his entire life. My aunt met him in his heyday and spoke to him, he was very rude then,

  • InklingBooks

    Given the reputation Jerry Lewis has, why did they bother with this interview and why did he agree to it? It makes no sense, and reporting on it makes even less.

    The Hollywood Reporter could have found an older entertainer more willing and deserving of an interview. Some would love the attention and be quite cooperative.

    • NOLIKEO

      He’s now out of his misery.

  • Larry Zamba

    Jerry Lewis is one of the luckiest people on earth. Most of his act at the zenith career in the early 1960’s consisted of making stupid noises and faces. I never thought he was funny or impressed at anything he did, even as a kid in the 1960’s.

    I thought the writer hit it home with this article.

    • Peta Johnson

      Nixon had him on his enemies list. Nixon was right about a lot of things. Lewis is a jerk. As a child, I thought his acting was appallingly poor. I have avoided him ever since. Dean Martin was a talent. Lewis was lucky to have him. Lewis is like a tenth rate Mr. Bean.

  • NOLIKEO

    What an a$$!! I feltl for the reporter. I had an aunt who met him at an event many years ago, and she spoke to him, he was extremely rude. I knew that. There’s something that is obnoxious about someone giving one word curt answers. The poor interviewer got a crappy job. RUDE beyond the pale. Miserable sob.