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Jerry Lewis Was Bigger Than Elvis by Wal Ozello

Jerry Lewis, comedian and filmmaker, died on Sunday morning, August 20 at age 91. Pencilstorm writer Wal Ozello shares his memories of Jerry.

I met Jerry Lewis in 1995.  At the time, I was a video editor for A&E Biography and my company was doing a show on Dean Martin.  The company was a small one and everyone did double duty.  So when I wasn’t in the edit room, I went on the interviews as a camera assit.  My director, Brice Shipley, had scored what was soon to be one of the biggest interviews of all our lives: 20 minutes with Jerry Lewis.  Over the years, we interviewed dozens of big names.  Bill Cosby, Steve Allen, Tony Bennett to name a few.  But all of them paled in comparison to Jerry.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were a big part of my youth.  Growing up in Cleveland, the only thing on TV on Saturday afternoons was Super Host showing films from the 50s and 60s which included The Caddy, At War with the Army, My Friend Irma Goes West, and Pardners - all Martin and Lewis films.  Jerry’s solo films is where he really shined: The Bellboy, Cinderfella, The Geisha Boy, The Family Jewels and the infamous, The Nutty Professor. These movies were comedic gold. If you've never seen the original The Nutty Professor, you're missing out.

Before there was Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey, there was Jerry Lewis.  All are bland cardboard characters compared to the comedic genius of Jerry.  Either with Dean or without him, Jerry knew how to entertain like none other.

And how big was Martin and Lewis?  They were bigger than Springsteen, Simon and Garfunkel, Abbott and Costello, and even Lennon and McCartney.  Jerry’s credited in more than 50 films on imdb, many of which he wrote, produced and directed. He and Dean hosted several episodes of the Colgate Comedy Hour which was on NBC opposite The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS.  Martin & Lewis beat Ed Sullivan in the ratings forty times in a row… by double digits. Let me put that in perspective.  The Ed Sullivan Show was as big as Game of Thrones is on Sunday night.  When Martin & Lewis were on the Colgate Comedy Hour, people watched them instead.

They’d also do live shows, selling out week-long shows at the 4,000 seat Paramount Theatre and packing the streets with 75,000 people trying to get a glimpse of them from their hotel window. (See footage below.)

Jerry was also a Broadway performer.  He appeared in the revival of Damn Yankees which was how we ended up interviewing him. I was one of four people allowed in the room and we were told to keep it to 20 minutes.  Jerry ended up giving us 45.  After the interview was over, Jerry chatted up my director and me.  I think he was impressed that two guys in their early twenties new so much about his career and were in awe.  Jerry was 69 at the time and still giving it his all performing. During our conversation, Jerry casually called me a “fucking dago.” While to most Italians this is an insult, Jerry meant it as a compliment, as if I was suddenly “in” with him.  That moment is probably one of the top ten highlights of my career.

Jerry Lewis was the biggest entertainer that ever lived.  Imagine an amalgamation of Robin Williams, John Landis, Judd Apatow, Nathan Lane, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Presley.  He was bigger than all of them combined. I consider myself fortunate to have met him and even more fortunate to be entertained by him.  Rest in peace, funny guy and thanks for the laughs.

Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis at the New York Paramount 4 July 1951. Absolute bedlam on 44th Street! Come on up for coffee!
Jerry Lewis sings "We've Got a World That Swings" from the film, The Nutty Professor, (1963) directed by Jerry Lewis, featuring Les Brown and His Band of Renown. The song was composed by Lil Mattis and Louis Y Brown.

Clip from Martin & Lewis Colgate Comedy Hour.

The Password scene from the movie "Which Way To The Front" with Jerry Lewis

Wal Ozello is the lead singer of the Columbus hairband Armada. He's the author of the science fiction time travel books: Assignment 1989, Revolution 1990 and Sacrifice 2086 and a frequent customer at Colin's Coffee. As a local filmmaker, Wal has directed Dad Can't Help You Now by Colin Gawel and the short film, Alone.