Jerry Lewis’ brilliant career spanned the better part of his 91 years, from the rollicking comedies as Dean Martin's sidekick and later as a solo performer, to raising more than $2.5 billion for the fight against Muscular Dystrophy through his Labor Day telethon.
But the icon, who died Sunday at his home in Las Vegas, was also well known for his 2000 bombshell comment during the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, dropped before a packed room in the St. Regis hotel.
The response to a question about what women comedians Lewis found funny was "none"; that was partly because their gender was burdened with the duty of reproduction, he suggested.
I remember the February night well, having scrunched into a tight row of chairs with other media members in the packed St. Regis ballroom waiting with nervous anticipation for this legend’s one-on-one interview with Martin Short, a comic hall-of-famer in his own right.
Public interest was high here during some of the heyday years of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival’s 13-year run. Reporting as a stringer for the Associated Press, we waited through some softball introductory questions volleyed by Short.
The comics sipped wine on the makeshift stage in the hot room as Short wound up with the question about which women comics Lewis admired.
“I don’t like any female comedians,” Lewis said, and the gasps in the room were audible, though at first people thought he was joking.
After Short pressed on whether Lucille Ball was on the short list, “you must have loved her,” he asked, Lewis instead dug in: “No. A woman doing comedy doesn’t offend me but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world.”
His schtick sputtered to an end and Lewis retreated from the press post interview as the ballroom scene devolved into confusion.
My AP story immediately went national and was then picked up overseas, including Paris, where Lewis had a huge following and had received the prestigious Legion of Honor award in 1983.
During the 2001 comedy festival, Stu Smiley, one of its producers, ribbed me about what it was like to bring down an icon, and “ruin Jerry Lewis’ career.”
In subsequent years, Lewis would soften his stance on women comics slightly, after being called out too many times and ending up as a punch line from funny folks like Chelsea Handler and Tina Fey.
According to Variety magazine, up until 2016, “Lewis continued to perform in Las Vegas, where he first debuted his comedy routine back in 1949.”