Since my week-long sojourn into the life of character actress Mary Wickes was such an overwhelming success, I’ve decided to make famed comedienne Joan Rivers my next subject! Since Joan absolutely adored Thanksgiving, I decided to christen this week JOAN RIVERS WEEK on my blog! November 21st through 25th we’ll be exploring five surprise facets of Ms. Rivers thrilling personality.
Today’s blog has the relationship between Joan and famed comedian Jerry Lewis and its core. Suffice it to say, their relationship was about as congenial as a bear sodomizing a rabbit.
In her recent biography Last Girl Before Freeway, which I reviewed yesterday, Leslie Bennetts set the stage for their imbroglio: “Would-be rivals weren’t the only men who expressed their hostility [for Joan.] For nearly sixty years, Jerry Lewis hosted an annual Labor Day Telethon to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association…Rivers offended the legend by voicing her revulsion at the way he used the children’s disabilities as fodder for his own melodramatic histrionics.” (Bennetts 66)
Rivers appeared on the telethon one year and, afterward, Rivers publically opined that “he was standing there with a child next to him saying, ‘This kid is gonna die.'” Rivers was incensed by the blatant exploitation of the children, saying that she would “never do the telethon again.” “You do not say in front of a little boy who is going to die, ‘This child is going to die.’,” she fumed. “Who are you? You unfunny lucky, stupid asshole.” (Bennetts 66-67)
If Rivers’ statement may seem harsh, Lewis’s response was even more severe. Lewis sent her a scathing letting, starting with goading over the fact that they had “never met” and he was “looking forward to keeping it that way.” “If you find it necessary to discuss me, my career, or my kids ever again,” he roared,” I promise you I will get somebody from Chicago to beat your goddamned head off.” (Bennetts 67)
Lewis did not leave well enough alone, reminding her of the legal fact that “you’re not allowed to threaten people.” “So if you go to [the police, show them this letter, they’ll arrest me,” he stated, “but I want you to never forget what I said.” (Bennetts 67)
Rivers, uncharacteristically, was forced into silence. “Done,” she said, “never talking about him again!” She took the threat seriously, and even “hired guards” though she didn’t “take him to court.” “My last words are not gonna be ‘But I was only kidding!'” (Bennetts 67)
Now, one has to ask: why do two comic geniuses have to resort to such petty name-calling? The simple answer is that Rivers had a poisoned tongue and Lewis has a historically thin skin.
Rivers point is actually a valid one, ethically. Though Lewis’s telethons do net a lot of money for the MDA, at what cost is that accomplished? Parading these children around like ticking time-bombs is accomplishing nothing but making the child look miserable and Lewis, to quote Rivers, like “an asshole.”
Lewis’s reputation proceeds him, as Rivers herself illustrates in her second memoir Still Talking, published in 1991. In 1968, Rivers was the host of That Show, designed to be a buffer between The Today Show and the morning game shows on NBC. “Jerry Lewis,” writes Rivers, “came on our dumb little show like a big king, demanding everything.” She describes him having “arrived late, full of being Jerry Lewis” and wanting “a bigger dressing room…champagne… and flowers.” “Two thirds [sic.] of the way through the show,” Rivers watched in horror as he “looked at his watch and said, ‘I’ve got to go’ and walked out.” (Rivers 76)
Celebrity, to Lewis, is something to be flaunted with extreme abandon and relish. To Rivers, it is a holy shrine to be honored and respected. For all of her appearance of shallowness, Rivers never flaunted her celebrity or made unnecessary demands of the people around her. She was a perfectionist, yes, but her perfectionism was grounded in rational thinking.
Lewis, for how ground-breaking and truly funny he was, really was and is an incredibly difficult person (which is part of the reason he hasn’t worked in mainstream media in years.) Rivers worked, literally, until the day she died, because she had what it takes to fashion comedy into a life-long career. Lewis has no’d and demanded himself out of a job, leaving a great legacy, but cutting off his creative future.
The relationship between Rivers and Lewis is a clear-cut example of two differing world views clashing in an epic way. If Rivers didn’t have such an acid tongue and Lewis had a longer fuse, they might have done great things together.
Until the end, Rivers spoke of Lewis with disdain, and vice versa. In 2014, Lewis was interview by Maria Menounos on SiriusXM and she asked him to comment on Rivers’ death. “I always feel bad when somebody passes away – except if it was Joan Rivers.” “She set Jews back a thousand years.” (Bennetts 67)
Likewise, before her death, Anderson Cooper mentioned Lewis’ warning in an interview with Rivers. Again, her spicy tongue set forth a perfect epitaph for her relationship with Lewis: “Well, when did we last laugh at Jerry Lewis? Look, the French think he’s funny. Those idiots.”
My friends, sometimes it’s just better to let sleeping dogs lie, especially if they “know people in Chicago.”
Bennetts, Leslie. Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers. , 2016. Print.
Rivers, Joan, and Richard Meryman. Still Talking. New York: Turtle Bay Books/Random House, 1991. Print.
*I invite you to continue to join me this entire week (November 21st-25th) for a Thanksgiving Celebration of The Life of Joan Rivers!*
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