Jerry Lewis has worn a multiplicity of hats over his eight decades in the entertainment business. In the Encore channel's documentary Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis, filmmaker Gregg Barson takes us on a journey through it all: from Lewis’s early years with Dean Martin to his solo career as an actor, filmmaker, and comedy legend.
For Barson, the documentary was a labor of love, a celebration of the life of a man he’s admired since childhood. To be able to create the film with its subject’s blessing was something for which Barson was exceedingly grateful.
During our conversation, Barson couldn’t hide his excitement about fulfilling his dream of working with and honoring one of his longstanding heroes — something many filmmakers never get to do. Barson’s filmmaking career began in 2004 with his Phyllis Diller documentary Goodnight, We Love You. The project, ironically, would be instrumental in getting him to meet Jerry Lewis.
“That night I was shooting her final concert, one of my camera guys said Jerry Lewis was in the room. I looked in the monitor and I saw Jerry Lewis and his party sitting at a table. I was kind of obsessing about it but knew I had to work. So I finished the show and my wife said, 'Go say hi to Jerry. He’s your idol.' So I went into the casino and he was at the blackjack table. He had this huge stack of cash in front of him and everyone’s screaming. It was a bizarre scene.
"His son noticed me and said, 'Do you want to say hi to Dad?' And I said, 'Well, let’s wait ‘til he wins.' His son nudged me forward and Jerry took my hand. I gave him my business card and that was it. The next day I get back to Los Angeles and Jerry Lewis phoned me. I couldn’t believe it. We talked for like 20 minutes. I couldn’t quite fathom it. For the whole summer we had a phone conversation relationship. We hit it off. I went to his yacht in San Diego, went out to dinner with him and a group of people and I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I said let’s keep in touch and he had no problem with that.”
A few years later Barson asked Lewis if he would consent to being filmed for a documentary. Lewis said, “Get in line, kid. There’s 12 or 14 people in front of you,” to which Barson replied, “Yeah, but they’re not me.” Lewis was impressed by the response and by Barson’s confidence. “That’s the kind of conviction you have to have,” Lewis told him. “That reminds me of me.” It was the turning point and from then on, Barson knew he had a shot at getting Lewis to cooperate with the making of the film.
A year later, Barson saw a sign advertising Lewis playing a live show in Palm Springs and made his request again. “When the chemistry’s right,” Lewis said, “we’ll do it.” A couple of months later, after his seven year long quest, Lewis gave his okay for Barson to begin shooting his film.
“It wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t just like a dog with a bone. I would not let go of it. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t because I couldn’t think of anyone else’s [story] I wanted to do.”
The end result is a film that is remarkably upbeat and positive, focusing more on Lewis’s comedic genius and his skills as a filmmaker than his illnesses and tales of arrogance and ego that have plagued his latter years. “So many people want to take pot shots at legends,” Barson said. “But I like to do uplifting, happy types of movies. I wasn’t doing an expose on someone’s dirty laundry.”
The almost manic devotion of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin fans back in the ‘50s was something many people who didn’t live through it might not be aware of. Barson's film includes amazing footage of people crowding the streets below the comedy duo’s hotel window to get a glimpse of the stars. Why did Martin and Lewis inspire such adoration? “It’s shocking to people when they see that,” Barson agreed. “In the early ‘50s and late ‘40s, after World War II, everyone was happy to be alive, first of all. These two guys were young, attractive, and carefree. You could feel they were having so much fun together. It was almost like they were unabashedly in love with each other and in love with what they were doing. All those things came together.”
Except for the famous reunion of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on the MDA telethon, Barson didn’t otherwise touch upon Lewis’s annual charity event. “I just [included] the reunion with Martin and Lewis because that was always the highlight of the telethon for me. I admire all the stuff that he’s done. He’s raised almost two billion dollars. You won’t see that ever again. Who’s going to do that? I admired it but I didn’t want it to be part of my movie because it was more about the showbiz part and his filmmaking, acting, directing. To me, he was funny on those shows and a great host but that was more of a different Jerry, another side of him. That was more of what he did in his personal life. It wasn’t about the artistry of Jerry Lewis.”
Did Lewis have a say as to what did and what didn’t go into the final cut of the film? “Throughout the whole process and from very early on I thought it was best to get a gauge on what his reaction would be. I would cut a segment or pieces of a segment and fly them by him so he could screen some stuff. He is the great filmmaker and I didn’t want him to think I was butchering his baby. There were a lot of clips and I would mash them up to make them all fresh and relevant, which they were and still are. But I’m trying to give them to an audience from today’s perspective. I wanted to make sure he was comfortable with the way I treated his stuff. Once he saw what I did with it and the style, he loved it.
“He did give me input on things like his performance onstage or jokes. Even like a spotlight in the concert show I shot. He’d notice everything about every facet of show business. He was concerned more about his own performance in concert as opposed to what I was doing with making the movie, which I thought was great. That’s what he should focus on because that’s what he knows best.”
“Overall, making a film about a filmmaker could be very intimidating, especially when it’s Jerry Lewis, who knows more about it than you do or probably ever will. But it ended up working beautifully because he was really pleased with the movie.”
What would Barson like viewers to take away from this very personal film, this celebration of an iconic artist’s influence on the likes Eddie Murphy, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarentino (who are interviewed in the film), as well as anyone who loves and appreciate Lewis’s artistry? “I want them to think about how from today’s perspective that there’s nobody like him and there probably couldn’t be again because of his background. Who has a career where their mom and dad were the last of the vaudevillians? He learned from them and he learned from all of his heroes before that, like Chaplin. It was just a time and place that he was alive and that he experienced all these things. Then he went into stand-up in the ‘40s, made movie after movie with Dean Martin. He’s almost like the Forrest Gump of comedy. He’s been everywhere. He’s lived it all. In the movie, Richard Belzer says, ‘He bridges old Hollywood and now.’ Jerry’s lived it all.”
Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis premiered December 17 on the Encore channel.