In 1998 Jerry Lewis said that watching women do comedy, “Sets him back a bit.” In 2000 he said in front of a crowd at a comedy festival, “I don’t like any female comedians.” Now, when asked who is favorite female comedians are he replies, “I don’t have any.” In regards to women doing broad comedy, “I can’t see women doing that. It bothers me.”
When I first read this I just rolled my eyes the way many of my fellow funny femmes do. We’re used to this sort of nonsense coming from the likes of Jerry Lewis, Adam Carola and some other guy I can’t remember. Why not just ignore the bone-heads of the world and simply continue on with the comedy? Personally, I never cared for the other bozo’s who offer up this opinion but Jerry, Jerry is different. I grew up watching his movies with my mom and adoring him. My mom told me once that when she was sick in the hospital as a little girl the only thing that made her feel better was watching the adorable, young silly antics of Jerry in Cinderfella, The Bell Boy, The Errand Boy and The Nutty Professor. My mom told me that she believes she got better because of the laughter he brought her. Years later when I met Jerry backstage at his Vegas show, I told him this story. His reaction… he didn’t give a shit. Now, I’m a Hollywood native and lifelong actress. I’ve worked with several stars so I know not to expect more from a person just because they are on television or in the movies. People have bad days and not everyone is super social. It’s cool. Except he wasn’t cool. Not even a little. Not even a smidge of an attempt to make eye contact. He seemed to possess a general sense of annoyance. Maybe he sensed that I am smart with, God forbid, a kick-ass sense of humor, and that scared the shit out of him. Or maybe, he’s just a big, ole grumpy-pants.
But why would anyone declare an entire group of humans “unfunny.” Can you imagine if he said that about any other group of people? Another race? That wouldn’t fly. I mean I would never say that old, grumpy geezers who used to be funny are no longer funny. I would just say, Jerry Lewis is lame. See? Much better to be specific. Maybe men who think this way have a few issues we should address. Maybe these men have moms who were total cut-ups and always upstaged them at the dinner table, getting more laughs than them, prepping them for a lifetime of resentment. Maybe a funny woman broke their hearts in a hilarious fashion and then used their relationship for material in her best selling book and stand-up act. Maybe… and I could be on to something here… maybe… they are just old. Now, I love old folks, I always have. My parents had me when they were well into middle age so they are currently octogenarians. My dad, an 88 year old playwright, is a big fan of humor. I’ve heard him laugh hardily at Mae West movies and he’s the one to first introduce me to the wonderful, classic comics Elaine May and Gracie Allen. Actually, in real life, I’ve never heard a man, of any age, share Jerry’s opinion. But, and here’s where it gets tricky… if the majority of men don’ t feel this way and the majority of television comedies are produced by men, then why are the numbers still the way they are? The numbers I’m referring to are the amount of female writers staffed on these shows compared to men. It’s not even half, people! It’s crazy-town. Some say it’s because there are less female writers than men. If that’s true, why aren’t they seeking out the new ones that popping up all over the place? Can’t they find us? I’m pretty sure new female comedy writers join the guild each year (HELLO!!) and a bunch can be found online blogging, writing web-series and on twitter. Makes me think, they must not be looking very hard. But, I digress…. Back to my “maybe they are old” point. Not everyone has the ability to change with the times and I believe, poor Jerry, is one of those people.
Lewis is my dad’s age. Back in their day, women were raised to behave a certain way. Stepford-like to our modern standards, yes, but it was what it was. Women were not encouraged to be larger than life, outspoken, outrageous or to follow their dreams. They weren’t taught that they could do and be anything. They were not praised for having spunk. Remember, Lou Grant hated spunk (Ed Asner, also in his 80s now.) Women were encouraged to keep house, raise a family and if they worked, they were in “appropriate” jobs like secretaries and teachers. Don’t get me wrong, being a secretary or a teacher is fantastic. Unless it’s not what your heart desires. But there was a time when women didn’t think much of “their heart’s desire.” At least not out loud, because it just wasn’t done. Was it okay to be a funny teacher or secretary? I don’t know, but my guess is humor was considered a more aggressive way of expression and it was the boys making the funny faces and girls were told “Don’t do that with your face it’s not pretty!” So, if ladies behaved a certain way and a young boy grows up watching this behavior, he may associate that behavior with what it means to be a woman. Being loud, proud, sarcastic, ballsy (heck “balls” are even in the word!) were qualities that were reserved for men. When a woman should venture into comedy territory, I suppose if they kept it super sweet, it would have been acceptable, but anything that swayed too much into the male territory of outright HA-HAS, well, that young boy who grew up seeing and believing women didn’t act that way… he might very well find it all a bit… “bothersome.”
So, what to do with this information that some old fellas still seem to hold onto? If any of them are showrunners, knock them upside their heads with laughter. If you can get to them. As for you, Jerry Lewis, I will not allow you to erase my memories of a younger you. I will always love the affable Jerry that I keep in my mind, frozen in time. I lied and told my mom that you said, “thank you” and that you were very happy to hear that your comedy helped her feel better. Hey, just like many funny men and women are currently doing! Spreading joy and creating laughter! Isn’t that great? Thankfully, it’s not really about you at all, my sweet Cinderfella, it’s about the laughter.
Vanity Fair Article: