Jerry Lewis' Flop TV Talk Show

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

In 1962, Jack Paar, the controversial but popular host of late night TV's popular talk show The Tonight Show, unexpectedly quit. Johnny Carson was chosen to be the NBC show's new host. In the meanwhile, several temporary guest hosts took over the show's hosting chores, including Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Jan Murray. And Jerry Lewis.

Jerry did a stellar job as a Tonight Show guest host and ABC had brainstorm. Why not give Jerry Lewis his very own talk show?

At the time, Jerry was already the number one comedian in movies and obviously didn't "need the work." But with the enticement of several million dollars, Jerry accepted the ABC offer.

"I’ll be in complete control", Jerry said proudly at the press conference announcing the show. "I’ll be doing something I’ve never done before," he added. "It'll be what the people want. I’ll be playing it loose. I’ll be what i'm with. I suppose I’ll have guests" (The "I suppose I’ll have guests" line, stated by a talk show host, should have sent red flag up to the ABC suits, but no).

"He wouldn't tell us what the show's format was," recalled ABC president Leonard Goldson, "He kept giving us double-talk and double-talk and double-talk, insisting he would take the country by storm."

Jerry had several odd, inexplicable demands, including insisting there be no deodorant advertising in the time slot. (???)

Jerry orchestrated a massive renovation of Hollywood's El Capitan Theater on Vine Street. His first bit of business was renaming it the more modest-sounding "Jerry Lewis Theater." Then, money apparently being no object, Jerry's renovation plans went into effect. The walls were lined with gold vinyl wallpaper and the stairs with eighteen hundred yards of thick red carpet. An outdoor patio was built, with a speaker system installed within the brick, playing music as embers flared. According to Lewis biographer Shawn Levy, "The very wiring and plumbing had been replaced."

Jerry's host desk would be equipped with a control panel that allowed him to override the show's director and control shots while the show was in progress (at a cost of thirty thousand dollars).

"Oh my god, the money," said ABC producer Bill Harbach, "Oh Jesus, there was a plaque of his profile in bronze in the cement. His dressing room was all brass fittings and mirrors."

Comedian Phil Silvers took it all in and told Jerry, "It's a little nauseating. The designer of this joint must have been smoking hashish."

As if money wasn't already being spent like water, Jerry insisted that each cameraman and staffer be decked out in a formal tuxedo. Over-expensive preparations finally done, on September 21, 1963, The Jerry Lewis Show made it's debut on ABC.

The Jerry Lewis Show, unlike most other talk shows, was a two-hour long affair (instead of the customary hour or 90 minutes). Scheduled guests that evening were comedian Mort Sahl, singer Kaye Stevens, crooner Jack Jones, and author Cliff Fadiman. Jimmy Durante, Steve Allen and Robert Stack made surprise appearances.

Besides the monotonous boredom of the overlong show itself, mechanical  and technical difficulties ensued. As Jerry greeted the audience with a cordial "I’d like to say welcome to all you nice....", shrieking electrical feedback deafened the crowd. The overhead microphone went dead and communication with the control room was cut.

The red light on each camera stopped working (it indicated which camera the performer should look into). The giant monitor installed in the balcony malfunctioned and the upper section of the audience eventually walked out.

The next morning's reviews were savage.

Variety: "It's truly amazing that so much could have gone awry. (The show) came off as disjointed, disorganized, tasteless. It was, in truth, an imaginative, uninspired, unfunny show."

Time: "ABC has............the apparent illusion that several million people want to watch 120 minutes of the scriptless life of a semi-educated, egocentric boor".

ABC panicked and blamed the show's shortcomings on "the host's ‘Jewishness’ (!!!) and asked Jerry to "tone it down." ABC executive said, "Lewis was agreeable with all our suggestions for the show's improvement."

A young Dick Cavett was brought in to help with the show's writing. Cavett recalled: "(Jerry) was deeply depressed on at least two, maybe three, shows. You could watch Jerry go down, down, down, the showbiz equivalent of the Hindenburg."

On November 18, 1963, after just eight shows, ABC announced cancellation of the show. The Jerry Lewis Show limped to a halt after 13 disappointing episodes. But its star pocketed a reported ten million dollars (some sources claim four times that amount).

The Jerry Lewis Show was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive TV talk show of all-time.

After the all the residual dust of the massive failure had subsided, the host of The Jerry Lewis Show took out a full-page ad in the trades. The ad was one of complete blankness with only Jerry's signature at the bottom. A humbled Jerry Lewis placed one word in the center of the page in small type.

The word was "Oops."

(YouTube link)


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I call this "Jerry Lewis Syndrome" - I named it because of his movies, but it certainly applies here as well. It's when a really funny guy gets too much control (of his film, show, etc.) and suddenly becomes unfunny. Even the funniest guy needs editing, directing, and someone to keep his egomania in check.
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Wow! Sounds exactly like a Jerry Lewis movie..."The Unfunny Nutty Talk Show Host".

The non-deodorant ads demand is awesome...advertise all the cigarettes you want but let me see just one as for Right Guard and you're all fired!
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