I’ve always had this psychic connection with Jerry Lewis. When I was six or seven years old, I’d be sitting in my house with my family and have this really palpable feeling that one of his movies was on. I’d turn on the television, and, sure enough, Money From Home or Living It Up would be playing.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to the total sense of freedom in Jerry’s work. I’ve never been particularly grounded in the real world myself, and I love the idea of rebellion against reality. Through his comedy, Jerry would stretch the boundaries of reality so far that it was an act of anarchy; he was completely free of this contrivance that we walk through life with, and I found that extremely liberating.
Every artist is fed by the people who came before them. In the same way that Jimi Hendrix learned from Chuck Berry, I learned from Jerry. He is part of my makeup. I don’t do exactly what he did, but his freedom and his disrespect for the norm is there in my work. You can see his influence spanning from Martin Scorsese to the Monty Python guys. I bet you any money that they’d say Jerry had an impact on their work. I mean, the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch could have been him!
One of the great thrills of my life is that I’ve been able to connect with some of my heroes; people I’ve dreamed about have popped off my television screen and become part of my life. But truly one of the most stellar moments of my whole life was when I was invited to spend Jerry’s 90th birthday with him in New York last year.
Although we’d spoken on the phone, we had never met before, but we got on with each other great straight away. A few minutes after I arrived at the party and we were chatting, I quoted back to him a joke he’d once made about me. When asked about ways he was similar to me in an interview a while back, he said he definitely saw his influence on me – and in fact may have f**ked my mother a couple of decades ago. When I repeated the joke to him, he howled with laughter. It really surprised him – I think he’d forgotten ever saying it.
Later at the event I went upstairs to the dining hall and was pleasantly surprised to find out that I’d been seated on a table with Jerry and Robert De Niro. It was a real pinch me black and blue moment.
Robert got up and did a little speech he’d prepared for Jerry’s birthday and then suddenly I was handed the microphone. Talk about on the spot! I hadn’t prepared a speech or a toast or anything like that as I hadn’t bet on sitting anywhere near Jerry, so I just rattled off a list of his many accomplishments, far more than anyone else I can think of.
At the end of my speech I suggested that we raise a toast to whoever it was in Jerry’s childhood who made him feel like he would never be enough. It’s the ones who aren’t satisfied with who we are who drive us to greatness. I think he liked that. It was such a beautiful night, and now, with Jerry’s passing, I am so glad that I got to have that moment.
People might dismiss Jerry as someone who acted the fool. But here’s the thing about the fool: He is not an idiot. The courage and the freedom of the fool liberates us. The fool tells the truth, while making fun of our arrogance and our conventional ideas. He shows us up for who we are, and that’s what Jerry did. He was a blessing.