The year was 1963 and the new ABC series was called “The Jerry Lewis Show.”
Host and medium appeared made for each other. Lewis, who died Sunday at age 91, was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, fresh from what was to become the biggest triumph of his career, “The Nutty Professor,” which had been released that June.
Entering adolescence, television needed stars and Lewis was indisputably that. His series promised a whole new career, and a whole new chapter for ABC — the forgotten network, the third place network, the what-have-we-got-to-lose network.
That “what” would be determined in short order.
Long before the Sept. 21, 1963 launch, “The Jerry Lewis Show” had a certain aura of mystery and myth, and was also accorded the sort of hype that major commercial networks can now only dimly recall. This was to be the most important launch of the 1963 season — ABC’s answer to “The Tonight Show,” starring a proven host who had a string of hit movies behind him, and a reasonably long run in TV, too, including “The Colgate Comedy Hour.”
But “Tonight” was the dream and the template. While NBC was waiting for Johnny Carson to become available, Lewis had guest-hosted “Tonight” a handful of times, each outing hugely successful.
According to reports at the time, his “Tonight” ratings had surpassed those of Steve Allen and even Jack Paar. Then as now, TV execs knew how to put two and two together: Why not create a talk show for Jerry Lewis? A bidding war ensued, and the neediest of the Big Three prevailed. The nutty professor was heading to prime time.
As most of America knew at the time, the Lewis show would be almost live — or a full two hours live to tape — and air on Saturday nights. As readers of certain tabloids also knew, this was also the most expensive venture in television history at that time. Dollar signs seemed to dominate stories about this fabled newcomer almost more than the host:
ABC was paying Lewis a reported $40 million to host this over 40 episodes, a figure which he did not deny. (According to website Dollartimes, the equivalent amount in 2017 is $317 million.) Audience anticipation and curiosity were sated. What could possibly cost so much — besides a skyscraper or battleship?
The network bought the El Capitan, an old theater at the corner of Hollywood and Vine which had a storied history as home to “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” “This is Your Life,” a handful of radio shows, and perhaps most famously, as the studio where Richard Nixon delivered the Checkers speech on Sept. 23, 1952.
Lewis went to work on his new home by first naming it the Jerry Lewis Theatre, and then adding various touches which were deliciously extravagant even by Hollywood standards. Gold lamé seemed to cover everything — walls, studio, even the dressing rooms. “Oh my God, the money,” an ABC producer, Bill Harbach, later told Lewis biographer Shawn Levy. There was a plaque of Lewis’ profile embedded in the sidewalk in front of the theater. Fellow comedian Phil Silvers joked, “the designer of this joint must have been smoking hash-hish.”
Launch date approached and Lewis held a news conference. “I’ll be doing something I’ve never done before,” he said. “It’ll be what people want. I’m going to play it loose. I’ll be what I’m with. I suppose I’ll have guests.”
He added, ominously, “I’ll be in complete control.”
The show finally launched at 9:30 on a late September night. The production did not proceed smoothly. A feedback problem bedeviled his opening monologue. His jokes were met with silence.
Example: “I realize two hours is a lot of time (but) have you heard anybody say, what can Liz (Taylor) and Dick (Burton) do for two hours?” The audience was puzzled. He then turned on them: “This is on, isn’t it sweetheart?,” he said, tapping the mic. It wouldn’t be the last time he turned on an indifferent audience.
Reviews were unkind. “Disjointed, disorganized, tasteless,” judged Variety. If ABC had been nervous before, it was now in a full panic. The network demanded changes, which Lewis agreed to, including the addition of actual writers. He had wanted a full two hours of improv comedy, music and serious discussion. Dick Cavett, the gifted writer and future late show star was hired to help. He later told a comedy historian, Kliph Nesteroff, author of “The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves and Scoundrels, and the history of American Comedy,” “(Lewis) was deeply depressed ... You could watch Jerry go down, down, down, the showbiz equivalent of the Hindenburg.”
“The Jerry Lewis Show” was officially canceled just days before the assassination of John F. Kennedy but would air until late December. Lewis closed the finale with this: “There are (TV) rules and regulations, and some of the rules and regulations I did not adhere to. If this is wrong, I’d like to apologize,” adding “I have tried desperately to do the best under the circumstances that prevailed,” then closed with a Yiddish expression, which he translated as “from all bad comes good,” and then promised, “I shall return.”
Indeed, he did -- some years later in another short lived talk show for NBC – but for all intents and purposes, Jerry Lewis’s career in television had ended. He would spend years deflecting questions and casting blame over “The Jerry Lewis Show”-- including, variously, the blaming of himself, critics, or the audience itself. “I’m a Jewish dart board for whoever wants to take shots,” he told Cavett.
In a 1965 interview with David Susskind, he admitted that the show was a disaster because “when greed, money, fear are involved, everything suffers. We had this announced $40 million deal . . . (and) that’s very very bad. I should not have allowed it. Stop printing numbers! People aren’t concerned with numbers and they must resent it. There’s this (federal) poverty program going on, people are fighting for their lives and you mean to tell me this nut . . . is going to get $40 million for this nonsense? I defy him to give me pleasure.” (He told Susskind he spent the money -- much of it out of his own pocket -- on the theater for cast and crew, not for himself.)
He conceded to Susskind that “television is not for me” then took one final shot at those critics who had taken their shots at him. “I don’t make little bombs -- I make gargantuan bombs -- but if I can quote Mr. Roosevelt, it’s not the critic who counts, but the guy in the arena, the guy who sweats.”