"Are you through? Jesus Christ! You're boring."
The press conference for the stage musical of The Nutty Professor has barely started, and already the man of the moment has violated two cardinal rules of Southern hospitality: Be gracious to your host, and don't use the Lord's name in vain.
That said, it's hard to blame Jerry Lewis. He's responding to a lengthy introduction by Mac Pirkle, co-founder and former artistic director of Tennessee Repertory Theatre. Pirkle, well-versed in the refined social graces necessary to be the skilled facilitator he is, takes time to acknowledge all of the show's sponsors, the folks from TPAC (where the musical runs for the next three weeks), and other cast and crew members — nearly three solid minutes' worth of introductions.
Lewis' wisecrack is met with mostly hearty laughter, including Pirkle's, though a few nervous chuckles suggest that some of those present might be unaccustomed to East Coast brashness or Rat Pack-style ball-busting. The laughs are more explosive when he abruptly cuts off a reporter's murmured, meandering question.
"What?" he barks, peering into the front row. "Jesus Christ, you did a goddamn commencement speech! You want to get the key factor? Just ask me a simple question. Speak up. I have to remind you, I'm 86 years old. I haven't heard anyone in almost five years. I've been doing Johnny Belinda and not knowing it. Go ahead, make your point, honey."
But even when his unscripted (and un-PC) asides bring groans from the press corps — like his off-the-cuff observation that women are supposed to speak softly — he shrugs as if to say, "What'd ya expect? I'm Jerry Lewis!"
Were this a vintage Jerry Lewis movie, the guest of honor would ... well, first, he wouldn't be the guest of honor. He'd be the schlep on the sidelines: the spastic grip instructed to lug in a potted plant, or the production assistant unwisely tapped to pour a glass of water for the visiting dignitaries. Failing that simple task — we picture flames, chaos, a seltzer-water geyser, someone losing their pants — he'd run shrieking through the crowd, braying in that nasal air-raid-warning voice that's been tried by every kid who grew up after 1950.
But the Lewis sitting on the dais is not the softhearted screw-up persona known to his creator as "Jerry." He's the comic whose public appearances caused riots and disrupted traffic back in the Eisenhower era. He's the director who invented the video-monitoring system that changed the way movies are shot, and whose film students included Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. He's the suave, brusquely confident showbiz legend who's entertained countless millions and created no small amount of controversy — sometimes both at once, as longtime host of the MDA Labor Day Telethon.
This Jerry Lewis has outlived and outlasted almost all his peers. And with The Nutty Professor — a hopefully Broadway-bound stage musical of the 1963 film many consider his reigning classic — he has a shot at the kind of late-career left-field success his contemporary Mel Brooks pulled off with The Producers. The story would pretty much write itself: Beloved comedy idol roars back in his twilight years, demonstrates his mastery of yet another medium, shows he's lost none of his creative edge.
That is, of course, if the musical is good — and if it can make itself heard above the recent glut of undistinguished stage musicals derived from popular movies and TV shows. The Great White Way and regional theaters are littered with their corpses. And even if the material is good, a hit Broadway show is about as far from a sure thing as contemporary entertainment offers. That places even more burden upon this TPAC test run — a gamble that could put Nashville on the map as a workshop for promising new musicals, or make it that much harder to land another.
But one man has supreme confidence in the project. In his eyes, his collaborators — composer Marvin Hamlisch, whose lengthy credits include the epochal '70s musical A Chorus Line, and librettist/lyricist Rupert Holmes, who won a Tony for The Mystery of Edwin Drood — are wonderful, marvelous. His male lead is going to be the biggest star Broadway has ever seen. His female lead has more talent than any 30 women he's ever met. His choreographer is the best choreographer in the history of the world, and the kids she's working with, well, they're going to blow the doors off the theater. Of course they will!
Look who they've got for a director.
Jerry Lewis sits in an embroidered director's chair in a rehearsal room deep in the bowels of TPAC. If you saw the alarming photos of Lewis that were widely published several years ago, with the star bloated almost unrecognizably by medication, he looks reassuringly trim and invigorated today. He wears a black shirt open to the sternum, and a glint of gold on his feet catches your eye — the masks of comedy and tragedy, emblazoned on his tailor-made shoes.
As part of the press circus, Lewis has agreed to a brief photo shoot, including a session for the Scene's cover. Just because he has agreed to it doesn't mean he is going to pose for it. Photographer Eric England asks the director if he would sling his arm over the back of his chair — you know, casually — and look back at the camera, as if to say, "Why, I didn't see you folks back there!"
Like hell he will. "You know what it's going to look like, don't you?" Lewis shoots back, not so much rude as bluntly matter-of-fact about something he's been asked to do 100,000 times and knows won't work. "Like I put my arm up there, and did exactly what they told me, and there's no spontaneity." Here's what he'll do, he tells England, directing even when it's not his show: He'll give him plenty to work with in the short amount of time, just watch and shoot.
England, grinning, goes to work. And so does Lewis, punctuating his conversation with lightning strikes of silly faces and goofy poses. To illustrate his point, he tells an anecdote about a GQ photo shoot he once did. The photographer showed up with four assistants and an arsenal of cumbersome accessories.
"He walked into my office in Vegas and had six —" Lewis catches England fiddling with a light. Uh-oh. Without pausing for air, he snaps him to attention: "Are you still with me, Eric?" England laughs, resumes shooting.
"He had six or seven trunks of props and stuff that he probably thought he'd use for the shoot," Lewis continues. "I had a little red nose, and I put it on, and I said, 'Bob, this is all you are ever going to need.' And sure enough, the photo editor picked that and it was the whole layout."
A couple of things stand out about this moment. One is Lewis' uncanny command of names. One marvels at whatever mnemonic device allows him to retain the names of temporary acquaintances, from passing media to crew members, among the many people he meets each day. It's a skill that likely dates back to the Dale Carnegie era of winning friends and influencing people, yet it remains generous and thoroughly disarming. You haven't lived until you've heard Jerry Lewis call your name back to you unprompted.
The other is that Lewis' instincts about what is and isn't funny have been honed to a switchblade's point over a career that spans eight decades. Above all, he prizes spontaneity — a hallmark of his groundbreaking early TV appearances, where he thought nothing of running amok and seizing control of the camera during a live broadcast. When he gives orders, people listen, and focus. For many children of the 1960s and '70s, Lewis was a more formative part of their childhoods than Sesame Street.
"I don't get star-struck," England says later, still buzzing about the meeting, hoisting his camera bag outside TPAC on Deaderick Street. "But that was a big deal."