Jerry Lewis has some ugly beef with Joan Rivers. The iconic comedian opened up about his feud with the Fashion Police host during a question and answer forum moderated by popular television host Maria Menounos. Lewis took questions from friends and fans as a part of Sirius XM’s Town Hall series at the infamous Friars Club in New York City. The event was part of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Nutty Professor— that is, the original one, not the one Eddie Murphy made in 1996. When the topic of death came up, Lewis quipped, “I always feel bad when somebody passes away…except if it was Joan Rivers.” Menounos, who may have been chosen to offset the “boys’ club” atmosphere of the Friars Club amidst Lewis’ multiple sexist remarks regarding women in comedy, tried to mediate and suggest he “didn’t mean that.” Except, that he did.
Lewis spilled the beans about his distaste for Rivers, claiming “she set the Jews back 1,000 years.” The legendary performer, producer and singer claims she attacked him in the press by saying, “Jerry Lewis has to be thankful he has the [Jerry Lewis Telethon] because it helps his career.” Not pleased by the “salty” comment, Lewis wrote her a letter:
Dear Ms. Rivers,
We’ve never met and I’m looking forward to keeping it that way. If you find it necessary to discuss me, my career or my kids ever again, I promise you I will get somebody from Chicago to beat your god damned head off.
P.S. You do know that you’re not allowed to threaten people. So if you go to [the police], show them this letter, they’ll arrest me. But I want you to never forget what it said.
Lewis calmed the crowd, and a stunned Menounos, by assuring, “We’re not supposed to kill her until November anyhow.” Menounos cleverly weaved the discussion into the topical subject of offensive jokes, suggesting that Rivers may have been kidding when commenting on his illustrious career. Surely, as a comedian, Lewis would agree that we have to be willing to take a joke sometimes. The octogenarian did not agree with her when it comes to potentially mean-hearted personal attacks. He has been a part of many risque celebrity roasts as a member of the Friars Club, where big stars often gather together and tease each other in the name of charity and good sport. Lewis took offense to the alleged comment he felt suggested that his decades of award-winning work were nothing until he started hosting a charity telethon once a year on television.
There’s an interesting side note to all of this. In his letter, Lewis says he never met Joan Rivers– and that may have been true at the time he wrote the letter. But because we haven’t been able to find Rivers’ alleged telethon quote, we’re not exactly sure when he put pen to paper. We do know, however, that Jerry Lewis was a guest on Rivers’ talk show That Show in 1968. The two comedians had a very cordial chat about children in showbiz. Not one punch was thrown. Lewis started hosting telethons in 1952, so it’s possible the letter was written between then and 1968. But if that’s the case they made up long before the appearance on That Show. The point is Jerry Lewis confuses us.
And by the way, Lewis is not completely innocent of making harmful comments about entertainers’ careers. At the Aspen Comedy Festival in 2000 Lewis said, “A woman doing comedy doesn’t offend me but sets me back a bit…I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies into the world.” When Anderson Cooper mentioned Lewis’ quote to Joan Rivers three years ago on CNN, she seemingly shrugged it off, saying, “Well, when did we last laugh at Jerry Lewis? Look The French think he’s funny. Those idiots.” Rivers wasn’t quiet in 2000 either, when she said, “I don’t think there’s ever been a female comic who’s liked Jerry Lewis.”
Hear more from Lewis on Sirius XM’s Town Hall with Jerry Lewis on Friday, June 6 at 5 pm EST via the Raw Dog Sirius XM comedy channel and the Sirius XM Internet Radio App. Fans can also check out the show at siriusxm.com.