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Tele-Fun!

August 31, 2006 By:
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They're Jerry's kidders ... Richard Belzer, Sandra Bernhard, Dick Cavett, Pat Cooper, Norm Crosby, Jim Dale, Gilbert Gottfried, Ice-T, Robert Klein, Nathan Lane, Joe Piscopo, Tony Roberts, Freddie Roman, Jeffrey Ross, Martin Scorcese, Steve Van Zandt, Abe Vigoda ... and so many others.

All gathered to roast and toast and flambé the forever funny Jerry Lewis, who sat there with mouth occasionally agape, his mind reeling and rolling, and contemplating the zingers and zaps that were coming his way with wickedly comical force at this "Friars Club Honors Jerry Lewis."

We should all be so honored.

L-a-a-d-y, right this way, as those gathered here in New York for yuks and mock yawns for a legend some comically consider the Yiddish yutz of a genius, take their roast burned to a caustic crisp.

Tele-fun: This is Lewis' third roast, a record; yet three is not the charm as much as it is the invective-laden, insulting, insinuating attack by some of the smartest, smart-ass comic minds around.

"We're happy to prove," said Roman the conqueror, "that 50 million Frenchmen can't be wrong."

Voilà! And suddenly "The Errand Boy" has his eyes turn to daggers ready to kill the messengers who kill comically with their opinions of this nutty professor of punchlines. But, by the end, he's near tears ... and they haven't even played the telethon theme song.

As Lewis prepares this weekend for another toast of a telethon to "Jerry's Kids" -- the millions helped by his Muscular Dystrophy, round-the-clock Labor Day broadcast beginning this Sunday night on myphl 17 -- he can look back on a particularly active past few months.

Shortly after the roast, he suffered what was called a minor heart attack.

Gee, Jeffrey Ross, what did you say to him? Comedian Ross, the uproarious, notorious "roastmaster general" with a major comedic "mean" streak, laughs and protests his innocence. "Nah, Jerry's a great guy, a great guy. He'll come back quickly."

And he has. Faster than a clogged artery, clear the way for Jerry, back at work for this weekend, unweakened by his stint in the hospital, already the talk of the town as the voice behind a new animated version of his famous "The Nutty Professor," to be produced by the Weinstein Brothers.

Not only that, the 80-year-old who's turned time on its head from hilarity is also contemplating bringing "Professor" to Broadway as a musical.

Not that Jerry would be on unfamiliar ground; his role as lead-off hitter -- bat man -- of "Damn Yankees!" damn near made hell the hot place to be when he bedeviled Broadway theater-goers 10 years ago before taking "Yankees" on a road stand for an international turn.

So, what do Jerry's kidders have to say about the boy born Joseph Levitch of Newark, the original Jersey Boy?

What can they say about a Nobel Prize nominee, philanthropist, humanitarian, actor, college film professor, film inventor, author, TV talk-show host ... husband, dad and zayde?

From this crowd? Nothing good, but all for the good. This is a Jerry-mandered district of colleagues and friends who know that roasts go best when the temp's turned up high.

"We're going to be here until Tisha B'Av," frowns top Friars fryer Roman, looking at a dais donned by close to 100 presenters.

"Where would we be without Freddie Roman?" asks ballsy Lewis roastmaster Belzer. "Televised!"

Before sassing the sassee, Belzer, whose latest exploits munch more on crime statistics -- he's a longtime star of "Law & Order: SVU" -- than humor, explains the roots of the Friars. "We're not a cult; we're no different from the Kiwanis. Only we don't do good sh-- for people."

If Lewis is Belzer's "rabbi" -- the honoree once played Munch's uncle on "Law & Order" -- Lewis' own rabbi couldn't make it for the luncheon, according to the Belz: "He would have loved to have been here, but, unfortunately, he had Jimmy Buffet tickets."

Stealing some thunder from the other comics? "Oh, and by the way, Jerry, he'd appreciate it if you'd return the Torah."

If this group were on the bimah, the rabbi wouldn't let the Torah out of the Ark. "He's a liar and he's senile," snaps Stewie Stone of his old friend Jerry. Senile? "In fact, he doesn't even know he's here today."

In case he didn't, Stone has the stones to remind him. "I don't know what's bigger, Jerry, your ego or your prostate."

Pissed? Not Lewis. "If you hadn't met Dean Martin," reminds Stone of Lewis' erstwhile longtime and late legendary partner, "you'd be a waiter at this place."

Ba-da-bing ... "We gave France Jerry Lewis; they gave us the Statue of Liberty.

"At least people still pay to see the Statue of Liberty."

Free to zing you and me ... "This is not a young crowd," rips Lane of the Geritol gang he's fronting before attacking the crowd with a Lewis-style "Shmel-don!" producing chuckles.

Let's go to the big bored; nah, Lewis is only feigning it as he revels in the fun. Anyway, blares the best Bialystock of all, taking stock of the roastee, what a guy this "Sid Caesar is."

He hesitates. "I always get those two bastards mixed up."

No confusing how prolific Lewis is. "He went on to make 16 films ... some even with plots."

One could plotz from such compliments. Like the one once given by the late Martin, according to Belzer: Dean loved Jerry so much, he said, "If I have to work with that kike once more, I'm going to put a gun to my head."

And that was before the big blowup 50 years ago.

Dean's daughter Deanna is present with her own stage presence of laughter. Jerry was like an uncle to her growing up, kind, compassionate ... evil? "I once asked Jerry, 'Why does my father have to leave me at home to go to Las Vegas with you?' "

" 'Because,' said Uncle Jerry, 'he likes me better than you.' "

Better yet, Jerry was there to console her when the Martin-Lewis team dissolved. "I asked him why people are saying that Dad will become nothing now that he's no longer with you."

Jerry's response? "He took my hand in his and explained, 'Because, Deanna, people like Jews more than Italians.' "

It's amore -- especially when the Child of the '50s now in his 60s comes up to talk. Robert Klein looks at Lewis and starts up, "He's the reason anti-Semitism began." And Klein's parting French kiss of a kiss-off: "Yes, Jerry, the French adore you."

But, remember: "They also gave up the Jews to Hitler."

Give it up for Jeffrey Ross! "Mazel tov, Jerry," he says of the French penchant for his humor. "Then again, the French don't know when they themselves stink."

To some, Jerry Lewis is heaven; to others hell on earth. Which may explain why, reveals Ross, google "Jerry Lewis" and you'll find him on two lists: "The sh-- list and 'Schindler's List.' "

Hey, no one said this luncheon would be tasteful. A taste of which Ross directs at Abe Vigoda, everyone's favorite fishmonger, as he tells the crowd of the 200-year-old comic actor's new reality show: "The Last Comic Breathing."

Coming up for air, Ross does want to discuss Lewis' philanthropic efforts and, specifically, how beneficial the annual telethon is. "A 6-year-old kid was watching Jerry's telethon, got out of his wheelchair for the first time, walked right to the TV ... and turned it off."

Turned on, tuned in is Paul Shaffer of David Letterman's TV talker. "I was influenced by the telethon," says Shaffer of his secret Slushy fund. "For three years, I robbed 7-11's."

Then it was time for Lisa Lampanelli to commit laugh larceny. Looking over the motley, moldy crowd, she allows: "Sandra Bernhard is the only one on the dais who can get any chicks."

Hangin' Around
Jerry's Jewish stand-up? This one stands out: "He performed his last act at the Last Supper. Halfway through, Judas got up and left to go hang himself."

But, more than anything, she adds, Jerry Lewis is one-of-a-kinder. "How can any one person be so annoying in so many ways?"

Well, maybe Ice-T knows. Lampanelli looks at the rapper/regular on "Law & Order: SVU," and does some profiling of the star: "It must be hard to play a black cop on that show because whenever you ask the victim what the criminal looks like, he says, 'You.' "

And Norm Crosby set the day's norm reminding one and all that Lewis -- the "King of Comedy" -- is going right back to Broadway with a revival of "My Fair L-a-d-y!"

But, with all the kibitz and bits, it is Ross who delivers the line that punches back most with meaning. "In a world of takers," he says, taking a minute to get serious, "you, Jerry, are a giver."

And the give-and-take is over shortly, with fans and friends finding themselves following the usual Jerry Lewis stage direction: Exit ... laughing. 

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