After its previous “abbot,” comedian Alan King, passed away in 2004, the New York Friars Club took two years to fill the post. But when it did, it was with another best of the best.
Comedy legend Jerry Lewis assumed the largely ceremonial duties in 2006. Previous Friars Club abbots over the more than a century of its history include Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, and Frank Sinatra. George M. Cohan (1878-1942), the vaudeville and Broadway composer and entertainer, served as abbot twice. After Lewis’ passing, talk radio and television giant Larry King (1933-2021) filled the post.
Initiating the new abbot
Lewis was almost immediately made the subject at one of the group’s traditionally ribald roasts. Seated near the podium next to Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro in the New York Hilton’s Mercury Ballroom in 2006, Lewis was pelted with a stream of the club’s infamous barbs in front of 72 in-person guests, which also included Abe Vigoda of The Godfather and Barney Miller fame, rapper and Law and Order actor Ice-T, members of The Sopranos cast, and a host of other well-known personalities.
It wasn’t the 80-year-old Lewis’ first roast. He was roasted at a total of four Friars Club events over his storied lifetime in comedy. The first time was in 1955, when it was a very different world. Marilyn Monroe was the only woman on the dais, for one thing. The young Lewis, flanked by his friend and movie sidekick Dean Martin on one side and Milton Berle on the other, clowned and insulted his colleagues right back.
The next time his fellow “monks” took aim at him was in 1971, with Johnny Carson and Milton Berle among those doing the mocking. Don Rickles’ trademark brand of insult comedy was also in rare form that night, and the evening has gone down in Friars Club history as one of its funniest and most memorable roasts ever.
The Friars roasted Lewis again in 1986. This time, Buddy Hackett (a multi-accomplished comedian perhaps best known today as the voice of Scuttle the seagull in Disney’s The Little Mermaid) served as roastmaster.
More than a roast
As far as the general public is concerned, its roasts are the best-known part of the Friars Club. But it’s much more than that. Started in 1904 for members of the New York theater industry, the group continues as an exclusive organization for professionals and influencers from all fields. Notably in today’s post-pandemic world, it has rebranded itself with a renovated building and a new focus on establishing a welcoming atmosphere for women and younger businesspeople.
A timely honor
In 2014, three years before Lewis’ death, the Friars officially gave its early 20th-century English Renaissance Revival-style townhouse on East 57th Street a new name: The Jerry Lewis Monastery. The vote on the renaming was unanimous.
The honor roughly coincided with the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ classic fantasy-comedy movie The Nutty Professor, which he co-wrote and directed and in which he starred. In the 1963 movie, Lewis’ character, Julius Kelp, is a shy, awkward, bespectacled college chemistry teacher. But when a magical concoction turns him into a confident ladies’ man (he calls himself “Buddy Love”), he thinks his life changes for the better - until the magic starts wearing off at the worst possible moments. Stella Stevens co-starred as the professor’s love interest.
Becoming a legend
Born Joseph Levitch to a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926, Lewis saw his career take off when he was still in his 20s. His nightclub act with Dean Martin relied on the time-worn comedy trope of pairing a wildly unpredictable naif (Lewis) with a suave, sophisticated, romantic crooner (Martin). The duo consituted the most popular comedy act of the 1950s, both on stage and on screen. The pair would go on to make 16 movies together. Although Martin died in 1995, they will be forever linked in the American imagination.
Lewis’ other comedy hits include The Bellboy (1960), The Ladies’ Man (1961), and The Patsy (1964), which he also wrote and directed. All of these films showcased his non-stop slapstick physical humor and bumbling naif screen persona.
His career stagnated through the 1970s. It was Martin Scorsese’s 1982 movie The King of Comedy that proved to be not only Lewis’ comeback, but also his validation as a truly talented and insightful actor. The grim satire stands as a landmark in movie history, and its look at the pathological underside of contemporary celebrity culture holds up well today.
A funny man with a generous heart
The Friars Club’s focus on Lewis as a comedy genius wasn’t the only reason it named its headquarters after him. His work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) remains a landmark in the history of both philanthropy and popular culture.
Lewis served as the long-time national chairman of the MDA, and every Labor Day for a remarkable 45 years, he hosted a telethon to raise funds for the organization. At the height of this programming phenomenon, a typical Labor Day MDA telethon would run for more than 20 hours. The whole world knew the young people living with the disease as “Jerry’s kids,” and his tireless work on their behalf raised billions of dollars to support ongoing assistance for young people with muscular dystrophy, MDA summer camp opportunities, and research aimed at finding a cure.
As a humanitarian, a major force in the development of American comedy, and one of history’s funniest “abbots,” Jerry Lewis will always be one of our most memorable cultural figures.