After ‘bizarre’ demand, reporter snagged a rare friendly interview with Jerry Lewis

MORRISTOWN, NJ - APRIL 05: Jerry Lewis attends An Evening with Jerry Lewis: "Dean & Me" at Mayo Center Performing Arts on April 5, 2013 in Morristown, New Jersey. (Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)

Ten years ago, I was a freelancer in Las Vegas and pitched Newsweek a Q&A with Jerry Lewis to coincide with the Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day telethon. The magazine accepted, so I found an email address for a publicist on a page that dubbed itself “The Official Jerry Lewis Website” and sent off my request.

The reply was swift—and bizarre. His publicist told me that for an interview specifically about the MDA Telethon, I’d need to contact the MDA. “I can schedule general, career related interviews,” the publicist wrote, “but Mr. Lewis gets a sizable fee.”

This caught my attention for its ridiculousness. Lewis, who died this weekend in his Vegas home at 91, was 81 at the time, and the telethon—which everyone once avidly watched in the era before 200 TV channels and YouTube—was by now a cultural afterthought which often only hit its fundraising goals because Lewis kicked in his own money. Yes, the MDA Telethon was my time-peg for this request, but by then I’d developed a cottage industry of excavating faded Vegas stars for serious, intellectual interviews they usually appreciated. I couldn’t just stick to this one topic.

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I expressed that in kinder words, but then, more importantly, I added this to my follow-up note: “How much is the fee for an interview?”

“Up to a one hour interview with Mr. Lewis for a commercial publication (electronic or print) is $20,000,” he wrote back.

Both floored and morbidly curious, I said that seemed steep and asked if any media outlets actually pay that.

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Both floored and morbidly curious, I said that seemed steep and asked if any media outlets actually pay that. Seven minutes later, this arrived: “Jerry Lewis’ price is his price. It’s a healthy sum, but ANY story about him receives international attention and raises readership. Yes, he is often paid that much and more for his interviews, but obviously it’s only the heavy hitters in the media which can afford the fee.”

I knew I had what we’d later come to know as a viral story. This was an insane demand—so I went to my blog, and I posted about it. Even without either Facebook or Twitter in mainstream use at the time, the post generated a ton of attention. The Review-Journal’s gossip columnist, Norm Clarke, wrote it up, and from there it landed on Huffington Post, USAToday.com, and the media blog Romenesko.

Publicly, the next thing that happened was Lewis fired the publicist, the MDA folks reached out to me, and I went over to the casino-hotel where Lewis was preparing for the event for a lengthy interview. I’d cheekily say it cost me $4—the price of tipping the valet—and Lewis was in a terrific mood for a notorious, press-haranguing curmudgeon. He gabbed about the era when he’d do four shows a night on the Vegas Strip and trot between casinos on horseback; offered a brutal assessment of modern Vegas, which he dubbed “Huckleberry Finn Farms,” whatever that is; and slammed young Hollywood for refusing to appear on his telethon. I applied my use-every-part-of-the-bird approach, posting about the conversation on my blog, riffing on more local elements of it for my Las Vegas Weekly column, and posting the audio of the entire conversation on my podcast, The Strip.

Yet the incident also badly damaged my relationship with Newsweek, at the time one of my most lucrative freelance clients. The old-school magazine was embarrassed that the behind-the-scenes machinations of journalism were bared for all to see, however weird a story it was. It wasn’t that they had wanted to get the web traffic from my writing about the dispute; they thought it was uncouth of me to have aired the matter at all and, to make matters worse, had named them as my assignor. The next time I was in New York City, I had to go on a bit of an apology tour at the Newsweek office, flinging myself on a pyre in contrition over having transgressed.

Today, the episode would have played out quite different. Many media watchers viewed what I did with the drama as showboating, as violating that journalism-school principle of not making yourself a part of the story. Think about how quaint that seems nowadays when even The New York Times runs the occasional front-page piece in which a reporter is allowed to slip into first person.

The Newsweek of 2007 should have been milking this; the Newsweek of 2017 sure would have. Instead, an editor who wasn’t involved in the assignment said I had never been officially commissioned to talk to Lewis for them, which was not true, and my involvement with the magazine never recovered. Just imagine how BuzzFeed, Vulture, and Gawker (RIP) would have eaten this whole mess up, how Redditors would have pounced, how “Jerry Lewis $20,000” might have trended on Twitter.

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Lewis gave me a couple more interviews after that before I left Vegas and moved into a different phase of my career, writing longform magazine pieces. I am catching the news of Lewis’s death while on assignment for Playboy in Estonia; Lewis would have been very pleased to know the local version of cable news ran a long piece on the late comic’s passing. His physical comedy had universal appeal.

Understandably, Lewis didn’t like where celebrity culture and the media ecosystem were heading even though in some ways he pioneered it with the telethon. There’s a straight line from a bleary-eyed Lewis panning for dollars in the 17th hour with his tuxedo bowtie undone and, say, Matt Lauer, Barack Obama and Justin Bieber dumping buckets of ice on their heads for ALS research. Or every time a GoFundMe page pops up to benefit someone facing some newsworthy misfortune. Or, in this instance, between me finding it newsworthy that Jerry Lewis’s guy expected $20,000 for an interview and journalists telling all to Rachel Maddow about being manhandled by a candidate or his goons.

Nonetheless, he understood what went on between us was something to embrace. When I interviewed him three years later, on the brink of what would end up being his last telethon, he was more of the embittered grump he was generally known as. But when I turned off the recorder and was about to leave, I asked him to sign my copy of Dean & Me, his outstanding memoir of his relationship with Dean Martin, and that softened him up a bit.

“You’re the kid who wrote about the $20,000 Jerry Lewis interview, right?” he asked me. I told him I was. “That was the last time the telethon really got a lot of press. I guess you got a lot of press too?” I did, I said.

“Then I’d say we all got our money’s worth,” Lewis cackled. “Certainly more than $20,000, that’s for sure.”

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Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor and a journalism instructor at Michigan State University. Follow him at @SteveFriess.