Jerry Lewis, 80 years old, was soaked with sweat. He sat at the center of a banquet table at the New York Hilton’s Mercury Ballroom last Friday, May 9. It was the Friars Club’s annual roast, and Mr. Lewis—this year’s man on the spit—was also there to accept his appointment as the new abbot of the 102-year-old comedy club.
Seventy-two members and invited guests of the Friars Club lined the dais. Mr. Lewis was seated immediately to the left of the podium, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese alongside him.
This was not Mr. Lewis’ first time being roasted, said Stewie Stone. He had also been roasted in 1955, when the only woman on the dais was Marilyn Monroe.
“And in 1986, we roasted you again with, again, Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny”—well, Mr. Benny died in 1974—“Buddy Hackett. And today, we roast you with [Richard] Belzer and Gilbert Gottfried,” Mr. Stone told Mr. Lewis. “You realize five generations of comedians have called you an asshole.” There was another Jerry Lewis Roast in 1971.
“What a hero he is in France,” said Norm Crosby. “Then again, those are the people who invented cocksucking.”
The abbot position has been vacant since Alan King passed away two years ago, exactly, to the day of the roast. That position has also been held by Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan and George M. Cohan (twice)—names belonging to the masters of the genre, of which few remain. This knowledge was foremost in the minds of many.
“Most of Jerry’s contemporaries are no longer here,” said Friars Club dean Freddie Roman.
His “iconic status and his age—he’s 80,” might have had a calming effect on the insult-hurling affair, said roaster Richard Klein from his seat on the dais later on. “I have to try to be funny and maybe a little irreverent, you know, but not disrespectful.
“I already sense that it’s tamer than most roasts,” he said. “You know, they get very scatological.”
But was it respect for Mr. Lewis’ reputation, or fear of it, that led some presenters to pull their punches? How do you top a legend, a man who laid the stones for the path so many of those present barely dare to tread.
“I enjoyed this roast because this is legendary—Jerry has been here 80 years long,” said Don King, who was last year’s honoree at a cutthroat gathering that saw roasters jettisoning any semblance of reserve and bringing up some of the muckiest details of Mr. King’s personal and professional background. “You can’t say there’s a line that can’t be crossed. It’s supposed to be impromptu and it’s supposed to be cutting up, and they are born and bred in comedy,” he said. His necktie was in a flashy stars-and-stripes design, with the Statue of Liberty planted in the center. “So, you know, coming in—they’ve got a license to kill you.”
Gilbert Gottfried didn’t even mention Mr. Lewis from the podium. “I don’t really know him,” he said later. “I just met him like maybe twice before, for about less than a minute. I just always enjoyed dick jokes a lot. I just go up, do it as disgusting as possible, and I’m off.”
For his turn, Mr. Klein chose to mock Mr. Lewis by performing a screeching, off-key rendition of him singing Handel’s Messiah. Paul Shaffer also serenaded the guest of honor, with a song strewn with expletives and descriptions of sex acts and defecation.
During Mr. Shaffer’s closing monologue, Mr. Lewis rose from his seat and began to walk off the stage. The Letterman sidekick ran after him and directed him back to his seat.
Mr. Lewis laughed frequently throughout the proceedings. He also flexed his jaw frequently, in an expression that looked a bit like a yawn, but wasn’t.
Richard Belzer served as roast master. “Jerry Lewis, Jerry fucking Lewis,” he said. “One day, he calls me up on the phone and tells me how much he enjoys my work. Me—little Richie Belzer. Turns out Jerry was a huge Munch fan”—Mr. Belzer’s most current on-screen persona is Detective John Munch—“and had been one for as far back as 1948, when one night he went down on every woman in the Copacabana. Three hundred and eighty-one women. And that was considered a lot of pussy in those days.
“Jerry recently played my uncle on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” he said.
“Now he’s been fucking my aunt for eight weeks. And when my Aunt Martha came out of that coma …. ” The creepiness of Mr. Belzer’s appearance made the joke’s suggestion of near-necrophilia that much more comically distasteful.
The comics sometimes found it easier to go for each other. “I’m not going to make fun of Sandra Bernhard,” said comic Lisa Lampanelli. “She’s the only person on this dais who can get chicks.
“Sandra’s very proud to be a lesbeen. You know how I know? Before the show, she made me smell her finger.
“But enough about Sandra,” said Ms. Lampanelli. “We’re here tonight to roast the great Jerry Lewis. Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard a lot of talk about people saying they wish Dean was here to see this. Quite honestly, I would settle for Jerry to be alive to see this. Seriously, Jerry is old. His ball bag hangs so low, he has to hold it when he takes a shit.”
“How can one person be so annoying in so many movies? Seriously, Nathan Lane, you would know—how?
“You may not know this,” she said of Mr. Lane, who was seated to her right, “but he actually was up for a part in Brokeback Mountain, but the producers were afraid he’d make the film seem too gay.
“Nathan Lane has been opened more times on Broadway than Neil Simon plays.”
Mr. Lane looked back at her with a twisted mouth.
“But you look fantastic, Nathan,” she said to him. And then to the crowd: “Up until recently, he had a goatee. He shaved it because it kept irritating Matthew Broderick’s balls.”
Deana Martin, the daughter and feminized namesake of Mr. Lewis’ comedic partner of yesteryear, took the microphone.
“When I was born,” she said, “he and my father, Dean Martin, were the biggest comedy team in history, and I remember that they would go on tour together. Jerry came by the house one day to pick up Dad on his way to the airport, and I said, ‘Uncle Jerry, why is Dad leaving me to go to Las Vegas with you?’, and he took my little hand in his and he said, ‘Because he likes me better.’”
Ms. Martin made no jabs about Mr. Lewis’ weight, age, career, sex life. After the ceremony, she said, “He’s such a good friend, I could have said anything, but I don’t choose to.”
At the end, Mr. Lewis took to the microphone. “I have absolutely no recall in the last 75 professional-forming years that I have remembered such morale-building,” he said.
“Today I am not taking anything for granted. I knew what today represented. It represented part and parcel of what has made a whole lifetime in this business an exceptional one.”
Mr. Lewis never erased, he said, the mental picture he had of himself as “a Jew kid from Newark who’s trying desperately to graduate grammar school wearing his cousin’s white tux that he wore the graduation before. Now,” he said, “I’m sitting next to Robert De Niro, for God’s sakes.”