LOS ANGELES — At this point, Jerry Lewis feels more comfortable with an audience than without.
After nearly 70 years in show business, Lewis continues to do standup and serve as leader of the storied Friars Club. He was set to hold a dinner at the venerable comedy institution on Thursday night to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his film The Nutty Professor. He will perform a show in Las Vegas next month and has two fall concerts planned for Los Angeles.
“The Friars are the third most exciting thing I do,” the 88-year-old entertainer said in a recent interview. The first two are making movies and performing on stage, but Lewis makes several trips a year from his Las Vegas home to the private comedy club in New York City, where he serves as abbot.
When Lewis comes to club headquarters on 55th Street in Midtown Manhattan, “it’s like Dad came home and he’s got presents for everyone in the form of laughter,” said Friars Club spokesman Barry Dougherty.
Lewis has been the club’s leader since 2006. The late comic Alan King held the post previously, after Frank Sinatra’s 20-year tenure. As abbot, Lewis oversees the annual roasts and helps with fundraising, continuing the philanthropic tradition he started with the Muscular Dystrophy Association more than 60 years ago.
The comedian’s abrupt departure as national chairman of the organization and face of its Labor Day telethon still hasn’t been explained, and Lewis refuses to talk about it.
“He’s thrilled to channel those particular energies our way,” Dougherty said of the Friars Foundation, which provides scholarships for aspiring entertainers and brings comedians to military hospitals to cheer up wounded veterans.
Lewis also offers guidance to up-and-comers. One tip? Appreciate the fans.
“I never took them for granted, which is a mistake young performers make,” he said. “Those that are interested in what your life is about, you have to give them time … It’s all part of the business. If you don’t like that part, get out of the other part.”
Though Lewis has come under fire in recent years for his bias against female comics and can be cantankerous and unpredictable in interviews and on stage, his abiding love of connecting through comedy is clear. When asked what he loves about it, he said, “watching people laugh – especially when the people are seeing you for the first time and they’re laughing and they’re laughing good. It’s an incredible feeling.”
He feels the magic again when he talks to fans after the show, describing the connection as “a moment of infinite care, and it gives you a moment of infinite understanding.”