This is the story of the time I was the only one who didn’t give Jerry Lewis a standing ovation — right in front of him. The occasion was the very first Comic Relief USA concert at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles in 1986.
I ended up in the audience because WYNY, the NBC FM station in New York where I was doing mornings, pulled off a big promotion with HBO in the months before the concert. That part of the story is too long to tell here, but in the end, I ended up flying across the country with our winner, Kathy, and her boyfriend, to see the show. We provided first-class airfare, a nice hotel room, a limo to the venue, and tickets to the show.
At the amphitheater, I took Kathy and boyfriend inside, where I handed our tickets to an usher, who did a double-take towards me and stiffened as he said, “Yes sir, follow me, please.” He then proceeded to walk us past row after row after row of seats until we were front and center. I mean we were in the middle of the first row. I was impressed, but Kathy and her boyfriend were freaking out. Winning the trip was one thing, but getting these seats ensured that WYNY (and my morning show) would be forever included when she related this story to everyone she knew.
Comic Relief began with hosts Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams joking, singing, and improvising their way through the open, the various introductions, the pre-produced filmed requests for donations, etc. Over the course of the next four hours, we watched stand-up performances by Steve Allen, Howie Mandel, Minnie Pearl (!), Paul Rodriguez, Bobcat Goldthwait (taking a shower onstage while squawking), and about three dozen more comedians. Celebrities like Richard Dreyfuss and Penny Marshall promoted Comic Relief t-shirts and asked viewers to call a toll-free number. It was a comedy telethon.
At one point, Sid Caesar came out and did a tight 8 minutes of shtick, funny as hell. While I was cheering for him, I was disappointed in the tepid response from the crowd of 15,000 — it wasn’t nearly what a comedy legend of his stature deserved. Afterwards, either Billy or Robin made a point of mentioning what a pioneer Caesar had been in TV comedy, as if to explain his presence to an audience that apparently didn’t recognize greatness in their midst.
A few acts later, Jerry Lewis came out, and the audience stood in unison. Except for one person — me. What made this awkward was the fact that I remained seated directly in front of where Jerry stood at center stage.
A week or so later, HBO aired the Comic Relief event in two parts over two nights (it had not been televised live). My wife and I watched it at home and, since I’d told her the Jerry Lewis story, she assured me that my non-standing-ovation wouldn’t be visible. She was wrong. As Lewis walked to the microphone, there I was, on my butt, while everyone else rose as one. But she noticed something I hadn’t seen that night. Lewis seemed to have noticed me sitting there. As he panned the crowd, he stopped at one point and glared down at me, as if he were telepathically yelling in that familiar pissed-off-Jerry tone at this impertinent interloper who dared to dishonor him, attempting to force me to my feet.
I kept applauding, but I never got up. Finally, the crowd sat down and Lewis did his thing, mostly tired mugging routines like sticking a glass in his mouth. The only part of it I enjoyed was his cane routine, which was actually pretty impressive in person.
I wasn’t being disrespectful. While I admired some of Lewis’ work, I thought he paled comedically in comparison to Caesar, and if they weren’t going to stand for Sid (or Steve Allen, for that matter), I wasn’t going to stand for Jerry.