Joan Rivers on Jerry Lewis Threatening to Beat Her Head Off
Jerry Lewis is notorious for his contempt for women comedians. “A woman doing comedy doesn’t offend me, but sets me back a bit,” Lewis once confessed. “I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world.” So yeah, the babbling man-child doesn’t think baby-producing machines … er, women are funny. But in one instance, Jerry's loathing for a female comic turned into threats of actual physical violence. Sound crazy? It sure the hell happened, according to Joan Rivers. Still don’t believe it? Jerry Lewis himself backs her up.
Rivers shared her side of the story during a 2014 interview with Sirius XM’s Raw Dog Comedy. The beef started when Rivers guested on Lewis’s annual Labor Day sob-a-thon benefitting kids with muscular dystrophy. Either from lack of sleep or an embrace of emotional manipulation, Jerry brought a child on stage and asked for more cash, telling the audience that the kid was going to die. It's a persuasive tactic that National Lampoon was known to employ from time to time.
“And I said I will never do this telethon again,” Joan recalled, outraged that Jerry would say something like that about a sick child to their face. “Who are you, you unfunny lucky, stupid asshole?” According to Joan, Jerry “took umbrage,” either at being called unfunny, lucky, stupid, an asshole, or some combination of the four. And when Jerry Lewis took umbrage, he was serious about it. “He actually threatened to have people come and beat me up,” she says, making a pact with her husband never to talk about Lewis in public again. “I don't want to be beaten. I don't want my knees broken over Jerry Lewis.”
And for several years, that was that. Joan didn’t talk about Jerry. Jerry didn’t talk about Joan. Until Jerry Lewis himself showed up at a SiriusXM Town Hall to talk with Maria Menounos (this was a few weeks before Joan’s interview) and brought the whole thing out in the open.
Here are some highlights from Lewis’s “I have no effs left to give” interview:
“I always feel bad when somebody passes away. Except if it was Joan Rivers. Then I wouldn’t.”
“She set the Jews back 1,000 years. See, she went to Israel and uprooted two trees in my name.”
“Joan attacked me in the press. All she said was, ‘Jerry Lewis has to be thankful that he has the telethon because it helps his career.’ And then she went on and was even a little more salty. So I wrote her a note that night. I said, ‘Dear Ms. Rivers, we’ve never met, and I’m looking forward to keeping it that way. If you find it necessary to discuss me, my career, or my kids ever again, I promise you I will get somebody from Chicago to beat your goddamn head off. Now. P.S. You do know that you’re not allowed to threaten people, so if you go to our group downtown — if you go to Metro — show them this letter, they’ll arrest me. But I want you to never forget what it said.”
We’re talking some serious horse-head-under-the-bed-sheets action. “That was a real threat,” Rivers said, not quite believing that Jerry admitted it on the air. “We hired guards, my husband and I, it was a real serious thing.” Maybe Joan should have fought back? Her take was that when mafia threats are involved, “I'll shut up. My last words are not gonna be ‘but I was only kidding.’”
By the way, Jerry’s assertion that he’d never met Rivers was untrue. In addition to Joan’s appearance on his telethon, Lewis was a guest on Rivers’ That Show in 1968, an episode in which he bragged about taking it to his kid with a leather belt. DO NOT MESS WITH JERRY LEWIS.
Eerily, Joan Rivers did pass away a few months after she and Lewis aired their dirty laundry on satellite radio. The official (and likely true) story was that Joan went into cardiac arrest during a medical procedure. But that hasn’t stopped online conspiracy theorists from concluding otherwise. Jerry Lewis never forgets.