I’d been given a heads-up by my stand-up agent’s assistant. ‘Seems that an agent or producer in Las Vegas had called looking for my personal phone number, because Jerry Lewis wanted to contact me. Now, this being a little over a week before his annual telethon, it didn’t seem foolish to assume I was going to be asked to perform. I braced myself for the call. I knew my answer would be yes, but mostly I was so very excited to get a personal call from one of the greatest comedic masters of the last 100 years, to not put too fine a point on it, but that happens to be a scientific and/or mathematical fact.
I mentioned to my girlfriend and one other pal that I had been warned that a call from Jerry Lewis was coming, and they both agreed that an invite to perform at this telethon was eminent. I don’t mean to imply that I was overly excited to be asked to perform for his telethon, but nor was I dreading it. I’m simply stating for the record that there was no doubt as to why he was calling me, given the timing.
I just got a call Jerry Lewis…
He had, in fact, called earlier in the day, but I missed the call because I had somehow separated myself from my phone for 13 seconds, but he left a voice message. I listened to it 4 times and then played it for a friend. It was just him letting me know that he had called and then giving me his home number and asking me to call him back, but I was embarrassingly tickled to have this recording.
So, I called him back and he answered the phone himself, which I was not expecting.
“Jerry, it’s Kevin Pollak calling you back. How are you, sir?”
“I’m well, thank you. And you?”
We seemed to be getting the easy stuff out of the way nicely.
“I’m doing great, thanks.”
On to business:
“Listen, Kevin, I have to tell you, I saw your stand up special and it blew me away. Really. You can take this to heart, it’s the best I’ve seen in 25 years. And that includes Robin. Really.”
Williams?, I thought… Better than Robin Williams? Ok, this is already the most surreal phone conversation I’ve ever had, but at this point, my heart sunk just a bit because I truly felt in that moment that he was selling me something. Truth is, for just calling me, I would’ve bought cosmetics from the man had he asked. Seriously. He could’ve said “And that includes Robin. So, listen, can I get you to commit to a case of under-eye cream at this one time, low, low price of 1700 dollars?” and I would have given him my credit card info in that second. But, instead he said:
“I’m lying on my carpet in the den…cause… The mic stand business, you’re not just a great comedian but you’re in some union with that one, amazing… Listen, I have some notes…”
I laugh, thinking he’s made a joke about loving my act, but he’s got some notes, as in some changes he thinks I should make. I think to say that it’s a tad late cause the special is on tv already, but wisely decide against it. He continues:
“I had to write it all down, cause I didn’t want to forget.”
Then he reads a quote from act: ‘You’ve gotta stop this now.” It’s a sentence I say as Alan Arkin, who’s speaking to me in a phone call, wherein he asks me to stop tormenting him with my impression. Now Jerry is laughing recalling the bit.
“I’m telling you… Oh, and the reeling them in… You have such physical talent too, the gestures, ‘Sleeping over for a week’” he adds, clearly reading off his notes another line from the same Alan Arkin piece from the special. I then realize that he’s reading random sentences that he wrote down on a piece of paper in order to have this conversation later and my head has left my body.
He goes on to reference several more of my bits by a sentence and insists I’m truly one of the greats. It’s just all so surreal that I barely speak. Just a lot of “I can’t tell you what this means to me,” or “Thank you SO much, really, for wanting to call to tell me this.” It all feels so very lame, on my part.
He tells me his daughter, 18, who just left for college, was watching my special with him and ask why he thought it was so great (clearly not a fan), and he replied, “Because, darling, you’re watching a great actor prove to an audience that he’s a great comedian.”
More dripping sincere gratitude from me, but he goes on and I do all I can to just be present. It’s glorious. No self-deprecating jokes needed, no cynicism seems appropriate, it’s just……..glorious.
He mentions the telethon in passing, “I have a show next week, and I told my crew, we gotta…”
I know it’s coming now, and that part of the brain that stabs with disappointment begins its deft knife work.
“I told my crew…..we gotta rehearse more. I’m telling you, I watched your special and felt inspired.”
He didn’t say it, but it’s coming and I’m dying a little as I wait for the other shoe to drop…
“In fact, I should be asking you to be on the telethon, but I don’t want to spoil the call, really.”
“Ya know. I don’t want that to be associated with this call, honestly, I just wanted you to know how great I thought your act was.”
Holy shit… Ok, I think, do the right thing, here. It’s easy.
I say, “Well, I’m working next weekend, but I get back to LA at noon on Sunday… You’re still going at that time, yes?”
“Yes, but I’m serious. You’re very generous to offer, but that is not what this call was about, so I can’t accept, no. Really, I just wanted to tell you how wonderful you are, that’s it. If you ever have time, I would love to sit and spit-ball some ideas, maybe…”
Wait, so, I don’t get to be on the telethon? But I can sit with the master and spit-ball…?
I thank him profusely, telling him from my heart that this call has meant the absolute world to me; that he would want to take the time to say all this to me…and then I insist that I would love the chance to sit with him as soon as humanely possible. I say given the area code of his number that he’s in Vegas, he confirms it’s where he lives, and we make plans to sit together and spit-ball soon.
As sudden as it was to first hear his voice, it’s over.
I’m left feeling giddy, nervous excitement and a sense of being someone. I’ve been knighted by a living legend, whose contribution to comedy is paralleled by no more than a handful, not to mention the creator of Video Assist, which revolutionized the directing process, allowing a Director to watch video playback after a scene is shot. Moreover, if there were a comedy mount Rushmore with only 4 heads, his would be one, and he picked up a phone from his Las Vegas den to tell me what a great comedian I am.
I would have never ever imagined such a call, even in my most self-involved, self-grandizing private thoughts. I’ve never thought of myself as a great comedian, and I never will. In my humble opinion, the great Jerry Lewis is wrong on this one. Not even close. But I didn’t fight him on it. Let the man speak his mind, I thought. He’s earned it.
I just got a call from Jerry Lewis…
And it was glorious.