Jerry Lewis Drew Ire Over His Comments About Female Comedians

Everett Collection
Jerry Lewis (in drag) in 'At War With the Army.'

Judd Apatow went on an expletive-filled rant in 2012 about statements made by the late comedy actor, such as: "A woman doing comedy doesn't offend me but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world."

When it came to welcoming women into the comedy pantheon, Jerry Lewis drew a line, one that increasingly put him at odds with the growing ranks of female comics. At the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado, in 2000, during a Q&A conducted by Martin Short, Lewis was asked whether he liked Lucille Ball. His response: "A woman doing comedy doesn't offend me but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world."

In her 2011 book Bossypants, Tina Fey fired back at both Lewis and author Christopher Hitchens, who'd penned a 2007 Vanity Fair essay entitled "Why Women Aren't Funny."

"Whenever someone says to me, 'Jerry Lewis says "Women aren't funny," or Christopher Hitchens says "women aren't funny" or Rick Fenderman says "women aren't funny" … Do you have anything to say to that?'" Fey's answer was, "Yes. We don't fucking care if you like it. I don't say it out loud, of course, because Jerry Lewis is a great philanthropist, Hitchens is very sick, and the third guy I made up. Unless one of these men is my boss, which none of them is, it's irrelevant. My hat goes off to them. It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don't like something, it is empirically not good. I don't like Chinese food, but I don't write articles trying to prove it doesn't exist."

Judd Apatow took up the cause of women comedians in an appearance at the 2012 Critics' Choice Awards. The Bridesmaids producer went off on an expletive-deleted rant that concluded with, "Jerry Lewis once said that he didn't think that women were funny. I'd like to say, with all respect, fuck you."

Not one to back down, Lewis, who belonged to an earlier showbiz generation where women were regarded as either good-time gals, dangerous seductresses, broads or dames, grew ever more curmudgeonly, and when asked again about women in 2013 at the Cannes Film Festival, where he answered, "It bothers me," adding, "I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator. I just can't do that."

And, a year later, as he left his handprints at the Chinese Theatre, he still was at it, complaining: "Seeing a woman project the kind of aggression that you have to project as a comic just rubs me wrong. I mean, you got some very, very funny people that do beautiful work — but I have a problem with the lady up there that's going to give birth to a child, which is a miracle." 

But, proving that he was nothing if not contradictory, at the same event, he described Ball as 'brilliant" and called Carol Burnett "the greatest female entrepreneur of comedy."

Burnett, who'd had Lewis as a guest on her variety show, repaid the compliment following his death. Appearing on CNN, she praised Lewis' comic chops, adding, "He was very sweet to me. I had heard at one point a long time ago he had been quoted as saying women can't be funny. Well, he certainly didn't feel that way around me. And I heard him compliment Lily Tomlin and Madeline Kahn, so I don't know where that came from." And with that she laughed, "Maybe he changed his mind."

Read more from THR's cover story on Jerry Lewis:

Carl Reiner on 7 Decades of Laughter With Friend Jerry Lewis: "He Was a True Genius"

Dean Martin's Daughter on Jerry Lewis' Bond With Her Father: "They Were Like Brothers"

James Lipton Recalls His Favorite Jerry Lewis Moment: "He Was the Ultimate Live Performer"

Jerry Lewis and the Time the Oscars Ran 20 Minutes Short

Why the French Loved Jerry Lewis, aka 'Le Roi du Crazy'

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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