The Triumphant Failure of The Jerry Lewis Show

This all begins with The Tonight Show in flux. Comedian Jack Paar had been hosting the venerable late night fixture when he decided to make the jump to primetime with The Jack Paar Program. The once-a-week format was probably appealing after five years of Monday through Friday work weeks, not to mention the contentious three-week period in 1960 when Paar left the show over censorship issues. With Paar on his way out, NBC scrambled for a replacement, before ultimately landing on Johnny Carson, who would go on to host The Tonight Show for 30 years. First, though, Carson was contractually obliged to finish his hosting duties for the weekday afternoon game show, Who Do You Trust? So in the meantime, NBC brought in a who’s who of rotating hosts, including Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Soupy Sales, Mort Sahl, and Jerry Lewis.

Two of the hosts were rousing successes: Merv Griffin, who desperately wanted to host The Tonight Show himself, and Jerry Lewis. Lewis’ ratings were so good (the highest in the history of late night at the time) that a bidding war was waged over which network would get him to host his own show. ABC won, but the victory would be fleeting. Lewis’ $8 million per season contract for The Jerry Lewis Show committed him to 42 two-hour episodes with a five-season option and a lot of creative sway (though it would quickly appear that he had no idea what to do with it). In his press conference for ABC, Lewis said: “I’ll be in complete control. I’ll be doing something I’ve never done before. It’ll be what people want—strictly entertainment.”

Beyond the expensive contract and the considerable amount of control it gave him (the desk was even wired with a control panel that allowed the host to man the cameras during the show), Lewis conducted a massive renovation of Hollywood’s El Capitan theater, lining every surface with gold wallpaper and red carpet. The theater was also retrofitted with an outdoor patio with a fireplace, a luxurious dressing room suite for Lewis (where the initials JL were ingrained in the shower tile), a costly set built to be broken down for easy relocation, and a bronze plaque of Lewis’ profile cast in the cement.

When the show premiered on September 21, 1963, everything either went wrong or fell flat. The episode was marred by a bevy of technical issues, including bad microphone feedback and malfunctioning cameras and headsets. On top of that was Lewis, whose shtick did not translate well at all to a format that demands a host who can go with the flow. Variety would write, “It’s truly amazing that so much could have gone awry.”

In November 1963, after 13 episodes, ABC executed one last costly measure to put the show to bed—buying out Lewis’ contract, rumored to be at least $10 million. All they had to show for it was a TV disaster and a theater covered in Jerry Lewis’ initials. For his part, Lewis bought a full-page ad in the trades: a blank page with only the comedian’s signature and the word “Oops” in small type.

Watch the first few minutes of one of the few episodes below.


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