Laughing through the pain 

"Hey LADY!"

That's all I'm thinking, and that's all I want. The inimitable, french-fried delicacy, Jerry Lewis, is in town, and I'm all aflutter. Once a bastion of humor and wit, sitting suggestively beside a drunk Dean Martin in almost-gay reverie, Lewis should make for an interesting bit of repartee, right?

Well, no.

Despite a slapstick history of pratfalls and hijinks, Jerry is not necessarily hip to the silly schtick these days. Weighing in at something closer to a house than a celebrity, our national icon of comedy isn't much in the mood for funny.

"Um, Jerry can be pretty mean to journalists," I'm warned by a series of representatives guarding his pretense.

That's OK. I'm a mean journalist.

The topic at hand, and the only topic to which Lewis will lend his unmistakable crow, is chronic pain. That alone is hard enough -- chronic pain sucks, yeah? But the fact that all interviews are taking place at Florida Hospital, where bedpan blue is the color of choice, is enough to make me nauseous. Antiseptic smells of life ending and the "Miss Vickie" cackles of an adjoining medical-transcriptionist convention are literally squeezing in on my head. I may pass out. Really.

"Why the hell did you get dressed, for chrissakes?" he smelling salts. "You put all your money in your clothes ... c'mon kid, sit down."

Truth be told, I'm wearing yesterday's khakis, replete with vodka stains and regret. I didn't know I'd have this journalistic fete until I was already soaking at a bar by noon, so I'm not wearing the suit that WESH's Jim Payne is. Nor the makeup. I deserve to be reprimanded. Just not by a bloated Jerry Lewis.

"So, why now with the Tame the Pain thing?" I query, trying to gain composure while actually mouthing the words "tame," "the" and "pain" in succession.

"Whaddya mean, 'Why now?'" he scowls, scaring me.

"I mean, what triggered you to chase the media eye at this specific point with your, um, pain?"

"I dunno. I just felt like it," he feels like it. "This is over, right? Let's go."

Ouch. Things aren't going so well with Mr. Lewis, I pinch myself. Tame the Pain (er, is Lewis' proactive philanthropy of the moment, riding somewhere to the side of his dead-horse telethon empire. I once worked a Jerry Lewis telethon phone thing. Once.

"Are you serious?" I fall apart.

"You got your recorder going?"

And what ensues is a largely unprintable discussion of pain and why it matters. No talk of Deano or false teeth. Just an awkward audience with a larger, older man. I've had these before.

"We're getting tremendous response. Metronic who built the Tame the Pain concept, and my life saver ... "

And here Jerry pulls out his infamous remote control; some electronic contraption that, when pressed to his ample side, prevents pain from meeting his brain. I want one.

So here's where my pathetic, limp scruples come in: Am I supposed to laugh at Jerry's pain? He is, after all, a comedian. Or, rather, am I supposed to tuck my tiny tail and run out the door?

"So all the time that you were making us laugh," I channel somebody obviously far older than me, "you were in pain?"

"Try 37 years," he shuts me up. "Chronic is chronic. When I worked, there's an adrenaline that cuts it off. But the minute I'm through, I have to be carried off the stage."

"But you were funny. Was there a subconscious rebellion going on?"

"I don't think there's anything subconscious that prevails," he shuts me up again. "What prevails is an absolute know-it-all. You know everything. There's no subterfuge. You don't play with your mind; there are no mind games. When you have chronic pain, that's all you know. You certainly don't face it with great desire and deliver it with tremendous energy. Pain kills you."

"So you must have done pills?" I Neely O'Hara.

"I took pills," he takes pills. "Doctors were giving me shots into the spinal column. It helped for a while, then not for so long, then not at all. Then I got to the point where I was going to kill myself. I was that close."

Good lord. I hate my job. Sensing inevitable circulation decline and the fact that maybe suicide isn't a topic to be broached in this column, I switch gears, deciding instead to focus on something I'm far more familiar with: the penis.

"If I'm hurting," he goes on, pulling out his remote control and painfully activating it. "I just turned me on! It also opens my garage door!"

"You made some funny comments about it on 'The View,'" I full-on Barbara Walters.

"And I've had this erection for seven weeks," he turns me straight. "But this magic runs on a nine-volt battery."

Mine takes two double A's.

"You're an icon that remains relatively unblemished in this country," I scramble for something not battery powered.

"My daughter calls me an acorn. She says, 'Daddy, someone at school said you're a legend and and acorn.' I said, 'No, darling, I'm an icon.' She said, 'Well I'll tell them you're not an acorn.'"

Um, "Hey LADY!"

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