As soon as word got out that Jerry Lewis had passed away on August 20th, social media exploded with the news and dominating the story were condolences by the who’s who in Hollywood as well as the entertainment industry as a whole. I was moved to see so many famous actors, producers, directors, writers, dignitaries etc. expressing their condolences and acknowledging the talent & innovations Jerry Lewis brought to the entertainment industry. While I’m not a celebrity, I do have a unique story and connection with Jerry Lewis.
I am definitely a fan of Jerry Lewis, for 46 years and counting. I have watched every movie he has released (I own most of them), I’ve never missed a Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon since watching my first at 5 years old (it became a tradition in our house growing up and one I continued until the end of the telethon) and I have nothing but respect for his contributions to the entertainment industry and his philanthropic endeavors.
One evening after a long day of work in 2006 (I was working for Hewlett-Packard at that time), I flipped on the TV, picked up the Wall Street Journal and sat down to relax. Jerry Lewis’s original 1963 film The Nutty Professor happened to be on TV at the time. As I went back and forth from the TV to the newspaper, an article in the Wall Street Journal caught my attention. The article talked about the developing decline of consumer printing and the financial impact that could have on the industry. My attention went to back to the TV and The Nutty Professor. I started laughing out load in the scene where Professor Kelp (played by Jerry Lewis) walks into class completely hung over as a result of his alter-ego character Buddy Love having gone out for a night of drinks at the Purple Pit the night before. All of a sudden I had an epiphany – make the printers funny, give people a reason to interact with them and people will print more. I immediately set out to define and create this new experience in consumer printing.
The code-name for the project was “Charisma – Printers with Personality”. The idea behind it was to transform the printer from a “means to an end” (that device that sat on a shelf and was used just to print something) to an emotional experience. In other words, if people were emotionally driven to print (they get something more than just a piece of paper out of the printing experience), they will surely print more.
Since the idea came to me while watching Jerry Lewis, I thought it only fitting the prototype should be created featuring the King of Comedy himself. This new series of printers would include co-branded printers & supplies and had to do things no other printers could do. It had to inform, entertain and above all be experiential. The first thing on my list was to replace all traditional “alert” sounds with Jerry Lewis speaking to you. In other words, when the printer was turned on, Jerry Lewis greeted you by name. When you changed settings, Jerry would ask you if you were sure you wanted to save those changes. When you were low on ink or paper, Jerry would tell you and even offer you the chance to order them right from your printer.
The printer also automatically printed the Jerry Lewis monthly newsletter, notifications of any upcoming Jerry Lewis related events/screenings in the users geographic area (part of the registration process included being able to customize the types & frequency of various marketing materials to keep the owners up to date on the latest Jerry Lewis happenings) as well as Jerry Lewis hand-picked photographs.
Through a subscription service, consumers would also be able to purchase voice-packs (new versions of Jerry Lewis speaking alerts to keep the printers fresh), get access to exclusive video clips and even rent Jerry Lewis movies which could be watched on other devices. Yet another feature of this printer is that it could play video trailers of all Jerry Lewis movies and be able to play special exclusive comedy skits Jerry Lewis would record just for owners of these printers.
Once the working prototype was built, I reached out to Jerry Lewis via mail to introduce the idea to him. At 10:50am on January 30th 2007, while driving from San Diego to Las Vegas, my phone rings and the voice on the other end says “Hi John, this is Jerry Lewis”. After a 15 minute call, we had arranged for me to meet him at his Las Vegas office and show him the goods. Needless to say, I was very surprised. At best, I was expecting a letter or phone call from his people and an uphill battle before I would ever get the product in front of Jerry himself.
A few weeks later, I arrived at “Jerry Lewis Pictures, Inc”. As I walked up to the front door, I saw Jerry Lewis, his long-time assistant Penny Rice, Stu Silver (writer, producer, “Soap”, “Throw Mama from the Train”) and comedian Max Alexander all standing outside with the door open. As I approached , Jerry says “The goddamn door mat is too thick, shave it down”. It turns out he had a new door mat made and they discovered it didn’t quite fit. Jerry commences with casual introductions and then says to me “come on in, can I get you an orange Crush”? I said “I’ll have what your having” and he laughed. I followed him down the hall to his office in pure amazement – I couldn’t believe I was actually meeting Jerry Lewis and that I was in his office. But, there I was.
After maybe 15-20 minutes of just causal conversation with Jerry, I asked him if he’d like to see his printer. He said yes with the excitement of a 9 year-old and he cleared some space on his desk for me to set up the “Jerry Lewis” printer. Ironically enough, it was right next to his red IBM typewriter which he told me he had written The Nutty Professor and numerous other films on. Speaking of surreal! The first thing Jerry noticed was the box the printer was in had his pictures on it and his name was big and bold. He loved it! I then took the printer out of the box to set it down on his desk and I’ll never forget the pure excitement he had when he saw how the printer was decked out “Jerry Lewis” style (see pic inset). Jerry said to me “this was designed by a real fan”, to which I replied “Yes, it was”. After the printer was plugged in I asked Jerry if he wanted to do the honors of turning it on. He said “yes” in his 9 year-old, silly voice and proceeded to tap the power button. The printer lit up and Jerry’s voice came from the printer and said “Laaaady”. Jerry, Max and Stu all broke out in applause and Jerry was like a kid a Christmas who just opened the toy he had been dreaming of. I will never forget that moment.
As Jerry pushed other buttons, his voice would play saying different things. I had him press the “print” button and the first Jerry newsletter printed out (illustrating the marketing communication features) . I had him lift the lid to see the ink cartridges and when he did, he got even more excited when he saw each ink cartridge has his picture on it. I had Jerry push the menu button and helped him navigate to a selection of some of his movie tailors which he could watch on the printer. Keep in mind, every function/action of the printer would yield a Jerry Lewis sound byte. Each and every time, Jerry would laugh and point to the printer. He then turned to me said “print something else”. I turned to him and said “That is exactly the point”. Jerry looked me right in the eye and said “You’re goddamn right”. I was very impressed because Jerry understood the value proposition from a business perspective, not just from an ego perspective.
I then showed him the Jerry Lewis branded supplies as they would be packaged for retail (see pic inset). He loved it all, the Jerry Lewis photo paper, the Jerry Lewis ink cartridges etc. But he especially loved the printer itself. I asked him if you would like to sign the prototype to which he replied “I’d be honored”. After he signed it, he looked at the graphic of his signature already on the printer and said “Hey, that looks pretty good!”.
After we talked business, Jerry had Penny bring me a handful of Jerry Lewis collection DVD’s, an audio CD “Jerry Lewis Phony Phone Calls” and a nice big red Jerry Lewis shopping bag to put it all in. He then sat me down and presented me with a binder from “Jerry Lewis Pictures” entitled “Closed Circuit Television Applied to Motion Pictures (video assist for film)”. As he opened it up, he explained to me his invention that changed the motion picture industry forever. The binder was full of pictures, technical write-ups etc all related to the video assist. Having spent time working in the TV industry years back and having read so many articles about Jerry Lewis over the years, I was not only already aware of this invention but I was nothing short of honored that Jerry Lewis himself was giving me this particular binder right from his desk. I truly believe he gave this to me knowing just how much I would appreciate it and respect it.
As we wrapped up our first meeting, Jerry and I got our picture taken together. As I approached him behind his desk on his left side, he started to scoot me to his right side saying “Dean always stood to my right, stand to my right”. I couldn’t have felt more honored than I did at that moment. What a way to end the first meeting with the Hollywood legend.
In the end, Charisma never materialized. The recession was starting to hit at that time and HP rightly decided not to move the project forward. To this day, the only Jerry Lewis Printer in existence sits on my desk alongside the Jerry Lewis Supplies and a host of Jerry Lewis memorabilia.
Even though Jerry Lewis has passed away, I’ll continue to watch his movies as I have done over and over for 46 years. And every time I see behind the scenes pictures of movie/tv shows, I’ll always think of how it was his “video assist” that made it all possible. I will always be entertained by Jerry Lewis.
Most of all, I’m grateful I was able make him smile.