LOS ANGELES — Gregg Barson is a documentarian, not a comedian. But when Jerry Lewis let him know that more than a dozen people were waiting in line to tell his story, Barson offered a persuasive punch line.
"Yeah, but they're not me," was Barson's comeback, followed by a momentary quiver of fear that he'd gone too far with the veteran star.
"He said, 'I like that. You know why? Because you remind me of me,'" Barson recalled. That chutzpah-fueled exchange led to "Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis," debuting 8 p.m. EST Saturday on Starz.
The film focuses on what makes the 85-year-old — and still working — Lewis tick as a performer and filmmaker. Those looking for dish on his family life or breakup with stage and screen partner Dean Martin or abrupt departure from the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon he'd nurtured for six decades won't find it here.
Barson, who describes himself as "in heaven" when he caught a Lewis film on TV as a youngster, said his intent was to focus on Lewis' career from vaudeville on and his contributions to comedy and movies.
Younger people without exposure to Lewis' work likely consider him as "that telethon guy. Hopefully, the film will open their eyes as opposed to thinking he did one thing one day a year," Barson said.
During more than three years of filming, Barson had near-complete access as he followed Lewis from his yacht in San Diego to his home in Las Vegas to concert dates and to the Cannes Film Festival in France, the country that idolizes Lewis as a cinematic genius.
He was good company, Barson said. "He's always up, funny and playful. ... The sparkle, he didn't put in on for the camera. He's being real."
"Method to the Madness," which opens with Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy and other comedians anointing Lewis as comedy royalty, is an unabashed valentine. It is also a reminder that Lewis inspired rock-star levels of fan devotion, and of how impressively "The Bellboy" (1960) and many other films starring and written and directed by Lewis ruled the box office.
Barson, who made the well-received Phyllis Diller documentary "Goodnight, We Love You," sees parallels between Diller and Lewis, including their work ethic.
"She was 84 when she retired, and he's 85 and still working. They never rest on their laurels," Barson said. "They still care. They're not phoning it in."
And that, he said, is part of Lewis' method: Every aspect of his performance is planned.
"As Eddie Murphy says (in the film), slapstick looks simple but the reason it's been around so long is how well thought out it is," Barson said.
Lewis is pleased with the film. And his health is good, according to the filmmaker, who spills one appropriately quirky personal secret on his subject: "He drinks a lot of orange soda. Maybe that's the fountain of youth."