* METHOD TO THE MADNESS

OF JERRY LEWIS. 8 p.m. tomorrow, Encore.

IT NEVER hurts to ask.

That should probably be Gregg Barson's motto.

The Allentown-reared filmmaker's documentary, "Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis," premieres on Encore tomorrow night and it's a testament to Barson's persuasiveness that a guy who's worked mostly on the marketing side of show business got to make it at all, much less that he did so with the help of a group of talking heads that included the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Spielberg (a former student of Lewis' at the University of Southern California), Eddie Murphy and Quentin Tarantino.

And it wasn't, he insisted in a phone interview this week, a case of Lewis handing him a list of people to call.

"It was all on my own," Barson said. "I researched Jerry, obviously, and I knew certain things about certain people that would apply and those are the kind of people I went after," and sometimes those people pointed him toward others. It was being unafraid to ask that led Barson to his first film, "Goodnight, We Love You," which centered on Phyllis Diller's final Las Vegas appearance.

He was an executive at Carsey-Werner Television when he read in the paper that Diller was retiring, he said, and wondered "who even knows who Phyllis Diller is these days?"

His next thought: "Maybe if I take this idea to Phyllis Diller about shooting her final show and making a documentary out of it, maybe she'd bite."

Through his wife, casting director Julie Ashton, who'd met Diller years before (and who is an executive producer on both his films), he was able to get to the comic and make his pitch. He told her he was interested in taking the project to film festivals.

"I literally was riffing. I just figured, you know what? I'm just going to do this. That's how I do things. I envision something and I do it. In the middle of it, you wonder why you said it. It's brave, I guess, or ignorant. But I just did it, and it ended up being in like 10 or 12 film festivals and winning awards. So it all happened like I kind of dreamt it would," he said.

"At her final show, in Las Vegas, Jerry Lewis happened to be one of the guests . . . I was so excited," he said. "So through that first movie, I met Jerry. Which became my second. So it's like all kismet."

If you're looking for a warts-and-all treatment of the 85-year-old comedian, look elsewhere. But not dwelling on, say, his personal life doesn't make the two-hour "Method to the Madness" a whitewash, either. It also barely touches on his decades of work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

In turning most of the spotlight on Lewis' movie career - as an actor, director and producer as well as a technical innovator - "that's really was what I was trying to prove, that he's still vital and look at all these really, really successful and varied people that he's influenced," he said.

"I did focus on the film, no pun intended, because that's where I think was his greatest contribution. It covers everything: It covers his comedy, it covers his timing, his producing skills," he said.

"I do think he wants to be remembered as a filmmaker . . . but then he's multi-faceted. He told me in France [at the Cannes Film Festival], 'I have such fun being a famous Jewish movie star.' " Barson said, adding, "It's hard for me to put into perspective that he's been super-internationally famous since he was like 20. And now he's 85."

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