This is an excerpt from Patton Oswalt’s upcoming memoir, Silver Screen Fiend. Scroll to the bottom to hear a selection from the audiobook version.
January 27, 1997: “Chevy Chase was born to play a clown who leads children into a gas oven!”
That’s Bob Odenkirk, onstage at the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica, improvising one of the most brilliant lines in a brilliant night of comedy that all of my friends and I had to lash together at the last minute. I’d been handed a cease-and-desist order one hour before the show started. Jerry Lewis was pissed and threatening legal action. Or, at least, that’s what I initially thought. It turned out to be even worse and, tragically, funnier than that.
It was my 28th birthday. The year before, I’d gotten my hands on the shooting script of Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried. It was a drama about a clown in Auschwitz, forced by the Nazis to entertain Jewish children on their way to the gas chamber. If he does this, his life will be spared. But his conscience can’t bear the burden, so, at the last minute, he enters the gas chamber with them. Slam. Hiss. Fade to black.
The script was originally written by Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton. But when Jerry Lewis decided to make it, he made … revisions. Slapstick. Pratfalls. A scene where it’s so cold in the concentration camp barracks that the clown — named Helmut Doork — pisses ice.
It was glorious. As Harry Shearer wrote, in a Spy magazine article about actually being able to see the movie, “It was like going down to Tijuana and seeing a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz.”
The tortured history of The Day the Clown Cried has been recounted elsewhere. The legends that have grown around it are contradictory, fascinating, and exhausting.
My deal was simple: I’d gotten my hands on a copy of the script. I pared it down to a manageable length, saving all of the most Jerry Lewis–ian scenes, and started doing live readings of it at the Largo.
I gathered together all of my comedian friends and assigned them multiple roles. All except for the role of the clown, which only ever went to one actor, since that person had to do all of the heavy lifting. Toby Huss performed it first, brilliantly. He’d do the clown part as a frightened, fey German when he was interacting with other adults. But for the scenes where he entertained the kids, he’d suddenly be a mean, short-fused, no-patience Frank Sinatra. Later on, due to Toby’s increasingly crazy work schedule in TV and film, Jay Johnston (from Mr. Show) inherited the role, doing a one-man tour de force of distilled Jerry Lewis mawkishness and spastic clowning, oftentimes in the same moment.
And I was directing! Well, kind of. I mean, I had to figure out whom to cast where, and make sure everyone was in the right position when they’d step forward, and … oh, fuck it, this was the farthest from “directing” anything you can be, but it was something. Plus, my friends were all better, more experienced stage actors than I was, so I wasn’t so much directing as staying out of their way.
I never advertised the show at first. It was invite-only.
But word got around. Jerry Lewis’s take on the Holocaust is a unique creature of discomfort and a dirty jewel to behold. And after three hush-hush performances at the Largo, I got a call from L.A. Weekly. They wanted to make the next reading their “Pick of the Week.”
This next bit is my fault. I should’ve politely said no and kept it quiet, but my ambition and hunger for fame got the better of me, and I said sure. So they called, and I did a brief interview, and the next week, there it was, in a box alongside their other pick of the week, Full House’s Dave Coulier in concert somewhere. “Patton Oswalt Presents a Staged Reading of Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried” at the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica. In the paragraph I said a few pithy, oh-so-ironic things about how inane a script it was, that the idea of Jerry Lewis playing a clown at Auschwitz who’s forced to entertain children on their way to the gas ovens was, from that description alone, something that would spill out of the mouth of Joyce Carol Oates or Richard Brautigan, rather than the star of Cinderfella and The Nutty Professor.*
Fast-forward to the day of the show. I was at the Powerhouse early, waiting for the cast to arrive. Every single seat had been grabbed the moment we announced the reading. Again, not charging admission. Simply offering the spectacle.
I walked up to the theater and there was a man standing on the sidewalk. Try to imagine an even skinnier, even seedier-looking John Waters. A “suit” that was a sport coat desperately matched with an almost-the-same-color pair of slacks. He was holding a sheet of paper. I approached him. He threw it at me. It had no weight, so it fluttered in concentric arcs until one end of the paper hit my pant leg.
“You’ve been served, Mr. Osweld.” And then he stalked away.
I picked up the paper. It was a cease-and-desist order on the reading. Do not proceed with the performance or face legal action. I glanced over it a few more times and headed inside the theater.
“What’s up?” asked the manager.
I said, “I think Jerry Lewis just hit us with a cease-and-desist order. He found out about the reading and is shutting us down.” I’ll admit I felt a little shaky. What sort of power did Jerry Lewis still hold in Hollywood?
“That’s awesome!” said the manager.
I wasn’t so sure. The Powerhouse Theatre had been named in the letter, and I didn’t want them getting dragged into any trouble. The theater’s phone started ringing. It was the law firm that had just presented me with the letter. After a few terse phone conversations, the theater manager didn’t find the situation so awesome. The cast — and the audience — was starting to arrive. What the fuck were we supposed to do?
I sat the cast down — a group that included not only Toby Huss but also David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Paul F. Tompkins, Brian Posehn, Laura Milligan, Scott Aukerman, and Dave Foley from The Kids in the Hall. I told them the predicament I was in. I suggested we go out and just improvise, on the fly, a show about being canceled, about being shut down.
Most of my friends were cool about it. They were game to try. Cross, as usual, was defiant.
He said, “Let me see the letter.”
I handed it to him. The theater manager came backstage and said someone was there to talk to me. He looked a little shaken.
I walked out to the empty lawn in the back of the theater and was confronted by the single douchiest-looking adult male I’d ever seen. All of the worst aspects of (1) a jock, (2) a shrill NPR listener, (3) a wannabe alpha-male, and (4) a movie producer, which, it turned out, he was. Or at least he said he was.
He said, “I just hosted a party at the Sundance Film Festival for 600 people.” That was his way of introducing himself. This was before he said his name.
“Um, that’s, uh—”
“And now I gotta come home to my five-room house in Malibu and find out a bunch of C-list actors are reading a script that I’ve optioned?” said the Kale-Salad-Eater With Rage Issues.
“Well, we’re not charging any money for it, and it’s—”
The Hot-Yoga Enthusiast’s face turned purple with wrath, and he spat, “Oh fuck you, that doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter, and you know it fucking doesn’t goddamned cocksucking matter!!!” I felt sorry for his desktop Zen sand garden when he got home later that night. His yin-yang peace-symbol necklace charm bobbed up and down on his chest as he screamed.
“Do you have any idea what Jerry Lewis did to this script when he got his hands on it? Any fucking idea? It’s an important story, and it needs to be told the way it was originally written, and I’ve got Chevy Chase interested in it, and you have no! Fucking!! Right!!!”
This was the one point in the conversation where I became truly terrified. Not of him. I was terrified of suddenly exploding with laughter, right in his face.
Chevy Chase. In clown makeup. In Auschwitz. I wanted, more than anything in the world, to see that film. If shutting down my reading could do anything toward helping that become a reality, I felt like it was my cosmic duty to man up and disappoint my audience.
The Would-Be Producer and his bulging neck veins stomped back to his Volvo and screeched away after I assured him that not a single word of the bastardized miracle that was The Day the Clown Cried would be uttered by my hopeless company of nobodies. And I also promised him I would never, never, never do anything like this again in Los Angeles, cross my heart and hope to die. This seemed to placate him, and his reminding me, again, that he’d hosted a party at Sundance for 600 people seemed to calm him down even more.
The sun was setting and the audience was settling in. I walked back into the theater, giddy and depressed.
I was giddy about the whole Chevy Chase/clown makeup/Auschwitz thing. I was depressed for two reasons. The first being that I realized it wasn’t Jerry Lewis who had presented the cease-and-desist. It was this beautiful, bellowing bozo who truly believed this was a Script That Must Be Filmed. I was also disappointed in myself for making the internal decision to agree to his demands. I was cringing at how I was going to break the news to the cast. But this was outside the mere sphere of my own honor and stature. The Powerhouse Theatre was in jeopardy, along with the owner. What was it that Stephen King wrote, near the end of his novella The Body? If you die alone, you’re a hero. Take anyone with you, you’re dog shit. I was feeling the same way, at the moment, about legal action.
So I lowered the boom on the cast. There was frustration and amusement and some quick haggling as we all figured out what to do. David Cross pointed out that, in their haste and stupidity, they’d CC’d the cease-and-desist letter to Dave Coulier, who was also mentioned in the “Pick of the Week” blurb. We all had a nice laugh over that, but it didn’t change my mind.
The lights went down and I stepped out onstage with the cease-and-desist letter in my hand. I explained to the audience what had happened. Boos. Groans. And then, piece by piece, we all improvised an evening around the fact that we’d been canceled. Bob and David improvised their interpretation of exactly what happened when the producer found out about the reading in L.A. Weekly (“How the fuck will anyone go see our movie in Kansas if eight people watch a script reading for free in Santa Monica?”). Paul F. Tompkins did a flawless phone call between the producer of the film and Peter O’Toole, trying to snake the role of the clown away from Jerry Lewis. Toby Huss played a concerned white supremacist who took issue with the screenplay’s “negative” depiction of the Third Reich. And then everyone did a massive, free-form, back-and-forth “interpretive dance/pantomime/ musical” version of the screenplay. Sloppy, hilarious, and impossible to sue. What else could you ask for in an evening of theater?
I stayed true to the promise I gave to Soy Spasm the Producer. I never once did another reading of The Day the Clown Cried in Los Angeles. Every other reading I did was in New York. If it makes him feel any better, I tried my best to avoid any C-list entertainers. I hope he considers Stephen Colbert, Will Arnett, and Fred Willard at least B-list. I mean, they’re no Chevy Chase.
Copyright © 2015 by Dragonet, Inc. From the forthcoming book SILVER SCREEN FIEND: Learning About Life From an Addiction To Film by Patton Oswalt to be published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
*The original version of this article mistakenly referred to Lewis’s Cinderfella as Cinderella.