Jerry Lewis, America’s Polarizing Clown Prince

Jerry Lewis. Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Few artistic figures of the 20th century are more polarizing than Jerry Lewis, who was born Joseph Levitch in 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, and died at age 91 on Sunday, after a long and cantankerous decade as an elder anti-statesman. Make derisive noises about him to a firm auteurist (and mention the French in any context other than the carefully reasoned Lewis mania of such Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif favorites as Raymond Durgnat and Jean-Luc Godard), and you might come to blows. Make reverent noises to others and you’ll be classed with the artsy, cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Staking out a middle ground is difficult, but the truth is that Lewis was monstrous, infantile, narcissistic, pretentious, tasteless — and brilliant, life-affirming, thoughtful, and sometimes visionary. He was a definitive monstre sacré whose likeness we have rarely seen.

He grew up in showbiz, much of it Catskills-based, traveling with his mom and dad through the Borscht Belt. His future could be discerned in some of his first, juvenile routines: pantomiming to grand opera and other emotional recordings, his rubber face exaggerating every vocal quaver, enacting a counter narrative that was completely disruptive — yet indebted to the high art of his predecessors. This is a recognizable mode of being for a Jewish comedian, who’ll find a quick route to an audience’s heart as a clown, but secretly wants to be part of the world that he or she burlesques. They all want to play Hamlet, it’s said. Instead, they play the jester, conscious that they’ll one day be dust, like literature’s most famous dead comedian, Yorick.

The chemistry with singer Dean Martin was spontaneous and organic. Martin would attempt to sing, Lewis would disrupt the song in apparent innocence and unleash chaos. Both men came off better in each other’s company. Indeed, without Martin’s innate motorlessness, his swacked passivity, the interruptions could have seemed abrasive. They were sometimes referred to as “the handsome man and the monkey,” but Lewis would later tell Peter Bogdanovich that most women wanted to sleep with the monkey, the “boy” whom they could mother. He’d have sex with huge numbers of them while Martin read books in the next room. And his promiscuity continued when he began directing, often having a “hump” at 7:45 a.m. in his trailer before shooting commenced. “I was a fucking animal,” he said — both a critique and a boast.

The duo was instantly, insanely popular. In their legendary, constantly extended run at the Copacabana, Orson Welles said that people literally peed their pants laughing. To appreciate them fully, watch their Colgate Comedy Hour from the mid-’50s, rather than their hit movies — although many of the latter hold up. Behind the scenes, Lewis spent time learning about cameras and lenses and composition and sound, finding a mentor (and collaborator) in former Warner Bros. cartoon director Frank Tashlin. It was Tashlin who directed the last Martin and Lewis comedy, the 1956 Hollywood or Bust. The duo did not speak off camera during the shoot, Martin having told Lewis that the latter “was just a dollar-sign” to him. Lewis — who professed his love for Martin, even at the pair’s lowest ebb — was thrown out of the nest. But did he fly.

Tashlin brought that anarchic Warner-cartoon sensibility to live action, creating sight gags that were blissfully surreal, and Lewis decided to go even farther out and seize on every chance to break the fourth wall. His first movie as sole director was the low-budget slapstick comedy The Bellboy (1960), all of it shot in a Florida hotel. It’s a pantomime performance, in which Lewis’s bellboy encounters a series of guests (among them visiting movie star Jerry Lewis) and is both the fount and butt of the gags. In his essential (and worshipful) study of Lewis’s work, Jerry Lewis, Chris Fujiwara cites Lewis’s book The Total Film-Maker, in which the clown deconstructs his “Idiot” persona by invoking one of his favorite director-performers: “Chaplin was both the shlemiel and the shlimazel. He was the guy who spilled the drinks — the shlemiel — and the guy who had the drinks spilled on him — the shlimazel.” Lewis’s idea of character was similarly elastic — or opportunistic.

In a paean to Lewis’s late Hardly Working, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes, “[Lewis’s] gags follow a pattern of almost rigorous discontinuity” — the “almost” giving Rosenbaum an out that might make you wonder whether Lewis was making his deficiencies as a storyteller look like a bold artistic choice. But the more you study Lewis’s work, the more you realize that “almost rigorous” is right. As Lewis made silly faces to subvert those recordings he played in his act, he sought to subvert the typical Hollywood story structure that he associated with lapdog writers and directors. In part, he was playing the anarchist, rebelling for the sake of rebelling. And in part, he was going with his strengths. Fujiwara quotes Durgnat on the elasticity of time in a Lewis movie: “The absence of a continuous dramatic thread piles a special intensity of audience attention onto a gag, and on to its build-up, which permits more sophisticated forms.” Screw the plot, focus on the “comedy blocks” — like the showstopper in The Patsy, in which Lewis’s idiot Stanley knocks over and (barely) catches a series of his voice teacher’s priceless vases before knocking the lid of a piano on the man (Hans Conried), producing caterwauls of sound that bring those vases — and the ceiling — down. Lewis destroyed story structure and sets.

And he built sets, too. There has rarely been anything like the multilevel open dollhouse he designed for his second feature, The Ladies Man (1961), on which he orchestrated marvelously fluid feats of choreography and camerawork. But the movie — in which Lewis plays a handyman in a house full of aspiring Hollywood actresses — is often embarrassing in other ways. The quasi–love story is banal, and the protagonist’s emotional trajectory barely discernible. What appalls many of Lewis’s critics are the kinds of shots in which the camera rests on him — the world stops — while he pulls faces and stammers or splutters or spews nasal, vaguely Yiddish-inflected nonsense. When they work, they’re convulsively funny, the apotheosis of the brain tic. When they don’t — almost always here — the non-laughs linger in the air like flatulence.

It’s easy to see why Lewis might not have concentrated as hard on his onscreen performance in Ladies Man: He was also playing the role of madcap director. In Shawn Levy’s excellent, though caustic, biography King of Comedy, he describes Lewis on the set as an “antic despot.” Witnesses like the young Bogdanovich (writing about Lewis for Esquire) saw him swooping around on his crane, clownishly bullying and hurling things at people. He compulsively gave out gifts, he knew the name of every crew member, and he seemed bent on imprinting his personality on all aspects of the shoot. It was the wrong sort of spectacle.

But he nailed the balance with his next, most sustained comedy, The Nutty Professor, a Jekyll-Hyde tale in which Lewis’s bucktoothed, myopic, childlike professor Julius Kelp transforms into the suave lech Buddy Love — and Lewis was able to dramatize not just the duality of his nature, but evident shame in regard to both manifestations. Here was the clumsy, messy child-man who didn’t know how to talk to a pretty woman, Miss Purdy (Stella Stevens is his student, but times were different), alternating with the conceited grown-up whose line of patter was smooth but demeaning. (There is apparently no truth to the idea that Buddy was a stand-in for Dean Martin — he was meant to be the embodiment of showbiz venality.) If there’s a flaw in the film, it’s that Lewis sometimes seems as if he’s not parodying a Sinatra-like dreamboat — he truly believes he is one. The worshipful camera doesn’t help. His auto-critiques were oblique and umbilically connected to his exhibitionism.

By this point, though, Lewis was one of the biggest stars in the world and a very rich man, and he could probably be forgiven for thinking he could do anything. The slide from the top began with a hugely expensive ABC variety series that was an embarrassing shambles from its first to last show — a brief run in which Lewis went from boastful to self-pitying with no pause for reflection. Dick Cavett, who was a writer for the show, told Levy that he and Woody Allen have a running joke about a Comedy Black Museum (a play on Scotland Yard’s grisly Black Museum of Crime) and that much of The Jerry Lewis Show would belong in it.

By that point, Lewis had photographers documenting almost every waking moment. He also miked his whole house. He once told a journalist he was moved to his core hearing one of his children say, “You know, I really love Daddy,” apparently oblivious to the horror of full-time surveillance on one’s children. His next film, The Patsy, reflected his growing contempt for showbiz and just about everything else, expressed most intriguingly by his obsession with playing Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. (J.D. Salinger wouldn’t take his calls.) After leaving his home studio, Paramount, most of his films tanked or were poorly distributed. American critics — most of whom hadn’t liked his good films — were merciless toward his later ones. (The dim, imperious Bosley Crowther, the longtime chief critic of the New York Times, was reliably harsh.) He was buoyed by the French adoration, but instead of taking that as a reflection of Lewis’s genius, most Americans took that as a sign that the French were nuts.

The nadir was the legendary, unreleased The Day the Clown Cried, in which he plays a clown who entertains children in a concentration camp and heroically leads them into a gas chamber. Harry Shearer, one of the few humans who has seen it, likened it to a black velvet painting of Auschwitz — both sappy and grotesque. By then, of course, one of his principal claims to fame was his annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, which raised millions to support sick kids, but also showed Lewis at his most maudlin and — as the nights wore on — rambling. He later said he was on both Percodan (for pain, the probable result of doing slapstick stunts for so many years) and high doses of Dexedrine, which was widely used in showbiz circles back then and fried a lot of brains. (Lewis’s, too? Hard to know.)

There might have been another reason for the drop in Lewis’s popularity. As zany a formalist as he was, he could also seem like an establishment fuddy-duddy in an era that saw the rise of more scabrous, countercultural comedy. His lovable little man began to seem increasingly phony, as did his films’ sentimentality. “I like good entertainment, nothin’ sordid,” he told Bogdanovich. “I keep all the sordid things in the confines of a room with a broad; nobody sees that.” Some of us wish that he’d set aside the Chaplinesque innocent persona as he aged, and explored his dominant darker side. He more or less stopped — at least in his own work — with Buddy Love.

There were a few high points left. The independently made Hardly Working (1980) was a surprise hit. When Martin Scorsese couldn’t convince Johnny Carson to play himself (more or less) in The King of Comedy, he gave Lewis the plum role of talk-show host Jerry Langford. Lewis worked with writer Paul Zimmerman to shape the character, using both his long acquaintance with the frosty Carson and his own showbiz cynicism. He was reportedly miserable playing scenes in which he’s a captive of a character played by Sandra Bernhard, who’s anti-demure, invasive persona was the opposite of what Lewis looked for in his leading ladies. But it works onscreen! The movie flopped, but he got some of his best American reviews. Pauline Kael, no fan of Lewis or the film, said he was its only note of authenticity: “Lewis doesn’t try to make the off-camera Langford likable; the performance says that what the off-camera star feels is his own damn business,” she wrote. He gave a low-key and extremely effective performance on the ’90s TV crime show Wiseguy as a Garment District patriarch in trouble with the mob, though the story line was thrown out of whack when star Ken Wahl was injured on the set. Although Emir Kusturica’s mutilated Arizona Dream and Susan Seidelman’s Cookie performed poorly, and the British Funny Bones was only a succès d’estime, he was working. And huge checks from the Eddie Murphy Nutty Professor remake and its sequel ensured he could continue to live high.

Lewis privately reconciled with Martin in the latter’s final years, but as he moved into his 80s, his mood became more sour. He did a live interview with his old admirer Bogdanovich that went from curmudgeonly to downright abusive. The telethon came to an abrupt, ignominious end when he let rip with a sexist tirade.

There were more bad things — but why go on? Go back instead to when it seemed as if Lewis could do anything, when he was America’s clown prince. Watch those Tashlin films with Martin along with the Colgate Comedy Hour. Watch him look every inch the star on What’s My Line? (as a panelist and mystery guest) and as a guest host of The Tonight Show. Watch him in Tashlin’s Rock-a-Bye Baby (he had a hit with the title song), and move on to The Bellboy, Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, and The Patsy. Asked by Bogdanovich what advice he’d give to young people, Lewis said, “Reach for the child within. The child has never died within you, you’ve just abandoned him, that’s all. Dig him out. Give him some wings and some air and you’ll fly with him.” Go back half a century and savor those three or so decades in which his professional brilliance was in harmony with his flying inner child, and Jerry Lewis was truly in his groove.

Jerry Lewis, America’s Polarizing Clown Prince