King of Comedy

The Jerry Lewis Page

Here it is.

A page devoted to the King of Comedy, Jerry Lewis.

He's recently had yet another comeback. His live performance as Applegate in "Damn Yankees" was a hit on Broadway. It continued to be so, as he spent the next several years touring across the country. Also, Eddie Murphy's remake of Jerry's masterpiece, The Nutty Professor, was the comedy hit of summer 1996--just as the original was of summer 1963. Yes, Jerry Lewis is definitely back. But few people realize how brilliant and extensive his career has been, and how wide his influence. He's directed a dozen movies, and appeared in over fifty. There's scarcely a comedian in Hollywood today who doesn't owe a tremendous amount to him. Jerry Lewis is one of the towering figures of comedy, on stage and screen, in the entire 20th century.


Jerry Lewis was born into show business. Both his parents were vaudeville performers. He gave his first public performance at the age of five. But his career really began on July 25, 1946, when the 20-year-old Jerry teamed up for the first time with a singer by the name of Dean Martin. Martin and Lewis were an instant hit. They wowed audiences at nightclubs, on the radio, even on the infant form of TV. And especially, in the movies. By 1949, Jerry and Dean were among the biggest stars in Hollywood. It seemed like they could do no wrong. The critics may not have liked them, but the public always did. Their movies were box-office smashes, their radio performances and TV specials earned high ratings, their live shows were mobbed. Martin and Lewis made 16 feature films together before the partnership broke up in 1956.


After the breakup with Dino, Jerry continued on with his solo career. He made movies, put out records, and expanded his charity activities with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Jerry had always been interested in the technical aspects of moviemaking, and in 1961 he made his first film as director as well as star, The Bellboy. He went on to direct such inventive and interesting movies as The Ladies' Man, The Errand Boy, and The Nutty Professor (generally regarded as his masterpiece). All of these date from the early 60s, but Jerry continued to make films throughout that decade and then again in the early 80s. I am especially fond of two of his later efforts, which are little known even to Lewis aficionados: The Big Mouth (1967), and Smorgasbord (also known as Cracking Up, 1983).

Lewis's films have many special points of interest. They are rife with inventive visual gags. They have an odd take on gender, because Jerry is never quite 'masculine' enough, in the ways that our society has traditionally defined that term. And they certainly speak to the way that inert objects seem to take on a life of their own, in a culture of mass media and massive commodification. Also worth noting are Lewis's accomplishments as a director. He was the first mainstream filmmaker since Chaplin to do it all himself: to produce, direct, write, and star in his own movies. And the form of these movies is often as elegant as the content is crude. Lewis was fond of self-reflexive gestures, for instance, long before they became the norm in Hollywood comedy. Lewis was a technical innovator in filmmaking, as well: he was the first director to use video on the set, in order to get instant feedback on every shot.


What is it, then, that Jerry Lewis contributed to show business? I wouldn't deny that his ability to cause irritation is part of what he is doing as a comedian. Even back when I was a kid, Jerry's funny voices and facial contortions had the rare power to drive my parents out of the room. What grated on them, as it still does on viewers today, was the relentless infantilism of Jerry's act. Think of a small child's short attention span, its underdeveloped motor skills, its manic hyperactivity, its lack of inner restraint, its inability to acknowledge the needs of others or to resign itself to deferred gratification. These are the very elements that make up Lewis's comic persona. His slapstick routines have none of the grace and elegance that we find in the work of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or for that matter Jackie Chan. Instead, Lewis wallows in klutziness. He has a very strange relation to machines and other physical objects. The slightest touch is enough to make everything go awry. The effect is always wildly disproportionate to the cause. Jerry pushes a button, and triggers an alarm clock that won't stop ringing. He pulls at a loose thread, and an entire fabric unravels. He sings a wrong note, and glass shatters everywhere. He takes a photo with a flashbulb, and night is suddenly transformed into day. I find these routines funny, but I suspect that they are also the very thing that many people find excruciating. Because they depend on a set-up in which everything is ever-so-slightly off. Lewis is a master of doing things just precisely at the wrong time. His body seems to flail about at random, triggering chain reactions of chaos in his surroundings. His personality, just like his body, has no center. Jerry is always teetering on the brink of complete disorganization.

All this is to say that Lewis's humor has a high discomfort factor. Often I laugh, but just as often it makes me nervous. That Jerry is infantile also means that he's excessive. Anything goes, without regard for norms of intelligence or taste. Even when Lewis has a good comic idea, you get the feeling he doesn't know when to stop. He pushes everything just a little too far. This excess is not an artistic mistake; it's the very point of Lewis's act. Most comedians create a sort of magical world, in which their particular brand of insanity rules. Such is the case for film comedy on nearly every level, all the way from the Three Stooges to Woody Allen. Lewis is nearly alone as an exception to this rule. His persona is never able to rearrange the world to his own liking. As a result, you don't get a sense of freedom from his films, the way you do, for instance, with the Marx Brothers or Monty Python. You never escape from that voice in the back of your mind that keeps on telling you how stupid this all is. There's always an air of shame and embarrassment to Lewis's films. The nerdy, wimpy Julius Kelp of The Nutty Professor can only escape his sense of inferiority by turning into something yet more obnoxious: the conceited bully Buddy Love. In Smorgasbord, Jerry's character is so messed up and so incompetent that he cannot even kill himself successfully. The film's a series of gags built around the fears and humiliations of an unsuccessful psychoanalytic treatment. But it is precisely this sense of discomfort, of being a square peg in a round hole, that Lewis' comedy captures so successfully.


Jerry Lewis Links

Sites of Interest of Comedian Jerry Lewis
Ring Owner: Morgan Tregea Site: Behind the Hidden Mask: the art & life of Jerry Lewis
Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet
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This page is always under construction. If you have any suggestions about links to add, please email me.

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