Jerry Lewis is a figure who has haunted me — or, who has played a major role in my Imaginary — for most of my life. In 1963, when I was nine years old, my parents set up an extended vacation and took me and my brother on a cross-country tour. On a hot summer afternoon, we found ourselves in Ogden, Utah; we were catching a train for Oakland, CA, but it was five or six hours late. To escape the heat, we went to an air-conditioned movie theater, and saw one of the hits of that summer: Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor. My parents subsequently always told me that it was an awful movie, but that me and my brother had loved it. But in any case, this was the primal scene, as it were, when Jerry got imprinted on my brain. For years afterwards, all I remembered of the movie was a vague sense of weirdness and laughter, and (even more than that) a dazzlement of bright color — I was recalling the movie’s brilliantly garish color scheme, and perhaps also the scene where we see Buddy Love for the first time (as a reverse shot to closeups of people gaping in astonishment).
Anyway, it was only in the 1970s, during college and then graduate school, that I got to see The Nutty Professor again, together with all of Jerry’s other films: the ones he directed above all, but also the early ones with Dean Martin, and the ones directed by Frank Tashlin. My fate as a Jerry Lewis fanatic was sealed. When he returned as a director with Hardly Working in 1981, I went to see it on the day it opened. His last feature film, and one of his best, Cracking Up (originally and more properly titled Smorgasbord) didn’t play in theaters but went straight to cable: I saw it as soon as I could. In the mid-1990s, when Lewis was touring the country with his production of, and starring role in, the otherwise rather lame musical Damn Yankees, I bought fifth-row seats for his performance in Seattle; it was the only time I saw Jerry live. I never met him in person; twice I tried to set up interviews with him, but they both fell through.
I wrote at length about Jerry in my 1993 book The Cinematic Body; in retrospect, it is a book that I am largely unhappy with, for numerous reasons. But I am still happy with the chapter on him. I wrote several short essays on Jerry Lewis in the past decade or so, which appeared on several websites. I have collected those as a free e-book (or, more properly, e-pamphlet) that you can download here:
Anyway, what to say, now that Jerry has passed? Jerry Lewis’ films, and his comedy more generally, are characterized by an infantile excess, something that knows no boundaries and has no sense of restraint or of good taste. This in itself makes Jerry’s comedic figure both delightfully twisted and utterly embarrassing. Jerry’s persona doesn’t feel any such embarrassment or shame, but this unawareness makes it all the more embarrassing for me to like him and identify with him. There is no sense in Lewis’ comedy of a raging id set free of repression; rather, the persona almost always has an overwhemling desire to please the fatuous authority figures who are set against him and whom he unwittingly destroys. Jerry’s persona is intimidated by cultural norms and creates chaos through his unsuccessful endeavors to conform to those norms. Even Buddy Love, the obnoxious Hyde to the Jekyll of timid Professor Julius Kelp, is not a figure of the id, but rather one of arrogant egotism and a drive to control. Buddy Love is the sinister cousin of Jerry in the few moments that he shows unbridled bliss, in the form of scarce moments narcissitic, masturbatory self-enjoyment (these scenes often have to do with music in some way: the scene in The Errand Boy where he mimes the actions of an entire jazz orchestra while listening to a recording of them; or, in the same movie, the scene where he grins in idiotic delight as he is about to dub a musical scene from a studio film with his own gratingly off-key singing; or that scenein Cracking Up where he is a hideously defaced gangster who robs a bank, not to get the money, but to record his own musical performance on the surveillance cameras).
Lots of critics have noted the sophisticated formalism and self-reflexivity of Lewis the director; but what is harder to explain is how this resonates with, and works as a necessary counterpoint to, the aggressively unsophisticated (crassly juvenile or infantile) content of Lewis’ performances. What gets me every time is the co-existence in everything Lewis does of incompatible (or I should really say, in philosophical vocabulary, incompossible) qualities and situations — but that is to put too intellectual a twist on something that is a visceral and pre-reflective response on my part. How can anything be so sophisticated and so stupid at the same time? How can the situations Lewis creates generate both exilarating identification and shame/embarrassment?
Obviously, Lewis’ comedy has one of its roots in Jewish vaudeville and slapstick. His parents performed regularly, and he first performed as a teenager, in the Borsch Belt (hotels in the Catskills where Jews from New York City would go on vacation). There is an amazing scene in a 1931 Yiddish-language movie, His Wife’s Lover, that powerfully prefigures much of what Jerry does. This movie stars Ludwig Satz, apparently one of the biggest stars of the Yiddish theater in New York in the 1920s and 1930s. The movie’s plot is an old misogynist chestnut, with analogues that go back at least to Boccaccio and Chaucer. A young seamstress is in love with the matinee idol played by Satz. But he resolves to test her fidelity first. She is forced into marriage with a disgusting rich old miser, who is really the matinee idol in disguise. Then the matinee idol visits her in his own guise, and tries to seduce her. Of course she proves her fidelity by resisting apparent adultery, even though she hates the old miser who is officially her husband, and whom she refuses to sleep with. The scene that prefigures Jerry Lewis occurs during their honeymoon at the seashore. The old miser tries, and fails, to convince the woman to kiss him, or to go into the water with him. It’s actually a musical number, with Satz singing in a whiny, grating voice. The scene is not so much a source or template for Lewis’ later comedy, as it is an instance of what Harold Bloom calls apophrades: a reversal of the “anxiety of influence” in which an earlier work seems to have been influenced by, and to be imitating, a later one. It is as if Satz were already familiar with Lewis’ shtick, and is trying to replicate it. The scene has the same kind of queasy hilarity I often find in Lewis (but I cannot say whether I would respond to it in this way if I didn’t already know Lewis).
Of course Lewis must be remembered not just for his actual films and other performances, but also for his celebrity persona. In the course of his career, he went from being one of the biggest superstars in America to being despised by most Americans as a figure whom only the French, with their inexplicable perversity, could love. But maybe the younger generation, without exposure to these negatives, can appreciate Lewis anew (my kids have enjoyed the films of his that I have shown them).
Lewis’ yearly presence as the host of the telethon to raise money for treating muscular dystrophy did not help his reputation. He raised lots of money, and he was unquestionably entirely sincere and heartfelt in doing so; but he also made use of all the injurious stereotypes that disability activists have rightly objected to. Also, a number of his films make use of unquestionably racist stereotypes, especially of Asians. And then there was his cranky praise of Donald Trump last year: the sort of thing that made him seem like the cranky great-uncle who yu want to lock away in the attic whenever you have visitors, so he won’t embarrass you even more than he has already.
And yet. As I have already said, embarrassment and shame are emotions that Lewis’ comedic persona does not feel, but that he induces in his viewers and fans. Lewis is undoubtedly one of the originators of what we know today as cringe comedy. — But actually I should modify what I just said. In Lewis’ last feature film, Cracking Up/Smorgasbord, he plays a character in distress, who has been a loser at everything and cannot even manage to kill himself, despite repeated attempts. The movie is the most extreme example I know of distress being mined for comedy; it has many of Lewis’ most brilliant gags, but it also packs an excruciating punch.
In the 1980s, when Lewis was making a comeback, I saw him interviewed by Dick Cavett (who showed his usual incomprehension of nearly everything Lewis said). In the course of the conversation, Jerry described both Jean-Luc Godard, and (then-President) Ronald Reagan, as “a dear friend of mine.” Has anyone ever encompassed such wildly different extremes of the movie business?