I like to catch up with Jerry Lewis via the internet. ‘What’s ole Jerry up to these days?’ I’ll ask Google, when I’ve nothing better to do, half expecting to learn that he died; after all, the last time I checked in was a couple of years ago, when he was 88 and doing a very good impression of a defiantly miserable, profanity wielding old man. But no, Jerry Lewis is now 90 and still appearing on the telly and touring with his one man show (and heckling his devoted audience members, which takes some chutzpah – but then Jerry is Jewish). It seems that Jerry just can’t give up the day job.
Jerry uses a wheelchair now, and a stick, and the old show business term: ‘I made it!’ has a new resonance for Jerry these days– finding that he wakes up in the mornings is enough to make Jerry punch the air and say: ‘wow, I made it, I’m still alive!.’
My last major Jerry-watching phase was 5 years ago when I devoured almost everything he’d ever done, via YouTube, and went to the expense of buying his book ‘Dean and Me: A love Story’ – the account of his double act years with Dean Martin, spanning 10 years. Jerry-watching has got me through various ups and downs in my insignificant little life – not that Jerry would appreciate that sentiment; he takes a decidedly dim view of those who worship and idolise him.
I first became enamoured with Jerry circa 1989 when they used to play The Nutty Professor fairly regularly on TV and was later happily surprised to find that son No.3 shares a birthday with Mr Lewis. Since those days British TV seems to have become a desert, in terms of the Jerry Lewis filmography, hence I generally I have to get my fix via YouTube.
It’s arguable that the Martin and Lewis years were the pinnacle of Jerry Lewis’ career. They certainly appear to have been the most enjoyable, from the performers’ point of view. Their double act began in 1946 when Jerry rang Dean Martin, from the 500 club in Atlantic City, asking him if he’d come down and help out his failing act. At that time Jerry was appearing solo, performing his pantomime act, where he would mime to operatic recordings, accompanied by lots of facial gurning and alarmingly exaggerated physical movements. He’d performed a couple of times before with Dean Martin but neither performer had had any thoughts of teaming up. That changed when the owners of the 500 club (Mafia links) warned Jerry he’d be given the boot (or worse) unless his act improved. Lewis brought in Martin and they were an instant gigantic hit – with their ad-libbed and anarchic brand of nightclub mayhem.
The success of the club act led to appearances on The Colgate Comedy Hour from 1950-55 cementing their double act as one of the most successful in showbiz history – certainly the one with the most wide-ranging and pop star-type appeal.
Watch any Colgate Comedy Hour on YouTube and you’ll see the obvious and fascinating chemistry between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. These two performers were polar opposites. Dean’s persona was laid back and super cool (not quite so cool in real life) whilst Jerry’s was hyperactive, child-like, maniacal and yet together they were a perfect fit. So perfect that latter day fans (almost all of us not around during the M&L heyday) have picked up on the curious nature of Dean and Jerry’s stage relationship. A relationship that is so intense it sometimes seems almost sexual in nature. Barely a 1950’s show goes by without Jerry landing an open mouthed kiss on Dean, without them dancing in each other’s arms, without the exchange of long and lingering glances; which is why the acrimonious end of their stellar partnership seemed so sad and so wasteful – something Jerry Lewis regrets to this day.
Here, a rather strange (but very good) fan-made video attempts to capture the confusing, intense and bitter sweet nature of their double act.
However bitter and unhappy the Martin and Lewis split was, it did allow Jerry Lewis to explore all the creative areas he had become fascinated with during his sort of ‘apprenticeship’ as one half of a double act. Jerry’s role in the M&L show had been that of ‘ugly monkey’ (Jerry Lewis was actually very handsome, more so than Dean Martin in my Jerry loving eyes.) He was the witless sidekick to Dean Martin’s more stable and worldly wise ‘main man’. This was in direct opposition to their backstage roles, whereby Jerry was the energetic and creative mind behind almost every aspect of their act, despite being Martin’s junior by 10 years. M&L were the same height so Jerry cut the heels off his own shoes and added heels to Martin’s shoes to reinforce the power imbalance between the two. Lewis also hunched his shoulders so that he appeared to be subservient to the older Dean Martin. Even in his early 20’s, Lewis was showing the obsessive attention to detail that would make him so (supposedly) difficult to work with in later years.
Jerry Lewis was a lover of silent film comedy, and a worshipper at the feet of Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin (you can see Laurel’s influence in every hangdog face that Jerry pulls.) During their double act years Dean Martin had no time for what he called Jerry’s ‘Chaplin shit’ but, without Dean around, Jerry could take his love of all things ‘silent’ to new heights. In the process he also became a writer, producer, director, inventor (he devised ‘video assist’, a technique used today and one which directors will not do without) and the star of his own series of films which have divided critics and fans ever since.
Here are a couple of classic examples where he prefers silent comedy and mime to the spoken word. If you’ve got nothing to do at the office, why not pretend you’re very busy?
And why not dance your way around the kitchen?
Lewis was also obsessed with the nature of film itself, repeatedly breaking the ‘fourth wall’ as if he wanted there to be a clear divide between the make believe and the reality. Maybe this was the result of knowing too much about every aspect of film making. When you’re responsible for every element of the film making process, maybe you lose the ability to ‘lose’ yourself in the medium. But it’s also a reminder, for Jerry, of his old nightclub days when he would fly off the stage and into the audience, forcing audience members to become his unwitting stooges and part of the show. Later, in The Colgate Comedy Hour, he would address the audience directly via the camera, sometimes running out of shot, motioning the cameras to follow him so that we saw the whole studio set up. Nowadays that kind of anarchy is de rigueur – back then it was groundbreaking and shocking.
Jerry Lewis is clearly not an ‘easy’ man. He is either loved or despised. But love or hate him, he is (or rather was) super talented and multifaceted. And yet all that genius seems to always fly just under the public’s radar. Granted a lot of his films are strangely surreal, strangely maudlin and sentimental; full of moments where you catch yourself thinking ‘what the heck am I watching here?’ Is this man a lunatic? But there are also moments of absolute genius, which bring together Lewis’ gifts of musicality, comic timing, physical prowess and fierce intelligence; moments which make you think why didn’t they give Jerry Lewis a proper Oscar when he was at the height of his fame, instead of the humanitarian one they fobbed him off with a couple of years ago.
A curious fact about Jerry Lewis is that he always talks about himself in the third person, like Jerry (or Jerr) is a completely separate identity. This is an example of the distance all artists feel from their work. The curious sensation that that wildly successful book, by the previously struggling writer, wasn’t written by them at all but channelled from somewhere else; that the artists’ paintbrush is guided by another’s hand; that the performer doesn’t know why he’s funny and if he tries to find out why then it’ll all come crashing down. This split personality disorder (Jerry erroneously calls it schizophrenia) features in almost all his films and is the source of his genius – the ability to play both the bumbling, inept fool and the suave superstar, nowhere with more success than in The Nutty Professor. His hugely successful double act may have disappeared, he seemed to be saying, but I can effectively play the Martin and Lewis parts myself.
Jerry Lewis is a bit egomaniacal, a bit harsh, a bit unforgiving (he can hold a grudge for a lifetime.) He doesn’t suffer fools gladly (even if those ‘fools’ are not really fools at all.) He can talk about himself for hours, in fact there’s no subject that Jerry Levitch (Lewis’ real name) finds more fascinating than his alter ego Jerry Lewis. You either think Jerry Lewis is funny, or you don’t. You either think he’s an incredible one of a kind talent, or you don’t. You either ‘get him’, or you don’t.
The fact that Jerry Lewis reached 90 is a small miracle, given that he smoked 40 a day until heart bypass surgery aged 57; given that he drank whilst often working 18 hour days, given that he was addicted to pain killers for chronic back pain brought on by too many pratt falls.
Jerry hopes he’ll get maybe four or five more years here on planet earth. I’m betting he’ll make a permanent exit during a one man show, complaining that the sound levels are too low, that the lighting levels aren’t quite right and that nobody knows a damn thing about ‘proper’ show business anymore. When he does go, let’s hope he and Dean Martin are reunited on the other side.