The Once And Future King (Of Comedy)
This past weekend we lost a comedy legend. THE comedy legend. The Kid. The Idiot. The monkey. One half of the biggest comedy team of all time. Total filmmaker. Crooner. USC lecturer. Nobel prize nominated humanitarian. Abstract laff-maker. Crotchety interviewee. Inventor. On and on we go deep into the world of Jerry Lewis.
I've spent the last seven years hosting a retrospective (the longest ever dared) of the complete works of Mr. Lewis, going through every TV appearance and film (we're only at 1969!!?!). Combined with all the books and records, it's hard to even begin to sort through this man's life and what it means to the world.
To analyze his comedy output alone is a maddening maze. Catskills child entertainer. Martin & Lewis. The Frank Tashlin years. Then there's the auteur era. His self directed films range from feeling like mad comedy parties (The Bellboy) to twisted self-examination (The Nutty Professor). Like with fans/scholars of Shakespeare or Bob Dylan, one could spend multiple lifetimes analyzing his output.
Use of objects and space (The singing lesson in The Patsy).
Color (The Miss Cartilage dance sequence in The Ladies Man).
Pantomime (The boardroom scene in The Errand Boy).
Often times a refusal of plot (Smorgasbord).
Contradiction (Says lady comedians aren't funny, yet used Kathleen Freeman in twelve films!).
There's more. So much more. If you want to kill an evening, type “Jerry Lewis” into YouTube and get lost in it.
His influence runs deep: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg attended his college course. R.W. Fassbinder had actors replicate a Martin and Lewis scene (In a Year of 13 Moons ). Beat Takeshi took it to Asian pop culture absurdity (Getting Any?). Godard got arty inspiration (Keep Your Right Up). David Lynch's awkward misunderstandings between characters (Twin Peaks). Quentin Tarantino (Four Rooms). Martin Scorsese (The amazing looong moment with Leo trying to get to his car on expired ludes in The Wolf of Wall Street). Jim Carrey. Eddie Murphy. Adam Sandler. Stephen Chow. Paul Reubens. Nicolas Cage. And more. And more. His name will pop up in an interview or on a commentary as a source of inspiration.
Fans can smell each other out. We know. There's a feeling. Something special. A connection. Psychic, maybe. Once the conversation between two happens, forget it. Hours. Hours. Hours of talking. “Did you notice this?” “That framing in Three On a Couch …” “Did you notice he's eating a turnover and then turns it over...”
I can't think of another filmmaker, with exception for maybe Jess Franco, that has such a deep tape trading world. Home movie parodies starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. A 1967 Celebrity Softball game. The telethons. Martin and Lewis from the back row of a night club. A shoddy recording of his Broadway performance of Damn Yankees. An hour plus of outtakes from his appearance in Mad About You. Rare TV movies. Backyard BBQs. 7-11 commercials. That episode of Super Force!
Yet, with ALL of this he is still misunderstood and under-appreciated. Why? I guess it took many decades for people to appreciate the genius of Buster Keaton. I feel like we're finally now coming to terms with The Three Stooges being important. Maybe it's just gonna take a little longer for Jer. But the journey is worth it. Trust me. If you dive in, one night you will wake up at 3 AM and understand that he is the true King of Comedy.