On the occasion of his 86th birthday last Friday night, Jerry Lewis was in his element: water. He was drooling it onto his feet, wrapping his lips around the rim of a glass, and drinking from a pitcher. Abetted by his on-stage interviewer, comedian and TV cop Richard Belzer, the legendary nightclub performer, jack-of-all-film-trades, and philanthropic veteran of the Muscular Dystrophy Association met the expectations of fans who packed 92nd Street Y's Kaufmann Auditorium on Manhattan's Upper East Side by cutting loose with the brand of shameless clowning that has kept him rich and famous since the Truman Administration. Casually crossing his legs and sending a shoe flying into the first row, musically cutting off a Belzer follow-up question with "Was I throoooough?", and fixing the perpetrator of a solitary laugh with a cartoonish, sneering turn of the head that dates back to his white-hot dual act with Dean Martin, Lewis was primed to give his audience a good time, and what was billed as a tribute by the fraternal comedians' group The Friars Club morphed into a two-hour reciprocal love-in between childlike idol and uncritical idolators. "I'm nine, and I've always been nine," Lewis self-diagnosed during a breather from his antic agenda. "The beauty of nine is that it's not complicated."
In the variety of his public personae, Lewis has been complicated, often to the chagrin of his admirers, who have cringed at or rationalized his notorious telethon tirades against media critics, or his once-expressed distaste for female comedians. The two chairs on the tribute stage were somewhat ominously flanked by photo blow-ups of the Two Faces of Jerry: stage left, the beloved, bucktoothed Professor Kelp from his esteemed 1963 Jekyll-and-Hyde lampoon The Nutty Professor, and stage right, an MDA promo photo circa 1970 with a slick-haired, grinning Vegas Jerry pointing at us Uncle Sam-style (with a distinct resemblance to Kelp's noxious lothario alter-ego, Buddy Love). Was the "Bad Jerry" waiting in the wings, or a humbled, gracious iteration like the one who accepted his special Oscar three years ago? Emcee Belzer started things off with the high-flown effusiveness often associated with Lewis's generation of showbiz backscratching, calling the guest of honor "almost a scholar on nuclear energy" and extolling "his love of humanity." ("This is lofty language, I know," Belzer equivocated, and seemed much more simply sincere when he repeatedly addressed Lewis as "Dad.") A brief clip of a recent cable documentary followed, showing Lewis careening through his squealing upper range in dressing-room vocal warmups, and being praised for his comedic art by Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, and Quentin Tarantino.
Lewis then emerged, in black suit and bright red shirt and pocket square, lifting the gathered cineastes, comedy pros, and Martin & Lewis-reared graybeards from their seats. "When I open my eyes in the morning, I'm a hit," was his unfortunate choice of an opening statement—he'd just used it in the documentary excerpt. But though the anecdotes that followed were often familiar to his devotees, and flowed with the smoothness of a likely 600th retelling, most retained a flavor of self-revelation: his myth-scented singing debut at five, capped by a big laugh when he kicked and shattered a footlight; playing to a record-breaking Paris theatrical engagement whose opening-night crowd included Charlie Chaplin, escaping attention by standing in the lighting booth; aching that his partner Dino was unappreciated by the press during their extraordinarily popular, decade-long run. His rise from movie novice to lauded innovator, both in technical craft and his intensely personal, often deeply strange star vehicles (which dominated screens for a decade after the break with Martin), was fueled by workaholic curiosity: "After the first four years, there wasn't a single job [on the set] I couldn't do. . . They were thrilled to teach me." Lewis lays claim to membership in 14 Hollywood unions, and thus his only cryptic, quasi-political aside, spoken like an autodidact and the child of immigrants, was "We're a country that has become kind of lazy."
After emcee and guest covered Lewis's invention of the "video assist" (monitors for gauging camera angles on film sets that pre-dated videotape), the rising star's friendship with his retired hero Stan Laurel (out came Stan's 1920 studio pass from Lewis's wallet), and how Martin Scorsese toted the Lewis-authored how-to text The Total Film-Maker around The King of Comedy set (apparently not for show), Belzer left the stage and left the audience Q&A to be handled by the éminence grise, perched on a vertiginous director's chair, and a couple of mike handlers. After a characteristically ambivalent precondition—"Don't tell me how much you love me; I know"—Lewis hit full stride by commandeering the session with anarchic, vulgar brio at the expense of his hesitant or long-winded disciples:
"Jerry, when I was ten years old..."
"I did see you at the Loews Pitkin, yes? You were there? I thought so, or maybe that it was a dream."
"Yes, thank you. You were great, you dirty old broad."
To a babbling, seemingly questionless man, who after a minute started over:
"Bullshit! We heard you already! Next!"
Then, a silver-haired contemporary:
"Jerry, I worked with your father [a vaudeville comic] in 1943, and I've seen bits of what he did scattered in your films over the years. And your mother, she was a fine pianist."
"And she was a hooker at night!"
From a young woman:
"Can I give you a birthday card?"
"Sure. [Takes and reads] Room 724, got it!"
And on it went, with Lewis pulling faces, waving duds away from the mike, doing a horsey guffaw and swinging his feet merrily like a toddler about to leap from his high chair. ("I have so much fun!") And the crowd, victims and onlookers, lapped it up. It was a night at the comedy museum: pre-Lenny Bruce vintage putdowns brandished with crack timing by the last of a breed, a man whose personal, pharmaceutical, and medical histories made his indulgence in such shtick in the year 2012 a nearly miraculous event. The nine-year-old lives, and he visibly grew stronger and more fully in control of the stage with each wave of laughter.
What critic Dave Kehr recently described as "Jerry's inimitable, and inextricable, combination of comic genius and personal pathology" may still get another premiere; though Lewis hasn't directed a film in over 30 years, he spoke of a fall target date for opening a Nutty Professor musical on Broadway, starring singer Michael Andrew ("one big bubble of love and talent"). While he mostly kept orneriness at bay in front of an adoring crowd, he chafed at a mention of the '80s dud Slapstick (Of Another Kind), and addressed his abrupt firing from the MDA telethon last year with a bit of defiant schmaltz: "My kids didn't suffer, thank God." Still using pledge dollar figures as an applause line, Lewis manages to hold onto the affection of those who got to know his goofy-kid character in their childhood, despite the grandiosity and self-righteousness that inevitably floats to the surface in interviews and any venue where he plays himself. Little wonder that, in a star-studded video of birthday wishes played near the tribute's end, '50s kids Werner Herzog (wishing Lewis a future "saturated with life") and Lou Reed materialized. (I couldn't catch what Belzer shouted in Lewis's ear to identify Reed, but like to think it was "White light, white heat.")
When pressed for an evaluation of contemporary comedy, Jerry offered a rote list of established performers, the youngest of whom was Chris Rock (47). But he's already spawned descendants in the last quarter-century; for better and worse, the careers of Jim Carrey, the Beastie Boys, and Adam Sandler are unthinkable without him. With Paul Shaffer at the piano, the audience sang "Happy Birthday" to the former boy wonder of the Catskills and Hollywood, but what echoed as they filed out onto Lexington Avenue, as strongly as the insult gags and practiced anecdotes, was what sounded like Lewis describing his muse's continuing hold on him as helplessness: "Laughter is longevity. . . You get hooked, and sometimes it gets in the way [of your family]. But it's too late not to do it anymore."