It’s rarely noted how fundamentally Jewish Jerry Lewis’s humor is. I don’t mean the urbanely intellectual name-dropping of Woody Allen, but rather the sheer raving fear and terror, the sense the world is out to get you, that permeates the fiction of Jewish writers like Franz Kafka and Leonard Michaels. At his best, Lewis convinces you that everyone is dangerous and that the most you can do is run away, shrieking. It’s impossible for me to watch Jerry Lewis films without thinking of the Holocaust.
You may balk at the previous sentence, wondering whether it’s meant to be funny. I’ve often had the same reaction to Lewis’s films. Lewis ruled the box office in the 1950s with a series of comedies co-starring Dean Martin and directed by Frank Tashlin (Artists and Models is probably the best-known). After his partnership with Martin ended, Lewis became his own writer, director, and general metteur-en-scéne. A recent Anthology Film Archives retrospective devoted to his directorial efforts showed how Lewis took the persona he’d cultivated—a sort of cross-eyed, arm-swinging man-child, given to spluttering nonsensical outbursts along the lines of “Grupdideebooboowabumwacha”—and simultaneously used it while distancing himself from it, commenting on it. He uses not humor, but “humor,” raising your awareness of the gags as they’re unfolding. Eric Henderson, writing in Slant, points to a sequence from 1961’s The Errand Boy where Lewis’s character, Morty S. Tashman (shades of Tashlin), keeps bringing a great glass candy jar down from a high shelf, then back up. Audiences have been conditioned by slapstick—everything from the blind man shattering the shop in It’s a Gift to the cream pie-and-spritzer of a Three Stooges routine—to expect Jerry to drop the jar. When he doesn’t, the joke goes from being on him to being on us.
What does the distancing effect of Lewis’s humor have to do with its sense of trauma? The split between Lewis the character and Lewis the creator generates both. Lewis plays multiple roles in several of his movies, but in his first four films as a director—1960’s The Bellboy, 1961’s The Ladies’ Man and The Errand Boy, and 1963’s The Nutty Professor—you’re acutely aware of two Lewises in particular. One is the famous adult who has created this world; the other is the anonymous kid dodging the mines that the adult has set for him. Lewis’s 1972 film The Day the Clown Cried (omitted from the Anthology series—for legal reasons, the film still can’t be seen), in which Jerry tries to smile through an actual Nazi death camp, was doomed conceptually by avoiding its author’s gifts. Lewis’s best films don’t take place in the real world, but specifically and explicitly in a fantasy world he’s created.
The child Lewis flees celebrity, while the adult Lewis grumpily inhabits it. His main role in The Bellboy is as Stanley, an open-mouthed, essentially silent hotel employee, but he also plays himself. Jerry Lewis arrives at the hotel wearing dark sunglasses and a tightly-pressed frown, with a gigantic entourage trailing him. He doesn’t even know who its members are, he says, they all just started following him. In the movie’s best sequence, he delivers a speech about how good everyone has been to him, continually interrupting himself to bark “Hold it!” as they charge forward. At one point he takes out a cigarette and asks for a light; after the ensuing crush, we see the cigarette smashed against his face.
The infantile Stanley has no awareness of the agita that Jerry Lewis goes through daily. Herbert H. Heebert of The Ladies’ Man comes closer to understanding. After getting his heart broken, young Herbert retreats from the world into working at a boarding house for young actresses. One (Hope Holiday, the ditz Jack Lemmon picks up in the previous year’s The Apartment) asks him to play a scene with her and gets so into the part that she beats the crap out of him. At another point in the movie, the house’s matron appears on television and Herbert, fascinated by the camera, keeps wandering into the shot with her, disrupting her interview. Herbert is fascinated by the appeal of celebrity, but the scene’s greater joke is that Herbert is always on camera, regardless of whether he wants to be. Late in the movie, Herbert runs away from one of the women, frightened, and the camera pulls back, revealing the Ladies’ Man’s set.
The protagonist in Jerry Lewis’s films is always a character, but one that bleeds over into the Lewis offscreen. In a key Errand Boy scene Morton, a former sign-painter on a Hollywood studio lot, tells a talking puppet his life story. He says he was a kid who grew up in New Jersey, changed his name, and came out to Hollywood to work at Paramutual Pictures. In real life, Lewis grew up in Newark with the name Joseph Levitch and broke into vaudeville after getting thrown out of high school (he’s said he punched out his principal for making an anti-Semitic remark), ultimately becoming a star with Dean Martin at Paramount Pictures. At the end of the movie Morton, now a movie star, sees a sign-painter handling the job incorrectly. He climbs up onto the painting platform and starts lecturing the kid, saying that he was once a sign-painter himself. The kid turns around. Jerry Lewis plays him, too.
Lewis and Martin were the world’s biggest box-office draws for six straight years in the 1950s. Lewis himself was America’s most profitable movie star in 1957, 1959, and 1961-64 (he continued to make films with Tashlin while directing his own). Aside from his pure talent, combining a silent comedian’s physical gifts with an unmistakable, goofily sibilant voice, I suspect he appealed to audiences so strongly because he cultivated a myth: The hapless, helpless fella who, through persistence and goodwill, climbs out of the shit and grows up to be a star.
The Nutty Professor didn’t perform as well as Lewis’s other films had. In this movie, even more so than in his others, the schnook and the celebrity are squashed into one. Lewis plays Dr. Julius Kelp, a buck-toothed, floppy-haired, painfully shy professor in love with one of his students. To impress her, Kelp concocts a potion that turns him into a singer named Buddy Love (Lewis without makeup—read into that as you will). Unlike in the 1996 Eddie Murphy remake, where Murphy’s charismatic energy as a stand-up performer turbo-charges the audience through Buddy’s darker moments, Lewis’s stiffening body and thick-voiced reliance on flat hipster lingo (“Hiya, chicky baby”) keeps Buddy Love both repugnant and repulsive, good-looking but ultimately hollow and charmless—and so, too, the movie seems to say, is fame. While Murphy’s Everyman Sherman Klump ultimately accepts himself, returning to the voluminous folds of his blissfully farting fat family, Julius Kelp still feels sad and lonely at the end of Lewis’s film, even though he’s got the girl. It’s as if Lewis has constructed two possibilities for himself, and neither one works.
Stanley the bellboy became a TV comedy star in Lewis’s 1964 film The Patsy. After Stanley falls to his death at the end of the movie, Lewis walks on and shows us that we’re looking at a movie set. Lewis’s screen work would subsequently darken, achieving twin high points in 1983. In that year he both played a cold, distant prick of a talk show host in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and wrote, directed, and starred in Cracking Up (a.k.a. Smorgasbord), about a hapless nerd who wants to kill himself. As a friend remarked, Cracking Up at times feels like your grandfather shouting the same joke over and over—the film piles so many gags on top of each other that it achieves a brilliantly desperate strain. The two movies show the two sides of the Lewis icon that audiences had flocked to 20 years prior: The schmoo who wanted to be famous, and the schmuck who actually was.