Jerry Lewis

The King of Comedy


A spectre is haunting Comedy

— the spectre of Jerry

Lewis. All the Powers of Comedy

have entered into a holy

alliance to exorcise this

Jap-bashing, cripple-imitating

spectre whose hair requires a

visit every three months (or

3,000 miles) to the Bel-Air

Jiffy Lube. Whoopi Goldberg and

Louie Anderson, prop comic and

"monologist," the Upright

Citizens Brigade, and Kids in

the Hall all would like to

pretend Dino's better half never

existed. This only underscores

how deeply indebted the famously

jealous bastards really are to

the genius who, with turkey

trifectas like The Big Mouth (1967),

Which Way to the Front? (1970), and

Hardly Working (1980),

systematically deconstructed his

own reputation with films every

bit as disturbing, pretentious,

and unwatchable as anything by

Peter Greenaway, Todd Solondz,

or Norman Taurog.

Despite the general dissing of

Lewis as an embarrassing

anachronism, we are all Jerry's

Kids now. How else to explain

these seemingly unconnected

recent journeys to the har-har

of darkness: Jakob the Liar and

Life Is Beautiful, two

crying-on-the-inside clown

movies bathetically set during

the Holocaust, ride the rails

laid by Jerry's own avant-garde

attempt to go pffft! in der

Führer's face with the

famously unreleasable The Day the

Clown Cried. Adam Sandler, it's

rumored, has had his teeth

surgically altered to look more

like Jerry's gag choppers, not

realizing that Lewis' were only

a prop. And the one irresistible

force sufficient to budge the

immovable object that was Eddie

Murphy's career was a remake of

Lewis' own The Nutty Professor.

And yet, like biblical gagmeister

Saint Peter, they'd deny Jerry

three times and more. Hence, the

current issue of Vanity Fair

features a cover story about

Jerry-Come-Lately Jim Carrey,

whose frenetic spastications of

unleashed id, involuntary

rubber-faced contortions when in

proximity to even a Nintendo

Gameboy camera, and increasingly

public musings about wanting to

be both funny and serious are

unmistakably Lewisian in style

and substance. The profile even

begins with Carrey's anxiety

that he has "nothing to say,"

suggesting Jerry's own

magisterial turn in The Bellboy

(1960), in which the eponymous

hero doesn't speak until the end

of the film. But Lewis, both as

source and influence, is the

abusive father, the incestuous

mother, the dark, family secret

that dare not speak its name in

the piece, which instead focuses

on Carrey's respectable love

affair with Milos Forman and the

corpse of Andy Kaufman (himself

a Jerry by-product whose

post-mortem overexposure proves

the adage that there is no good

comic like a dead comic,

especially if you're friends

with Tony Danza).

The modern entertainment business

is made up of fleas living off

Lewis' not-quite-dead-yet

corpse; indeed, his presence and

influence are so dominating as

to have become invisible. If

it's out there, Jerry did it

first — however badly,

sadly, or madly.

An early dadaist in the straight

entertainment world, the

pre-Dino Lewis employed a

self-designed advertising

postcard featuring such phrases

as "Platter pantopatter!" and

"Naive Frank Sinatra

imaginational imagery," like a

man playing surrealist word

games with himself and losing.

His films regularly broke the

fourth wall, with the "real"

Jerry entering the action and

insisting that he was only

acting (often badly), even when

pitching cancer sticks (during

his disastrous early-'60s ABC

variety show, his cigarette

pitch involved holding up a pack

of L&M smokes and shrugging,

"Here it is. You wanna smoke it?

That's your business"). When

ersatz tough guys like Joe Pesci

and James Caan brag of mob

connections, they are not

impersonating Sinatra so much as

ripping off Cinderfella, who

helped usher in the age of Mob

Chic every bit as much as Ol'

Blue Eyes (Lewis performed a

similar trick for Jewish

consciousness as well). Indeed,

Jerry has always puffed up with

pride regarding his connections

to La Cosa Nostra, bragging that

goodfellas and goombahs galore

give generously to the Muscular

Dystrophy Association. Need we

point out that through his

yearly self-immolation for the

MDA, Jerry is the

Australopithecus africanus from

which all glory-hound,

"altruistic" stars ultimately

trace their ancestry?

He was an innovative technical

"genius"; in his own day as

daring and innovative as his

student — yes — George

Lucas. Le Jerk practically

created the prototype of the "I

can do it all" performer —

without Jerry, there would have

been no '70s Woody Allen, '80s

Emilio Estevez, or '90s Vincent

Gallo. He was the first

director, with the 1960

Bellboy, to shoot closed-circuit

video concurrent with the film

camera, so he could watch

real-time rushes on the set; for

his '50s tour, he built the

first "Bridges to

Babylon"–style runway across

the orchestra pit to the

audience, effectively allowing

the Rolling Stones and Metallica

to be hailed as visionaries for

doing the same thing 40 years

later and getting even fewer

laughs. Theremin fans — you

know who you are — remain

indebted to Jerry's famous scene

in The Delicate Delinquent

(1957) for the popularity of

that electronic bagpipe.

He made a TV version of The Jazz

Singer starring himself, in

which his decision to become a

clown upsets his Jewish father,

thus giving the world Krusty the

Klown. He repeatedly collapsed

from overwork through the '50s

and '60s, preemptively

substantiating Chronic Fatigue

Syndrome and the cancellation of

any number of Black Crowes

tours. As a lecturer at USC's

film school in the late '60s and

early '70s, he influenced

directors like Coppola,

Spielberg, and Lucas, and he

articulated a cinematic credo

even more minimalistically

fascinating than the Dogma.


FILM," was Jerry's all-caps

philosophy, and it provides the

key to perhaps 99.9 percent of

all movies worth a crap. His

rants about the decline of

Hollywood were every bit as

avant as his filmography: In the

'70s, he presciently and bravely

noted that the industry was

increasingly interested only in

sex, violence, homosexuality,

and matricide, claiming that all

the scripts he received featured

"Jerry as a psychopathic

homophile held on matricide

charges" or as a "cross dresser

who's a transvestite accused of


To understand why Jerry cannot be

openly crowned King of Comedy by

anyone funnier than Scorcese, we

must return to the laurels

heaped upon Andy Kaufman. There

are no second acts in American

life, said F. Scott Fitzgerald,

an observation all-too-true for

a washed-up, booze-hound

novelist whiling away his days

knocking back aftershave

highballs in Hollywood. In a

superficial sense, Fitzgerald is

dead right: John Belushi, Sam

Kinison, Lenny Bruce, Gilda

Radner, Freddie Prinze, Andy

Kaufman — all died

relatively young. He was wrong

in suggesting that this was a

bad thing for the artist's

legacy. Dead comics —

including Robert Kennedy —

benefit hugely when the Grim

Reaper hooks them from the stage

and keeps them from finishing

one more Continental Divide, one

more episode of The Brave New

World of Charlie Hoover, one

more "obscene" live performance

(obscenely unfunny, that is),

one more Haunted Honeymoon, one

more iteration of "Looookin'

Gooood!", one more go-round with

Jerry Lawler. If you don't

believe this, go ask Dan Akroyd,

Bobcat Goldthwait, Mort Sahl,

Gene Wilder, J. J. Walker, and

Emo Philips. We can only

speculate that Mel Robin Hood:

Men in Tights Brooks (who

started off working for Jerry)

or Blake That's Life Edwards

(who will work for food) would

agree. Indeed, who can doubt

that even Woody Allen — the

man who begged Jerry to direct

both Take the Money and Run and

Bananas — periodically

wonders whether he would have

been better off blowing his

brains out after Annie Hall or

living long enough to shtup his


But Jerry won't get his due. He

has committed three Cardinal

Sins of Comedy. First, he was

actually original and daring,

creative and influential, in a

field that hates true genius

even as it relentlessly picks

its pockets. Second, he was

embraced by the French — no

less a has-been than Jean-Luc

Godard called Jerry "the only

American director who has made

progressive films." Third, and

most important, Jerry Lewis has

lived long enough and openly

enough to show what happens to

clowns with pretensions of being

more than Señor

Wences–level yukmeisters

— a category that includes

virtually every comic over the

age of 35. With a flat seltzer

canister in one hand and a

curdled custard-cream pie in the

other, they stare at Jerry

prancing his way through

Broadway revivals of Damn

Yankees, dying a thousand deaths

every Labor Day weekend, and

unironically declaiming his

genius to Larry King — and

they see their futures mapped

out in excruciatingly painful

relief: Clowns in the

concentration camp that is show

biz, denied the chance to go out

with exquisite, even heroic,

comic timing.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief, and Brian Dohert is a senior editor of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.