Jerry Lewis, RIP: An Innovative Performer and a Cautionary Tale

Remembering a great comic genius who was also responsible for The Day the Clown Cried, widely rumored to be the worst movie ever.


Terry Colon,

They must have been tough—these past 30, 40 or even 50 years—for comedy legend Jerry Lewis, who has died at the age of 91.

Once an immensely popular and respected peformer, philanthropist, and technological innovator (he invented a system that provided immediate on-set rushes for directors back in the day), Lewis lived the second half of his life as a has-been, a punch line, an eyeroll.

He raised $2.5 billion over the years via his annual Labor Day telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, but even there he didn't really get respect per se. The telethon was widely parodied and his pet name for the children he helped—"Jerry's Kids"—became the name of a Boston punk band in the early 1980s. His one great artistic triumph since his '50s and early '60s heyday was his seemingly autobiographical role as Jerry Langford, the arrogant comedian/talk-show host in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy who gets kidnapped by Robert DeNiro and Sandra Bernhard. Even then, people winked that Lewis wasn't in on the joke, especially after his own disastrous stab at hosting a late-night talk show in 1984. It lasted all of five episodes. That the French thought him a genius (which he was, at his best, at least) only made him less respectable in his home country, it seemed.

More recently, Lewis was in the news only for rabid outbursts, such as his 2010 declaration that he would "smack" Lindsay Lohan "in the mouth" given the opportunity: "I would smack her in the mouth and be arrested for abusing a woman!…"I would say, 'You deserve this and nothing else' … WHACK! And then, if she's not satisfied, I'd put her over my knee and spank her and then put her in rehab and that's it."

In 2015, during an interview with the Catholic cable news channel EWTN, he averred that "Refugees should stay where the hell they are!"

Hey, nobody has worked harder for the human condition than I have, but they're not part of the human condition….If 11 guys in that group of 10,000 are ISIS, how can I take the chance? I don't want to lose another Frenchman or another Englishman. That bothers me.

His swan song in this vein came last December, when The Hollywood Reporter interviewed him as part of an upbeat, fluff series on nonagenarians who were still working in showbiz. "Nine of the interviews went great," explained Andy Lewis. "One was a trainwreck." The conductor of the trainwreck was Lewis, of course, and his performance must be witnessed to be fully appreciated (watch video here).

The saddest thing about Lewis' second half is that it's at total odds with an incredible first half, which saw him rocket to fame as part of a team with Dean Martin and then flourish for a decade or so as a solo act too. Most-remembered now for slapstick and extremely broad comedy (often involving outdated impressions of Japanese and other ethnic minorities), Lewis was working at a level rarely approached by philosophers, much less comedians. In 1999, Brian Doherty and I wrote an appreciation for Lewis at the late website that reads in part:

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 asimilar 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?

And yet Lewis was rarely cited by younger comedians as an inspiration, even when they were clearly following in his footsteps. Why? Doherty and I suggested that Jerry Lewis had

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.

That last point, of course, is a reference to Lewis' unfinished Holocaust project, The Day the Clown Cried. Begun in the late '60s and early '70s as the ultimate vanity project (Lewis starred and directed), The Day the Clown Cried followed a crying-on-the-inside clown who led children into gas chambers for the Nazis. "It's either better than Citizen Kane, or the worst piece of shit anyone ever loaded on the projector," Lewis himself told Entertainment Weekly, and the fact that it was never widely aired gives you a sense of what the auteur thought.

But even in this sort of career overreach—which ultimately gave rise to Robin Williams' awful Jakob the Liar and Roberto Benigni's powerful Life Is Beautiful—Lewis was a trailblazer. Last year, the BBC released a documentary by comedian David Schneider about Lewis' most-notorious (and unseen) film that has been made even more poignant by his death. Watch below: