HOLLYWOOD – If Jerry Lewis’ comedy has not withstood the test of time, then how does one explain the current slapstick, idiot-savant antics of Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Adam Sandler, probably the three hottest comics working in films today?
All three men pay direct and indirect homage to Lewis in their movies. Like Carrey, Lewis was capable of the broadest physical shtick and comic braying. Like Sandler, he possessed a vulnerable, nebbishy quality that women in particular found endearing. And like Myers, he vividly sent up his own puerile, priapic obsessions.
Lewis will be honored this year with the Golden Lion, the equivalent of a lifetime career award from the Venice Film Festival, which should at least deflect the innumerable jokes lobbed at the French for their idolization of this distinctly American comedic talent whom they call “Le Roi du Crazy.”
Like France’s Jacques Tati and England’s Peter Sellers, Lewis laid claim to his own style of physical comedy, which was basically that of a 9-year-old who suddenly wakes up in horror one day to find himself on the other side of puberty. No offense to Tom Hanks, but Lewis in his prime would have been the ideal actor to star in “Big,” a role that embodied his man-child dichotomy. And British comic Rowan Atkinson’s deliciously malevolent creation Mr. Bean owes more than a passing nod to Lewis’ perpetual bad boy.
So if it’s not just a French thing, why did Lewis fall out of favor with American audiences by the mid ’60s? Part of it had to do with the times and partly it was Lewis’ wretched excess approach to comedy and his often self-destructive tendencies to maintain total control over his projects. Speaking of himself in the third person Lewis once observed, “Jerry Lewis is never just OK or adequate; he’s either very funny or he’s awful.”
But when he was funny, he was very funny. The struggling comic (born Joseph Levitch in 1926) was making do playing the Borscht Belt circuit in his youth until he was accidentally thrown together with crooner Dean Martin. The two developed into a post World War II version of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, which is what brought them to the interest of Paramount producer Hal Wallis, who starred them in a string of Hope-Crosby style comedies that made the studio plenty of money in the early ’50s.
A couple of them, like “Artists and Models,” were directed by Frank Tashlin, whose comic strip style of comedy influenced Lewis’ filmic development. After the acrimonious break-up of Martin and Lewis, they went their separate ways. Though Martin went on to a prosperous film and television career, he never really evolved the improvisatory-banter style that he developed with Lewis.
On his own Lewis (with Tashlin’s help at the start, then solo) carved out a comfortable niche for himself in tailor-made star vehicles at Paramount, several of which are regarded as comedy classics: “Cinderfella,” “The Bellboy” and “The Nutty Professor” among them.
“He just so much larger than life,” says Brit filmmaker Peter Chelsom, who directed Lewis in “Funny Bones” and is now in post-production on “Town and Country” with Warren Beatty. “People felt safe with him even though he exhibited this daring outrageousness. And I think people feel warm about him now because there aren’t that many great physical comedians.”
Lewis always seemed distinctly out of step with the modern world, which emphasized order and efficiency. And that largely explains Lewis’ popularity. He arrived at the moment when America and the world were in the throes of “Future Shock” and he became the poster boy for this dilemma. Lewis was less an heir to Hope, than to Chaplin and Keaton.
By the mid ’60s he was writing, producing, starring, directing his own films, resulting in such ill-received works as “The Big Mouth” and “Which Way to the Front?” With a new generation of more cerebral comics emerging like Nichols and May, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Lewis’ humor appeared more deperate than funny. And when it came to romance, Lewis’ treacley sentimentality surfaced, making Chaplin look positively restrained by comparison.
By the ’70s, Lewis largely left the movies for Las Vegas, where he descended into drug dependency and an emotional breakdown in the ’70s.
He recovered and was always in the public eye thanks to his nationally televised Muscular Dystrophy Telethon every Labor Day. Unwittingly, his tireless charitable efforts led to the popularization of the “Buddy Love” side of Lewis’ character (his alter ego in “The Nutty Professor”) — a slick, cynical and sometimes nasty persona that was effectively put to use on screen by director Martin Scorsese in “The King of Comedy” in 1982.
“He’s an incredibly powerful straight actor,” says “Funny Bones” helmer Chelsom. “I was really blown away. He can play dark very well.”
There is a theory, possibly specious, that during prosperous times comedy gets very silly. That could explain Lewis’ popularity in the post-war boom years and the lowbrow humor of comics like Carrey and Sandler in the ’90s. But it also proves that comedy does not evolve in a straight line. What goes around comes around again. And this year at Venice, Jerry Lewis can boast that his comedy is no longer the exclusive province of the French.