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Remembering Jerry Lewis, the World’s First Rock Star of Imbecility

Jerry Lewis, who died last week at 91, was hardly the first comedian to make people laugh by acting transcendently idiotic. The Marx Brothers took hilarious head-spinning dives into the outer limits of surreal silliness. So did Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges. But Jerry Lewis was the world’s first rock star of imbecility.

If you watch one of his comedy routines with Dean Martin from the ’40s and ’50s, you see something amazing. Martin, brandishing his sleepy-eyed cocktail-lounge machismo, was the straight man, and Lewis, flitting and prancing around him, was a one-man circus of slapstick brain damage — he jumped on people, he brayed out words in a mincing baby voice, he crossed his eyes and giggled at his own jokes, and every so often he slipped in a crack so smart that it let you know everything he was doing was a put-on. Yet it was Martin, the virile crooner, who seemed innocuous and Lewis who seemed like … a force. He offered his audience a catharsis of arrested development, tapping into something essential about who we are (or who we were becoming).

Martin and Lewis, in their free-associational way, were playing out the inner psychodrama of the new American male: the tug-of-war between the sexy, pompadoured cool cat who seemed to have walked right out of the movies, becoming the man American men now wanted to be (Robert Mitchum, Hugh Hefner), and the geeked-out wussy failure they feared in their hearts they were. Lewis, who expressed Jewish anxiety as much as Woody Allen, was a nudnik who emasculated himself before anyone else got the chance. And in the movies, where he played a dozen variations on this character, he took it on a hilariously skewed odyssey — a comic lunge for freedom.

“He was the lowbrow doofus who was also a new kind of superstar.”

Lewis was one of the defining entertainers of the postwar era, but his legacy now revolves around a barrage of conflicting images. He was the lowbrow doofus who was also a new kind of American superstar. He was the actor turned auteur who directed and starred in a series of colorfully spry comedies of the “Mad Men” era, but he was acclaimed by French critics as an unrecognized genius of personal cinema. (They were about half-right.) He was the has-been who, in 1972, reasserted his creative “relevance” by playing a circus clown who leads children to the Nazi gas chambers in “The Day the Clown Cried,” a movie so extravagantly misconceived that Lewis decided to bury it. And yet, 25 years later, Roberto Benigni made “Life Is Beautiful” and triumphed for basically the same concept, making Lewis’ folly seem weirdly ahead of its time.

No wonder it’s been hard to pinpoint where Lewis stands in the pantheon of popular entertainment. His greatest movie is “The Nutty Professor,” the 1963 comedy in which he reconfigured “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” into the tale of a fussy academic control freak who transforms himself into Buddy Love, an oily-haired lady-killer of awesome superiority. The movie is really about how Lewis’ spirit took him in every direction. He was a geek and a rock star, a protean talent whose impulses built a bridge from the purity of silent film (his 1960 directorial debut, “The Bellboy”) to the anarchy of Jim Carrey.

Maybe that’s why his performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” (1982), as a late-night talk-show host who is taken hostage for the sin of being a late-night talk-show host, is memorable. The witty, lived-in gravity he brought to this portrayal of impotent power gave him a new career as a character actor; it was as if he’d been liberated to express who he was on-screen. Then again, Lewis was never more himself than when he wore fake buck teeth and bowl-cut hair and acted out a fantasy of utter ineffectuality. At those moments, he expressed something indelible: the feeling that life has made us look ridiculous, but that we’re going to laugh right back at it anyway.

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