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.

More TV

  • Variety Cord Cutting Placeholder Cable

    CBS Stations Go Dark on AT&T's DirecTV, U-verse Platforms Amid Contract Battle

    CBS’ 28 O&O stations are going dark for about 6.6 million subscribers of AT&T’s DirecTV and U-verse platforms as the Eye and AT&T battle over a new retransmission consent contract. The blackout affects CBS and CW-affiliated stations in 14 major markets including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Also off the air are the CBS [...]

  • Orlando Bloom Comic Con Immigrant San

    Orlando Bloom Claims San Diego Mayor Ran From Comic-Con Exhibit Featuring Immigrant Characters

    Did an immigration storyline cause Republican San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer to run out of Amazon Prime Video’s Comic-Con activation this week? According to “Carnival Row” star Orlando Bloom, that’s exactly what happened. At Amazon’s “Carnival Row” panel, Bloom told the audience that Faulconer stopped by the Prime Video activation and chose the “Carnival Row” [...]

  • 'Game of Thrones' Cast Calls Final

    'Game of Thrones' Cast Calls Final Season Backlash 'Media-Led Hate Campaign'

    What is life like now after “Game of Thrones?” That’s the question that fans have been asking themselves and that cast members had to answer at the show’s final Comic-Con panel. But first, Conleth Hill, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and several others cleared the air and addressed the perceived negative response to the final season. “I don’t [...]

  • SDCC Roundup: AMC Drops 'The Walking

    SDCC TV News Roundup: AMC Releases 'The Walking Dead' Season 10 Trailer (Watch)

    San Diego Comic-Con has become a hotbed of entertainment news in recent years, especially for the television industry. In today’s SDCC TV news roundup, AMC dropped a trailer for the 10th season of “The Walking Dead” and FX released a first look at “Mayans MC” Season 2. FIRST LOOKS AMC debuted the trailer for Season [...]

  • ARCHER: 1999 -- "Cubert" -- Season

    'Archer' Renewed for Season 11 at FXX

    “Archer” has been picked up for an eleventh season. The announcement was made Friday at San Diego Comic-Con. The news comes less than a week ahead of the Season 10 finale. Season 11 is slated to debut on FXX in 2020. While the show initially focused on the agents and support staff of a covert [...]

  • Carnival Row

    Amazon Debuts New 'Carnival Row' Footage at Comic-Con (Watch)

    San Diego Comic-Con attendees got an extended look at the upcoming Amazon drama “Carnival Row” during the show’s panel at the annual fanfest on Friday. Two new featurettes (see above and below) offer in-depth looks at the backstories of the two main characters — Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevigne) and Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom). Delevigne plays [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content