Jerry Lewis as Mockingbird

The Lewis character is always potentially anybody
—Chris Fujiwara

There is no easy way to shake that schmuck you sleep with at night. No matter how you toss and turn he’s always there.
—Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis, love him or hate him, sometimes both. Is he a great artist or just a schmuck? Do the French have a skewed sense of American art or is it an injustice that we will never see Lewis receive the Mark Twain Award on PBS?

As a kid I loved Jerry Lewis. So much so that I carried that fondness into my adulthood, despite not seeing any of his movies or performances for many years. For purely nostalgic reasons I have sought out his movies in recent months. Not only am I better able now to understand my lifelong fascination for Lewis, but I have discovered what Europeans have known for decades: his work is not only rich in contradictions and ideas, but as such is a valuable area of study. Oh—and it still makes me laugh.

In his study of Lewis’s work, Chris Fujiwara writes that it is hard to deny that it is “devoted to a cult of the self”, adding parenthetically that this “partly accounts for the strong negative reactions [Lewis] has inspired in many.” [p 29] Here is a clue among many to explore the extraordinary contradictions surrounding this artist: loved and hated, laughed at and mocked, the toast of Hollywood, Vegas and the nightclub circuits and rejected as a schmuck. Few American entertainers have received such reactions on extreme ends. Perhaps Michael Jackson is the only one who comes close. Surely as an American I can be excused in wondering why, even at the risk of being accused of the absurdity of analyzing something that does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Well, I’m not the only one. In recent years Lewis has been receiving serious attention from North American writers, trailing their European counterparts by nearly a generation. And while one might grant that despite how hard Lewis learned and practiced his craft, his work originated more from the heart and the funny bone than the intellect (and it’s never funny to explain a joke), the origins, motivations and intentions of an artist’s work do not in themselves cancel the value of analysis. Moreover it seems to me that no subject is more mysterious or complex than laughter. Furthermore, whether Lewis intended his work to be infused with ideas or not, the fact remains the ideas are there, and they are plain to see. For example the idea of language as an organizing principle is undermined by Lewis’s stuttering, incoherent idiot (“idiot” is Lewis’s own term). Yet his failure to speak properly opens up subversive as well as liberating possibilities. He is a stooge who becomes his own man first by an inability to speak as others do, then by appropriating their speech to fashion his own novel discourse. When he is in the stuttering mode—and we see this to some degree in all his films—he is the very embodiment of Beckett’s Lucky in Waiting for Godot: he demonstrates a particular breakdown of linguistic ordering. Whether Lewis read Beckett or not is beside the point—the idea is there.

Inasmuch as the contentious reputation of Jerry Lewis in his home country (there is a facebook page devoted to hating him) may be connected to Americans’ perception of themselves, I don’t think I should avoid (even though I’d prefer it) further comment on why I personally am fascinated by his work. As a child I was plagued by self-consciousness, no doubt in large part due to the fact that I could never please my father, who never missed a chance to tell me how useless and stupid I was both in act and in speech. My mother was a fundamentalist Christian and condemned my soul to eternal hellfire as long as I could not (and I could not) accept her belief system. In body and soul, in act and speech and in thought itself I was rejected. Being a child, you believe your parents. You want to please them, you love them even as you hate them. You end up hating yourself, the “schmuck” you not only have to sleep with every night, but whose skin you must live in every waking moment so that consciousness itself becomes unbearable and any escape is desirable, you name it—drugs, geography, fantasy, art…. Oh, I laughed at Jerry Lewis, the idiot who couldn’t even walk or talk correctly, the little fumbling inept kid in the boy-man’s body always cowering beneath hostile male authority figures and ambiguous female presences—sometimes alluring, sometimes frightening, female presences whose motives and needs were difficult to read.

The typical Lewis character is a schizoid figure, a hybrid kid/man who can be charming, graceful and wise one moment, repulsive, spastic and stupid the next. He’s a good-looking clean-cut nifty dresser utterly lacking social skills, a kid who wants nothing more than the harmony of acceptance and love but whose every attempt to achieve this results in chaos. At the same time every Lewis film is a fantasy. At some point near the middle of the film we see the Lewis character slip into a zone of pure play. Take the boardroom scene in The Errand Boy. The Idiot enters the room momentarily bereft of VIPs, takes one of their cigars and performs a pantomime of a CEO in perfect time to the Count Basie Orchestra. In the zone of pure play the Idiot transforms all of his weaknesses into strengths, revealing that he has secret gifts. Without a word he has taken the speech of adult men and distorted it into a mastery peculiarly his own. Perhaps he’s not even aware, yet, of his gifts. In the boardroom scene we see him wrap up the routine in a yawn, as if coming out of sleep, and dream, his little break from reality over.

Watching this as a kid the contrast couldn’t be more striking, even shocking. It’s not enough to say I loved Lewis because he made me laugh. He was my hero. At the end of The Errand Boy the Idiot becomes a movie star.

Comedy, Lewis tells us, is a man in trouble. It’s born out of pain. We know what Lewis’s pain was. He tells us in interviews: it was poverty and loneliness, a desperate need to be seen and loved. The question arises whether the Lewis haters hurt elsewhere. If their hurt is incompatible with Lewis’s, then so much the more so at those unfunny moments in Lewis’s films—and there are many. The Big Mouth, for instance, is a curious hybrid of slapstick, violent caper and psychological mystery. It should be noted too that Lewis is a master of the gag that is funny by virtue of the fact it is unfunny. If you’re with him you’re with him all the way. If you’re not then you just don’t get it, not because of a mental deficiency, but due to being wired differently.

In his essay Being Rupert Pupkin Lewis’s biographer, Shawn Levy, informs us that reviewers of his biography were unanimous in finding it fair to its subject. What I found on that score was a writer working too hard to be fair, and in doing so erring on the side of negativity. Buddy Love is Jerry Lewis, he emphatically tells us, whereas Julius Kelp is an invention based on “Jerry’s own view of his deep-down inner self.” [p 293] According to Levy The Nutty Professor represents an inversion of reality: Buddy Love the real Jerry Lewis to Julius Kelp the creation. In this equation the real Jerry Lewis is an asshole who creates lovable characters based on an incorrect or incomplete self-image. Levy claims to be puzzled that Lewis turned on him and, true, Lewis could have simply told Levy what Beckett told Bair—that he would neither help nor hinder him—but it’s not hard to see what Lewis must have seen, that the man writing his biography had no deep love or understanding of his work.

In fact Love and Kelp are both the creations of an artist exploring the issue of selfhood in a brilliant retelling of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As the first transformation scene unfolds we seem to be witnessing a monster of fashion in the making and, indeed, as soon as Buddy Love appears it is obvious that this Mr. Hyde represents a transformation of style, fashion and mannerisms. As many commentators have already pointed out, The Nutty Professor asks the question whether manhood itself is only a matter of performance, of owning a certain repertoire of moves, behaviors, discourses and speech patterns. The fact that the film offers no definitive resolution to the conflict is one of its most brilliant aspects: the viewer must put the pieces together. Some will refuse and others will fumble. As another example of Levy’s lack of understanding take his view that “Jerry’s inability to achieve a true characterization in The Ladies Man…. leaves a gaping hole in the center of the film.” [pp 269-70] In fact Herbert’s radical instability is the core philosophical issue of every Jerry Lewis film. I would argue further that a gaping hole is exactly what one finds in a search for one’s innermost core. Concurrently radical instability is the very basis of Lewis’s existence as a performer: it is an extraordinarily accomplished art of improvisation.

The manner in which Lewis honed his craft and came to prominence as a performer with Dean Martin is well documented. A plethora of live performances can be seen on YouTube. It is also well established that the Martin & Lewis films suffered from the constraints of Hollywood molds that tended to squelch the improvisational basis of the duo’s act. However, glimpses can be seen, and virtuosic blends of structure and spontaneity were captured on film, such as the performance of Just One More Chance in The Stooge, and Lewis spoke of “doing his homework”, that is being prepared for the performances to be shot on film. A great enthusiast of Big Band jazz music, Lewis’s practice of doing his homework and then capturing a scene in one or two takes parallels the practice of jazz musicians, who play together at length and get to know each other very well as musicians before going onstage. The results of this method of meticulous planning and spontaneous performance were uneven. But even when Lewis fails I admire the audacity of his procedure. And in truth what he did in film is extremely rare; the coupling of calculation with improvisation is common in jazz music and certain kinds of painting, but one is forced to search for examples in film. Robert Altman comes to mind as someone who brought these opposites together, although in a very different way. Altman’s method was to create an environment in which brilliant actors could improvise together over the scaffold of a basic script. Lewis’s work, by comparison, is much more schizoid in appearance, a style that is unpleasing to some but fascinating to others.

The typical narrative arc of a Lewis film involves an unstable self struggling to find a coherent identity. As such his films are a critique of the roles that adults commonly assume. Once again, Fujiwara is most helpful. In discussing the fumbling stuttering speech of Stanley Belt in The Patsy, Fujiwara writes that it has a “rapidly self-correcting, self-denying quality, as if the Lewis character were rewriting his own being and commenting on the process of doing so.” [p 38] The Lewis character is caught in the crosshairs of establishment figures who want to fix him into a mold, and however much the Lewis character wants to please them, he is incapable of doing so without in some mysterious sense being true to himself. In fact in film after film the Lewis character performs an act of improvisation, much like a mockingbird, by taking found elements and recombining them. Typically, a fantasy is enacted in which the Lewis character succeeds in winning acceptance. As Fujiwara writes, “the Lewis figure may be incapable of matching the standards of the other, or he may be in implicit revolt against them, but the other is also what the Lewis figure already is or may become.” [p 2]

Yet an unsettled quality often remains after a Lewis film, because the issues it has raised are so troubling. If Kafka were to write a Hollywood slapstick comedy, it might look something like The Big Mouth. Gerald Clamson throughout most of the film is very much like K, a sojourner who for arbitrary reasons becomes entangled in the society of a town without being able to establish viable communication with anyone. Danger broods literally around every corner. As in The Castle, the implications of The Big Mouth are bleak indeed: people are defined by their roles in society, recognized by official discourses and sanctioned by Name Brands, and he with no clearly assigned role, discourse or costume may as well not exist. It’s amazing the film manages to be funny at all, but then next to The Delicate Delinquent it’s Lewis’s most schizoid film. But while The Delicate Delinquent is merely interesting, The Big Mouth is a masterpiece. Of all of Lewis’s films it features the sharpest contrasts: most violent and most silly, Clamson is the blandest of Lewis’s characters yet he takes on some of the most outrageous disguises, the kabuki scene manages to be both crude and high art. The Big Mouth is at once the funniest and the most disturbing of Lewis’s films. And the device that ostensibly propels all of the action—some hidden diamonds—becomes a red herring. Like K fooling around with Frieda instead of working on his case, Clamson’s world is only redeemed by acknowledging the moment with Suzie. Without laughter the Lewisian world would be impossible to bear.

works cited:
Jerry Lewis by Chris Fujiwara
The Total Film-Maker by Jerry Lewis
Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film, Murray Pomerance, Editor
King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis by Shawn Levy

read an excellent synopsis of The Big Mouth

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4 Responses to Jerry Lewis as Mockingbird

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    I haven’t given Jerry Lewis a thought for years and years, and now you offer here the most stunning reasons–and examples–for thinking about him and revisiting some of his films. The Errand Boy is a tour de force demonstration of your comment, “In the zone of pure play the Idiot transforms all of his weaknesses into strengths, revealing that he has secret gifts.” (Puts me in mind of Peter Sellers in Being There.) And yet that is only the beginning, as your commentary and the other video clips show so well. It’s a big frustration that Netflix has let lapse licenses on so many older movies–it appears including his–but I’m saving this post for reference and will keep my eye out. As I read this, I do wonder how, in this country, we missed appreciation of his genius for so long. You’ve made it vividly apparent here.

  2. angela says:

    I never developed a true funny bone – Lewis kinda made me itch. Much appreciate your comparison to Lucky for I do believe when I’ve read at least two of Beckett’s plays in my mind’s eye a character akin to Lewis materialized. Nice tribute (and your parents were fools in the nicest sense of the word – no doubt you were a brilliant child) ~ a

  3. Pingback: What I’ve been reading | The Mockingbird Sings

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