Take it from experience: one of the first questions asked of any Jerry Lewis fan who declares his admiration is, “Do you really find him funny?” The question isn’t as confrontational as it seems; read generously, there’s even a bit of a back-handed compliment in there. Sure, he’s an interesting case study in American celebrity, worthy of attention; the acknowledgement that, depending on the age and viewing habits of the interlocuter, he gave surprisingly supple, moving dramatic turns in The King of Comedy, Wiseguy, Funny Bones; and all right, he made you laugh as a kid. But now? Funny?
Well, I really do and always have. Lewis’s reaction to calamity—the spasmodic efforts at extraction, interspersed by rounds of disturbing calm, building to the burst of apoplectic frenzy that proves as futile as any other measure tried—is as iconic and hilarious as Keaton’s unperturbed fatalism or Groucho’s peevish snipes. Lazy impersonations of Lewis focus on the mania and miss those pauses the perfectionist, preternaturally gifted physical comedian would lace into his bits. A random limb swiftly raised then replaced just as quickly, the intention realized as useless almost the instant it’s conceived; the trailing-off sentence fragments and swallowed coughs, a need to articulate the dilemma strangled by the pointlessness (or impossibility?) of the effort; the childlike defensive stance, crouched so his butt sticks out and face juts forward, and cautious tread—more a single legged-pivot with, somehow, forward momentum—around the problem; the hand briefly cradling the brow beginning to seethe. It’s a magnificent collection of cancelled gestures and never-stated oaths, as if even Lewis’s frustration was being frustrated. And then—and only then, snarky shouters of nasal freundlavens should note—the explosion.
But it’s where these outbursts are embedded, particularly in Lewis’s self-directed films, that sets them above. Working hard on the Martin and Lewis pictures, developing his craft even as he began reaching for a relevancy and pathos beyond the gibbering of The Kid (a stagehand on their TV show once asked what bit of business Lewis was endlessly rehearsing; “Shakespeare shit,” snarled Dean), Lewis began second-guessing and bossing around such talented but uninspired directors as Norman Taurog; but Frank Tashlin he studied. From the former animator he learned the infinite possibilities of a cartoon world made flesh, and the visual advantages of a bright, modernist palette. To Tashlin’s anarchic satire of mid-century America, Lewis added the element that shall forever divide his followers from his detractors: an ego that was monstrous, to be sure, but also so self-aware of its own needs and limitations it couldn’t help but be tuned in to its fragility as well, and the permeability of what we like to think of as our immutable selves. “The Lewisian person is not merely inconsistent,” Chris Fujiwara has written, “he is discontinuous.”
It’s this discontinuity that makes Lewis’s features so odd and even disturbing. Playing multiple roles in one movie is an old comic gambit, but Lewis elevated the shtick to critique—of accepted Hollywood norms, and the audiences that wanted them. Those who were startled by the gravity Lewis brought to Jerry Langford or Eli Sternberg should recall that Lewis has embodied many monsters over the years, with Buddy Love only the summit of portraits including The Family Jewels’s child-hating clown Uncle Everett and the monomania of Which Way to the Front’s Brendon Byers III, fueled less by patriotism than the sting of rejection. Remember also the remarkable double ending of The Nutty Professor, that still unrivaled portrait of the hazards of unbridled wish fulfillment and the self-loathing at the heart of masculine bravado, where first Julius Kelp’s father is revealed to have sampled the formula and proceeds to sell it off to an eager classroom of students, and then after Kelp’s embarrassed retreat it’s revealed Stella Purdy has procured her own supply. Best to be true to yourself, we’re patronizingly assured, then reminded how gladly we’d all change ourselves over if it was as simple as downing the contents of a bottle.
Not only do Lewis’s characters mutate at seeming will, so do the films around them, tracing comic digressions for their own purpose, abandoning plotlines for scenes at a stretch only to pick up the threads later, indifferent to the frustrations of those clamoring above all for a nice story well told. Consider one of the great erotic nightmares of American film, the never explained or reexamined interlude with Miss Cartilage chucked into the middle of The Ladies Man.
From Tashlin, Lewis might have gotten the all-white room, the tacky painted backdrop of clouds, and the withering fear in the face of female sexuality. But Lewis’s vision is tougher and more explicitly surreal than Tashlin’s, his colors more vivid and blockier (the return to the hallway at scene’s end slaps you with the bookending floral arrangements of yellow and red), his surfaces harder. Lewis himself, for all his boyish fluidity, visually exudes a stiffened carapace, from his pomaded hair to his spit-shined shoes, both of which glint in the light like a polished shell. Even his hands glitter, bejeweled as they are with the expensive watch and wedding and signet ring he refused to doff for any role, however impoverished as scripted—another way identity, in Lewis, is a sham always susceptible of change.
And those surfaces prove as frictionless as they appear, the wall gliding up and down as effortlessly as the sliding doors in the scene above from The Patsy slice past one another—with Lewis equally helpless to prevent or even affect their motion in the slightest. In the credit sequence for Lewis’s final self-directed film, Smorgasbord (a title integral to the film’s plot and a knowing nod to its episodic structure, and thus always preferable to the studio-imposed Cracking Up), a suicidal loser has come to a psychiatrist’s office to seek respite from his despair. Alone in a room whose floor is so polished it’s a blood-red mirror to the gleaming, brightly colored furniture it supports, Lewis is unable to find purchase, sliding bumptiously on his back with practically every step, his legs shooting out at every attempt to stand. Nor is there any comfort to be had when the chairs are reached, as he slips off like oil. Not even a tray of candies provides consolation, one morsel unwrapped to only reveal paper inside of paper inside of paper, a bag of M&M’s exploding its parti-colored contents to skitter across the floor. All the while Lewis attempts some semblance of dignity, if not actually comfort, engaging in what Steven Shaviro has described as “a series of ingenious partial solutions that actually do work to a certain extent, but also result in prolonging the basic situation that they are meant to address”; at every skittering step he is denied, reminded of the futility of his efforts, and his own self-hatred reinforced.
I mean, how do you not find that hilarious?