I read with much amusement yesterday's post from my ChicagoNow compatriot David Telisman, (from his Chocolate Diapers blog), enticingly entitled, "Jerry Lewis Actually Was a Dick."
To be sure, Lewis was full of contradictions; most comics are. And yes, Jer was a substandard father, a misogynist and had a big mouth.
He was the lachrymose powerhouse behind the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) for over 50 years, championing (some said exploiting) stricken kids, as he browbeat or ignored his own.
His dislike of female comedians was, indeed, epic, so politically-incorrect as to border on the surreal.
He spewed insults so awful that had HE been the recipent, he would have been first in line at the Comics' Anti-Defamation League complaint window.
As an interview-ee, especially in his later years, he could be a real pain in the ass - monosyllabic and just cussed-mean.
So, if he was such an asshole, why was he a major draw for most of his life? Why do we mourn him?
By way of explanation, I give you The Tao of Jerry Lewis.
The discreet charm of the idiot. Lovable moron was Lewis's stock-in-trade in so many of his films. His childlike portryals somehow endeared him to myriad fans. There was just something about that face and his delivery that won over the crowds.
The magic of voices. Lewis loved using nutty voices to go with his nutty character portrayals. Will any of us EVER forget this one - "HEY, LAYYDEEEEEEE!" I daresay that one phrase - in that one goofball voice - is seared into our collective national consciousness for eternity. It is the Lewis-ism most imitated by anyone who wants to channel him, comic or schoolkid.
The submission of the moron to a higher power. The higher power being Lewis's one-time comedy partner, Dean Martin, and boy, did their schtick bring success. From the late 1945 through 1955, Martin and Lewis were absolute magic. They started out with a nightclub act that branched into television shows; they also starred in 17 movies, with Lewis as the "idiot" and Dino, the straight man. Eventually Martin grew to hate the films, and their split was legendary. (Frank Sinatra engineered a hokey public "reconciliation" many years later, but it really didn't take; the duo would never be close again.)
The self-aggrandizing, yet altruistic bent. Lewis was national chairman of the MDA for over 50 years. From the 1966 inception of the annual MDA Labor Day Telethon until Lewis's unceremonious boot from it in 2010, he helped raise almost $2.5 billion for the cause. Say what you will about his often maudlin, disjointed-from-lack-of-sleep, Vegas-sodden telethon performances - but that money helped an awful lot of sick people over the years.
The seriously-excellent actor. Four words for you: The King of Comedy. Director Martin Scorcese's scathingly brilliant 1982 film stars Lewis as Jerry Langford, a Johnny-Carson-like talk-show kingpin, and the great Robert DeNiro as Rupert Pupkin, an unhinged schulb comic who idolizes Langford and kidnaps him to get on his show. The wonderful Sandra Bernhard appears as DeNiro's girlfriend and parter-in-crime. While the film clearly was a star-turn for DeNiro, Lewis is nothing short of fantastic as he tries to suss out the insane duo who holds him hostage.
The hip, credible singer. Yeah, maybe Jerry was a Rat-Pack wanna-be, but he actually could sing. And if he'd have toned-down his hammy tendancies, he could have had an adjunct career as a pretty damned good crooner. (You have to remember that the entertainers from Lewis's era all were triple-threats - they all could act, sing and dance. Lewis, Dean Martin, Sinatra certainly, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Debbie Reynolds, etc. all were multi-talented. Far more than stars today.)
The French Connection. Lewis always was mondo-popular in France - the French adore him and consider him a seminal comic genius. In fact, Lewis spent his 80th birthday in Paris receiving France's highest civilian award, The Legion of Honor. Of course, he mugged throughout the ceremony, then told the audience that "even if the French people cannot hear my language, they have always heard my heart".
The undeniable comedic influence. Jim Carrey Tweeted, "I am because he was" upon learning of Lewis's death, and everyone from Robin Williams to Eddie Murphy to Will Farrell could say the same. Like him or not, but every physical comedian, every one who uses goofball voices, all comics who understand the lure of the moron, the naive man-child, all owe a serious debt to Jerry Lewis.
Rest in peace, Joseph Levitch. Your work is indelible.
Or, as you once said, "I've had great success being a total idiot."
(This post is dedicated to Jerry's biggest fan, Angelina Ballerina.)
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