Sunday, August 20, 2017

Jerry Lewis

You have to pronounce the name the way they did in the Mountains--Zhehree Lews--at joints that don't exist any more like Brown's, where the theater was named after him and after he became really famous, he would come back and do a weekend for the owners. Brown's was the kind of place where a woman screaming from the pool to be saved from drowning was hard to notice because there was a loud mambo band playing next to the pool.

Many of the critics never "got" his kind of comedy. It was a time when we still had high culture, and then what Dwight Macdonald called midcult or kitsch. I'm not sure Jerry Lewis was even up to the level of kitsch. All he was was--incredibly funny. He was the most natural clown I ever saw perform. I'm old enough to recall how great he and Dean Martin were on the Colgate Comedy Hour in the early 50s. There hasn't been a team like them since. 

My dad used to go to the Las Vegas MD telethon every Labor Day. We would tease him about it but Jerry Lewis raised billions for the charity even if this was clearly the most offensive of a species--the telethon--that is so offensive it has disappeared from our world. I did get to the stage where going to Jerry Lewis movies was a non-starter because he was too much to take in such a big dose. 

He was best in limited amounts. This was tough to find because he did not respect limits. He always was over the top. He even showed he could be a "real actor" in his later years, when he played the Johnny Carson part in The King of Comedy with Robert DeNiro. I did enjoy the headline when he played the Devil in Damn Yankees on stage: "Jerry Lewis Goes Legitimate".

The French were the ones who "got" him the most. They appreciated his being the perfect clown. Ed Wynn was known as the Perfect Fool, but it really was Jerry Lewis. From his first appearance with his vaudevillian parents in 1931, he knew how to get a laugh. I recall him on some TV show doing a takeoff on Jose Greco, the great flamenco dance star. He's clicking his feet all over the stage, screaming, "My feet! My feet! This hurts!"

He will be missed, not so much for the telethon or for some of the awful pictures, but for his character, who anticipated all the "dumb and dumber" stuff. His secret was probably not very hard to discern: he always knew how to be funny.

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