Living in Laughter: Revisiting the Comic Frenzy of Jerry Lewis on His 90th Birthday
By Stuart Mitchner
Here’s a trivia question from left field: what do Allen Ginsberg, Philip Roth, C.K. Williams, Stephen Crane, Paul Simon, Sarah Vaughan, Chris Christie, Jerry Lewis, and Percy Shelley’s grandfather have in common?
Answer: they were all born in Newark.
So was Leslie Fiedler, author of the landmark study Love and Death in the American Novel. In his essay, “Whatever Happened to Jerry Lewis?” from Murray Pomerance’s anthology Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film (NYU Press), Fielder recalls once working in a shoe store side by side with “a crew of losers,” one of whom was Danny Levitch, who happened to be Jerry (Levitch) Lewis’s father. Fiedler recalls that although Levitch was constantly boasting about his “rosy prospects in the theater,” he always seemed to end up working as an extra salesman. Fiedler thinks that the father’s habitual failure “must have haunted Jerry and fueled in him a relentless desire to succeed.”
In 1945, Jerry Lewis, who turns 90 today, was 19, living in Newark with “a very pregnant wife” and earning $135 on “a good week” in various Manhattan night clubs; his act was to make funny faces while lip-synching along with photograph records.
Then one day, on the corner of Broadway and 54th, he met “a tall, dark, incredibly handsome man in a camel’s-hair overcoat.”
As Lewis puts it in Dean & Me: A Love Story (Doubleday 2005, with James Kaplan), he and Dean Martin were “the most successful show business act in history” during the ten years after World War II. This happened because “Postwar America was a very buttoned-up nation. Radio shows were run by censors, Presidents wore hats, ladies wore girdles. We came out of the blue …. A sexy guy and a monkey is how some people saw us, but what we really were, in an age of Freudian self-realization, was the explosion of the show-business id.” The team exploded without a script, “the same way wise-guy kids do on a playground, or jazz musicians do when they’re let loose. And the minute we started out in night clubs, audiences went nuts for us.”
The Busboy From Hell
It’s after midnight at the 500 Club two blocks off the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, late July of 1946, and the ultra-cool Italian crooner is onstage singing a romantic ballad until someone with the voice of a hyperventilating nine-year-old begins heckling him. When the singer says, “Hey, I’m tryin to make a living up here,” the heckler screeches, “Doing that? Hah-hah-hah!” After the singer motions for his nemesis to come up on the stage, this creature, the busboy from hell, staggers and swerves blinking into the light, he can’t see, he’s crashing into tables, people are starting to laugh, wondering, “Is this for real?” The Italian takes some sheet music from the piano and says “You sing it!” and the busboy replies in his infantile falsetto, “I only sing in Jewish,” and they’re off. For the next two hours, it’s a free-for-all, the well-lubricated audience in hysterics as the overgrown brat in his busboy jacket scampers and scuttles around the tables like a chimpanzee on speed, smashing dishes, chasing cigarette girls, and terrorizing waiters while the singer somehow holds his own, no problem, everything’s cool, boys will be boys. The first time Jerry Lewis savaged Dean Martin’s act, at a night club in New York, he wasn’t sure how the singer would react to “the monkey who had ruined his song.” When their eyes met, Lewis saw “the indulgent smile” of the older brother he had “always longed for.”
“We were in some different territory, some previously unexplored zone,” says Lewis in Dean & Me, “way out on a limb streaked with stardust.”
The “love story” came to an end ten years later when Martin simply outgrew his straight-man role. At 39, he had to move on or else go through middle-age teamed with a lunatic Peter Pan. Dino had new worlds of acting to conquer and conquer them he did while Jerry expanded on what David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film terms “the American comic preoccupation with the little man beset by an incomprehensible, heartless, or intractable world.”
In a piece on Lewis’s solo film career titled “Idiot Semi-Savant,” Gary Giddins remembers being dragged up a theater aisle by his mother, who was worried that he might hurt himself laughing at The Delicate Delinquent. I know whereof he speaks. Though I was a faithful viewer of Martin and Lewis on the Colgate Comedy Hour, the only time I recall laughing so hard I thought I’d damage a vital organ was watching a certain scene in The Caddy (1953), during which, true to Lewis’s boast, “the audience went nuts.” The scene in question takes place in a locker room and involves an inventive practical joke at the expense of a typically hapless Lewis character named Harvey.
A skinny loser in an ill-fitting suit with a bowtie and a pancake hat, Harvey is victimized the moment he walks into a room full of “caddies” who look more like middle-aged truckers drinking beer and hanging out. After twice politely asking (“I beg your pardon”) how to get to the locker room and being ignored, Harvey screams in his high Joisey Jewish voice, “I beg your pardon!” and gets a glass of water tossed in his face by a heavy-set bully who sneers, “Hey you’re quite a tomboy, aren’t ya?” Looking to have some fun at Harvey’s expense, several of the men sneak into the locker room to watch him undress, and just as he’s bending over, one of them tears a sheet, causing Harvey to think he’s ripped the seat of his pants. When he reaches nervously back, afraid to look, his hand touches the bare shoulder of the man seated on the bench behind him. Of course no one in “real life,” not even a total idiot, could possibly make the fearful assumption Lewis is making, a dumbed down case of grossly mistaken identity right out of There’s Something About Mary, but the by-now roaring audience could care less, the power of suggestion carries the day, along with the seismic expression of horror spreading across the landscape of Lewis’s face as his hand moves on to encounter a chin and a nose and a forehead.
Seen online in a quiet room half a century removed from the all-consuming pandemonium of a packed theatre, the surreal moment seems mildly amusing, of interest mainly as a chance to observe how much the comic impact of the scene depends on Lewis’s face, a face that belongs “principally and gigantically to cinema,” as Murray Pomerance puts it in his essay “A Sensational Face,” where the premise is that at a time when Martin and Lewis were “the very biggest item in show business, there existed no widely circulating, immensely popular, and intensively variegated forms of screen imagery on which people could see other people’s faces in close detail — outside of cinema.”
In effect, what Lewis is doing in the locker room is a highly developed close-up version of the funny-face act he performed at 19 lip-synching along with a record for $135 a week.
The Uses of Laughter
So should I write it off to my low-brow adolescence that I not only laughed myself sick over the locker room scene — the bullying of an effeminate Jewish loser — but had a nasty habit of doing spontaneous Jerry Lewis impersonations (“Oh da pain!”) at the time? Certainly there’s nothing in the comic frenzy of such scenes worth mentioning in the same breath with Buster Keaton, “the great stone face” who remains hilariously impassive while the world is collapsing around him. And though the torn-pants routine may resemble a gag from Chaplin’s bag of tricks, you know you’re a long way from the force of genius that is always present when Chaplin is at his most Chaplinesque.
When I decided to show the locker room scene to my son, I wasn’t trying to prove a point about its significance or even effectiveness. I was just curious to see how he’d react, especially since he’d been feeling down on himself all day (“I’m so clumsy, I can’t do anything right, it’s hopeless, what’s the use, etc etc”). He needed no canned laughter, no environment of an audience in hysterics, to laugh himself silly. In fact, he was laughing from the moment Harvey walked into the hostile room saying, “I beg your pardon.” He knew how it was, he’d been there, endured the same sort of teasing and worse, far worse — and who hasn’t? What matters is that Jerry Lewis cracked him up and cheered him up while making him take himself less seriously.
Streets of Newark
Of “the nerds who are the anti-heroes” in Jerry Lewis movies, Leslie Fiedler writes: “Defined from the very beginning as losers, they cannot kill a dragon, find the Holy Grail and become saints or kings; nor can they be convincingly portrayed as overthrowing a tyrant and freeing his oppressed people …. In Jerry’s world the only well-lit places are the classrooms, gymnasiums, laboratories, and auditoriums of seedy second-rate colleges flanked by sleazy nightclubs, bars, and soda parlors to which the students flee when school is out.” At this point, Fiedler observes that the “pot-holed streets” over which Jerry Lewis’s protagonists move remind him “very much” of those in Newark, New Jersey, “a city that began to die before it began to live.”