Gene Seymour: Jerry Lewis was an imperfect, yet captivating comedian who lived longer than his fiercest critics
Poking around the legacy he leaves behind should keep us busy for another 91 years, give or take, writes Seymour
Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Everything, it seemed, was a joke when it came to Jerry Lewis. Even his reputation – whether as a comedian, actor, entertainer, moviemaker or philanthropist – was a setup for somebody somewhere to float balloons or pierce them, the louder the “pop,” the better.
And, as was the case with many of Lewis’ over-the-top displays of brash, noisy, run-amok slapstick as a performer, the jokes at his own expense threatened to overstay their welcome. The insurgent “sick” comedian Lenny Bruce characteristically took a cheeky, sideways shot at Lewis’ efforts to combat muscular dystrophy, but that’s because he was Lenny Bruce. Other, lesser lights injected waves of wisecracks about Lewis’ veneration by French film critics into the comic biosphere, and how long before those jibes stop being original or funny? (This is not a riddle.)
Here’s what’s really funny: Lewis, who died Sunday at 91, outlasted most, if not all the jokes at his expense to the point that, perhaps, there are now those who wonder whether the French were onto something after all. Martin Scorsese, who directed Lewis as an arrogant talk show host in the 1982 cult classic, “The King of Comedy,” certainly thought so, believing Lewis to be both a pioneer and perfectionist among comedy film directors.
We may still be some time away from wider appreciation of Lewis’ movies, though his passing may help set off more earnest reappraisals. But the absence of Lewis as a living presence may take more getting used to than most of us realize, especially those who aren’t old enough to fully appreciate the prominence of Jerry Lewis in American pop culture beginning more than 70 years ago.
It was in 1946 that Lewis, a high-school dropout from Newark, New Jersey, teamed up with an Italian-American crooner from Steubenville, Ohio, named Dean Martin to form a nightclub act that transformed them by radio, movies and the fledgling mass medium of television into high-magnitude stars.
“The organ grinder and the monkey” was how Nick Tosches’$2 1992 biography of Martin, “Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams,” characterized the Martin-Lewis template with Lewis’ wild, anarchic and adolescently disruptive clowning countering Martin’s suave, sexy and seemingly blasé wit. This volatile combination both soothed the American mainstream for most of the early 1950s, while anticipating, in subtle ways, the raw uninhibited release of energies let loose by rock ’n’ roll in the late 1950s.
The act broke up in 1956 and from that time onward, Lewis carried into his own persona some of Martin’s slick, cool patter, made manifest in what even Lewis’ detractors consider his best film, 1963’s “The Nutty Professor,” in which he played both a klutzy, winsome and lovelorn scientist named Julius Kelp and his alter-ego, a slick, finger-popping hepcat named Buddy Love.
The dual roles, in many people’s minds, neatly encapsulated the schism in Lewis’ real personality. Was he the charming, ingratiating kid who never grew up or the swaggering, cagey entertainment magnate fiercely protective of his work and stature?
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Generations of fans and non-fans made up their minds about him and their mixed feelings were neatly summed up by one comedy expert, Kliph Nesteroff, who declared Lewis to be “the comedian you loved to hate and hated to love.”
He wasn’t perfect, but he was unavoidable and always commanded an audience’s attention. It’s easy to take someone like Lewis when they’re always around. But when they go away, that’s when you notice the size of the space they leave behind.
Poking around the dimensions of that absence – and assessing a legacy so large it encompasses just about every comedic talent born after the middle of the 20th century – should keep us busy for another 91 years, give or take.