Clown prince of arrested development, maestro of coercive sentimentality: Is there a needier, more agonizingly ambitious figure in American popular culture than Jerry Lewis? The man doesn’t just want to make you laugh until you choke on your cookies and milk flows through your nose; he wants you to appreciate that he’s the greatest humanitarian who ever lived, and the “total filmmaker” besides.
It’s been my privilege to see Lewis perform live three times, each in its way offering the spectacle of the ongoing struggle between his superego and id. The first was on the beach at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival where, resplendent in madras cabana wear, the most cerebral Hollywood funny man since Buster Keaton confounded a press conference called to promote the documentary-portrait Bonjour Monsieur Lewis! by speaking “French” (Sharrrrls de Guh-llllllll! Eye-fool Tow-ware!!) at length before pivoting to an utterly humorless insistence on the significance of his contribution to world cinema. My second Lewis sighting came a dozen years later at the Marquis Theater on Broadway where, playing the Devil, Lewis hammed his way through one of the last performances of the revived Damn Yankees, part detached Vegas MC, part shamelessly eye-crossing, face-pulling, applause-signaling shtick artist. The third time was last Friday night at the 92nd Street Y where the Friars Club was presenting a tribute on the occasion of their supreme Abbot’s 86th birthday.
As befit the occasion and venue, the evening’s host Richard Belzer approached the podium chanting in garbled Hebrew. Hyperbole ruled. After calling Jerry’s trademark “Hey lay-DEE!” the Beethoven’s Fifth of Comedy, Belzer promised the buzzed audience of freshly tanned wise-guys, mink and Botox yentas, bridge-and-tunnel Pupkins of all genders, hooky-playing Hadassah ladies, Francophile film critics (like moi), downtown film programmers and, making a grand entrance, Jerry Stiller, that “God will be here!” And indeed, he was, alive and well, and smartly attired in a dark blue blazer, fire-engine red shirt and striped silk tie, weight down, hair and teeth poifect.
At 86, we should all look so well! And there was big news: As first announced in 2009, Jerry would be directing The Nutty Professor as a Broadway musical. Asked about Michael Andrew, slated to play his signature role of echt nebbish Julius Kelp turned obnoxious swinger Buddy Love, Lewis was quick to say, “First of all, he’s Jewish …” This mysterious observation was left hanging. Belzer gamely played straight man while, less manic than mellow, the birthday boy performed ye olde glass-suctioned-in-mouth trick, drank water from the pitcher, and expertly sent one expensive-looking loafer sailing into the first row of the audience. Hoping against hope, Belzer went faintly blue, gratuitously telling Jerry, “No fucking excuses!”
It took 10 minutes for Monsieur Lewis to rise to the bait. In the course of a meandering anecdote concerning his dear friend psychiatrist Karl Menninger, Lewis declared, “I had no fucking idea what you said.” Ten minutes after that, Belzer tried again, belligerently maintaining with regard to The King of Comedy, that although critics may not have realized it, “from day fucking one, you were a great actor!” Lewis did not dispute the claim and, without further cursing, went on to enumerate half or so of his vaunted 14 union cards; display what was described as a Stan Laurel studio ID from 1920; claim that The Bellboy grossed over $600 million; reveal that, pleading lack of expertise, Martin Scorsese asked him to direct the TV cameras in The King of Comedy; and assert that his annual Labor Day telethon had raised $2.6 billion to help victims of muscular dystrophy.
Belzer took a breather, and the ensuing audience Q&A found Lewis more precocious little boy than prophetic dirty old man. Amusing himself by mildly insulting the interlocutors who had eagerly queued at two mikes (“I don’t know if that answers your question but it will move you out of there”) or crossing his legs, pursing his lips, and moronically batting his eyes in response to some male fan’s effusion, the star only once became visibly annoyed. “Bullshit,” he bellowed when a persistent nudnik insisted on proffering a supposed photograph of Jerry allegedly taken at a kid’s birthday party somewhere on Long Island during the run of Damn Yankees.
Hard to say which Lewis enjoyed more, the middle-aged lady asking, “Who influenced you when you would watch TV as a child?” or the young man in a wheelchair who declared, “To me you’re the pope or the closest thing to God on this earth.” The maestro benignly ignored Jerry Stiller’s surreal interpolation: “Did you and Dean [Martin] ever rehearse? Can you tell me how? I just wanted to know—was it worth it?” And a woman who appeared to be carefully building up to a question regarding the status of Lewis’ lost masterpiece, the Auschwitz-set film maudit The Day the Clown Cried, was put off with a burst of obfuscation worthy of Professor Irwin Corey. At least he controlled his temper.
Only twice did the Lewis id make itself known. The first eruption came when a female fan tried coaxing Jerry to wax nostalgic about his days as a New Jersey high-school student. After feigning incomprehension, he suddenly relented and described himself as “the original graffiti artist—I drew a picture of Hitler kissing a Jewish lady!” Hoo-hah! The specter of sexually errant Jewish womanhood was raised again when an elderly gent, evidently familiar with the Borscht Belt antics of Lewis’ parents, praised the musicianship of Jerry’s mother. “Yes—and she was a hooker at night!” his dybbuk squawked without missing a beat. What would Dr. Menninger say about that?
There was no follow-up question. The Q&A gave way to a video montage where an assortment of almost entirely male celebs extended their tiresome best wishes: David Letterman, Eddie Murphy, Stephen Spielberg, Steve Martin (the funniest), Tom Hanks, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Chevy Chase, Jerry Seinfeld, Jerry Stiller (yet again!), and a tongue-tied Robert De Niro were to be expected; MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, rocker Lou Reed, and my candidate for next year’s Oscar telecast emcee, Werner Herzog, less so. It was pleasing to note that some in the audience had the taste to spontaneously boo the on-screen appearance of Donald Trump. Then Paul Schaefer bounded on stage to lead the crowd in a ragged rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
It was, in short, a furshlugginer love-in—not to mention what people like to call a Moment of History. As the happy crowd exited onto Lexington Avenue where three giant Friars Club-bound charter buses were waiting to take a hundred or so of Jerry’s closest friends downtown for birthday cake (and perhaps a real roast), I heard myself declaring, “Hey, not since Woodstock … lay-DEE!”
J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet Magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.
J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.