Last year on the occasion of Jerry Lewis’s 86th birthday, J. Hoberman got to thinking about the complexity of one of America’s most towering comedic figures and the multitudes contained within such a man.
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.
Hoberman paints a complex portrait of a man who offends and enthralls and grandstands and, yes, sometimes disappoints. One example comes from earlier today at the Cannes Film Festival where Jerry was asked who his favorite female comics were. His answer? Cary Grant and Burt Reynolds. Then he gave his real, long-held answer: “I don’t have any.”
It seems that the recipient of countless humanitarian awards still has an old-fashioned view of the comedy world, more befitting the 1950s era during which his star first rose.
Asked Thursday if he had changed his mind at all because of performers like Melissa McCarthy and Sarah Silverman, the 87-year-old Lewis said of women performing broad comedy: “I can’t see women doing that. It bothers me.”
“I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator,” he said. “I just can’t do that.”
Plaudits for the honesty, I suppose. Does anyone think this is kosher?
Related: Hey Jer-REE [Tablet]
Jerry Lewis Repeats His Distaste for Female Comics [AP]
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.