Jerry Lewis is considered a comic genius in France. It’s a punchline I remember hearing over and over again growing up, a statement both of pride and deprecation: the French? Those chain-smoking existentialist intellectual beret wearers who think they’re so fancy? Look who they think is funny! Jerry freaking Lewis, shouting “Hey laaaadeeee”! So maybe Americans aren’t so stupid after all!
But was Jerry Lewis, who died Sunday morning at his home in Las Vegas at the age of 91, actually a genius? He was certainly, if nothing else, something of a comedy of prodigy, dropping out of Union High School in Irvington, New Jersey at the age of 16 to pursue a professional comedy career. By the time he was 19, he was a married father (of his oldest son, Gary Lewis, who would later be the front man of the band Gary Lewis and the Playboys, of “This Diamond Ring (Doesn’t Shine For Me Anymore)” fame), and he was already tooling around on nightclub stages with the up-and-coming crooner Dean Martin, honing what would become the act that propelled them both to Hollywood stardom in an astonishing 13 films together. Their combination of “sex and slapstick,” Lewis’s term for their relationship, was, for those looking at it with the right kind of critical eye (or oeuil, as the case may be), a fascinating juxtaposition of the two prevailing images of comic-tinged American manhood in the post-war period: Martin (who Lewis idolized) the smooth, world-weary ladies’ man, always ready with a rueful quip and another glass of whiskey, and Lewis, a drooling (sometimes literally) idiot man-child, crashing around and creating chaos while somehow charming all those around him with the sheer absurdity of his inexplicable incompetence. (Should you doubt the influence of these comic personae, consider the fact that the two of them combined into a single character basically forms the basis of every hero of an American comedy of the past twenty years, in which an immature male with no conceivable prospects manages to nab a hot professional woman and bring her down to his level.)
When his partnership with Martin—who, chafing at Lewis’s increasing bid of artistic control behind the camera, not to mention his difficult personality, decamped for the more forgiving environs of the Rat Pack—ended in 1956, Lewis began his career as an auteur, an endeavor he called “Total Filmmaking,” writing, directing and starring in films, arguably comedy classics, like The Bellboy, The Ladies’ Man, and perhaps most famously, The Nutty Professor.
However, it is a film never released that may ultimately be Jerry Lewis’s greatest legacy, and for which he is most known to the current generation of comedians (besides, of course, for later reputation as a megalomanical monster who obsessed with clean white socks and being the world’s most difficult interview subject): 1972’s The Day the Clown Cried. While the details of its non-release are murky (contract disputes, a story, probably apocryphal, that test audiences were so appalled by it that it was immediately shelved), the film stars Lewis (who also wrote and directed the film, naturally) as Helmut Doork, a German circus clown fallen on hard times, who is deported to Auschwitz for imitating the Fuhrer at inopportune moment, and is eventually tasked with entertaining Jewish children on the way to their deaths in the gas chamber. It was intended by Lewis to be his masterpiece, the thing that would grant him the artistic legitimacy he had long struggled to attain outside of Cahiers du Cinema. Instead, it became the greatest cult film of all time, its mystique only augmented by the fact that nobody has ever seen it.
Nobody, that is except for the actor Harry Shearer, who had this to say: “With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. ‘Oh My God!’—that’s all you can say.”
It seems as apt an epitaph for the singular genius of Jerry Lewis as anything else you can say. May he rest in peace.
Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.