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The Jerriad: A Clown Painting (Part One: Nutty Around the Edges

(PART ONE: NUTTY AROUND THE EDGES) WITH ALL RESPECT TO THE GREAT NATION OF FRANCE, THE TIME HAS COME TO RECLAIM JERRY LEWIS FOR AMERICA. COMING SOON: A CAMPAIGN TO GET HIM ON A STAMP WHILE HE’S STILL ALIVE. BUT FIRST, A TWO-PART ARTICLE.
DISCUSSED
Puppets, Enfant Terrible!, Comedian as Metaphysician, Keaton Meets Kafka, Laurel and Hardy, Kissing Dean Martin, Damon and Pythias, Frank Tashlin, “Laaady!,” The Nutty Professor, Herbert H. Heebert and Helmut Doork
by B. Kite
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

The Jerriad: A Clown Painting (Part One: Nutty Around the Edges

B. Kite
135 Snaps

A  peculiar thing happens midway through Jerry Lewis’s 1961 film The Errand Boy (directed by Jerry Lewis). The titular doof (Jerry as “Morty S. Tashman”) is wandering the aisles of a Hollywood prop room when he hears a “psst” coming from an upper shelf. He climbs to investigate. Pushing aside cat puppets, girl puppets, other puppets (it must be puppet storage), he discovers a Little Clown puppet, lying there like a stuffed sock. Stuffed—this tells us something, and indeed a cut to the other side of the shelf reveals that the hand puppet is filled, there’s an arm in there trailing off down the bottom of the screen. Jerry reaches out for it, but it pulls away, disappearing below. Then, coyly, the Little Clown puts its plastic, Ping-Pong-ball–sized head, all bright eyes, monkey grin, and pointy hat, just over the edge and stares at Jerry. Shyly, it waves. Jerry waves back with a slight movement of his own fingers.

The Little Clown raises itself, rests its head on its arm, then—ah!—gets an idea and disappears below. He returns with a lollipop, which he offers to Jerry, dropping it on the shelf and pushing it hesitantly, trustingly, cutely toward him. Jerry takes it and rips off the plastic wrapper with his mouth (say, where’s his other hand?) while the Little Clown bounces up and down in delight (oh! He’s a happy fellow!). Jerry keeps sucking, eyes crossed at this really phenomenal lollipop and the Little Clown waves again (he likes to wave). But so much fun has made the Little Clown tired—he stretches and rubs his eyes. Jerry, in instant sympathy, becomes sleepy himself (what is the nature of the Little Clown’s strange hold on his attention?).

The wee creature drops out of sight again and returns with—a little bed. He buries his face in his appendages before attempting to climb in (I think he’s saying a little prayer). Then the ordeal begins. The Little Clown can never really climb into bed, of course, because he is attached to someone’s arm. If we ever begin to forget this, the film cuts to a position from behind the Clown’s side of the shelf—yup, that’s an arm OK. And the arm is placed at a 90-degree angle to the bed—no way can he even begin to stretch out without bringing an elbow into the frame. (This is when I start to itch.)

To prolong the frustration, the Little Clown pulls the little felt blanket off the bed in an effort to—I don’t know, he certainly can’t cover himself. And he doesn’t, just wads it on the edge of the bed (maybe an attempt to hide his extension). Aw, that’s no good, so the Little Clown rises again to fix the blanket (that felt blanket in that gloved hand, those textures, these awkward, fumbling gestures all make my skin crawl). A helpful cut from behind the Little Clown shows him nearly dragging the bed over the edge, into the pit where the owner of the arm dwells. But he pushes it back onto the shelf and continues his obsessive fidgeting with the blanket. He roughly tucks it down at the foot of the bed, then collapses in a heap lengthwise on the disordered pile. That won’t do, so he rises again, again shoves the end of the blanket down at the end of the bed, tries to get comfortable….

The prospect of a horrible eternity opens up. The Little Clown will never rest, the scene will never end, he will continue pulling out and reinserting the blanket forever, in a vain attempt to ignore twin facts: he is attached to an arm; his eyes are painted wide open. Mercifully, though, the sequence ends shortly thereafter: The Little Clown disguises his bulk with the blanket. He covers his eyes and throbs in an indication of heavy breathing.

This scene disturbed me as a youngster for reasons that went beyond the normal child’s healthy fear of clowns. It comes out of nowhere and is left unresolved (a later visit to the storeroom reveals an ostrich puppet with an affected “Southern belle” drawl—she offers no explanation for the Little Clown but praises Jerry for accepting it without question, for “believing”). Being fairly literal-minded, like most kids, I thought that unavoidable arm must mean something—perhaps there’s someone on the other side of the shelf that initiates communication in this odd way. Maybe some misunderstood girl who will serve as Jerry’s drippy romantic interest. But no, the Little Clown comes from nowhere and returns there, a would-be representative of poetic fancy with an arm sticking out.

Such moments protrude like elbows from Jerry Lewis’s films, especially the movies he directed himself—cryptic scenes, uncomfortable scenes, scenes that seem to get sidetracked on their way to humor or pathos or whimsy and wind up in some undiscovered territory of conflicted response. They aren’t the rule (Jerry is often a brilliantly assured director, in the conventional sense of hitting targets we can recognize) and they aren’t bad (Jerry’s too interesting to be the subject of a Golden Turkey shoot). In fact, I think they’re fascinating and offer a point of entry into the mirror maze1 of the Lewis mentality. I choose the Little Clown as my guide, and this is what I learn from him.

 

LESSON #1: BODIES

No effort of will or imagination will ever allow the Little Clown to detach itself from the arm.

“You call that a physique?”

—Dean Martin to Jerry on The Colgate Comedy Hour

The great comedians are metaphysicians. Through their relations with space and interactions with the material world, each embodies a mode of being and intimates a deeper (dis)order. Their philosophy is explicated not in propositions but with buckets, bottles, lamps, eggs, ladders, saws, fish, paint, planks, cigars, nails, rope, pastries, concrete, and camp beds, among other things, not least of which are their own bodies.

Consider Chaplin, last survivor of a mythical Golden Age when all matter was malleable and immediately responsive to human desire. Though the Tramp has fallen on hard times, and into an unfriendly world of fixed functions, moments of grace remain when the schism is bridged and things awaken from their hard, deep sleep to become, again, fluid. At such times, the Tramp’s essential mastery reasserts itself and he reclaims his role as alchemist of evolved materials.

The Gold Rush (1925) provides two famous examples—a two-step for face, forks, and breadrolls (flesh and matter joined in a fantastic unity for the duration of the dance) and the secular miracle of the boot (in which tough shoe leather is transformed into a palatable hybrid of fish, ham, and turkey through the consecration of metaphor). Chaplin is cinema’s ash-can Ovid, a master of flux and terrified only of its opposite—stasis, or the stasis-in-motion of repetition. In Modern Times (1936), the Tramp’s last run, Chaplin offers his vision of Hell—an assembly line. Here, gesture and movement are stripped of expression and reduced to pure function—the tightening of a bolt is an operation on dead matter, incapable of metaphor or metamorphosis. The Tramp, of course, can stand only so much of this before he flips out. He runs wild in the factory and his breakdown restores fluidity to things, his wrenches rise to form donkey ears and the rote gesture itself becomes fecund as he’s hauled away trying to tighten a woman’s nipples (or at least the significantly placed buttons on her dress).

Chaplin’s inferno may have been Buster Keaton’s paradise. Where the Tramp disrupts the assembly line by finally inserting himself—an irreconcilable ob­ject—between the gears, Buster can only dream of a system that operates with such precision and regularity. But since the instruction manual for the world-machine has been lost or misplaced (if it ever existed—here, Keaton meets Kafka), he is left to infer its function from its operation—and its operation seems highly erratic, given to distressing reversals and mysterious disruptions.

Objects undergo surprising transformations in Buster’s hands as well, but the shift tends to the utilitarian rather than the fantastic. The decisive moment in Keaton’s films often involves a switch of referents and ways of perceiving—Buster gets tangled in things when he approaches them through received notions of their use, but gains new powers viewing them in the abstract, as forms extended in space, each possessing a measurable weight, length, balance, and tensile strength.

So, in College (1927) (a film Luis Buñuel praised as being “beautiful as a bathroom”), Buster fails miserably as a pole-vaulter until the shift occurs (the motivations in Keaton also tend to the abstract—here the axiom “love” in the configuration “imperiled”) and he again clicks into gear with the world-machine, able to judge on the instant that an extension of wood now supporting a clothesline can serve as a means of transport to an upper window. In The General (1926), a beam thrown across the tracks threatens to derail Buster’s locomotive, until he judges that another beam, if thrown precisely to the side of the obstacle’s tipping point, can send it twirling end over end out of his way. He simply, elegantly, performs this haiku of physics in motion.

Laurel and Hardy have no such luck, ever. If Chaplin makes matter bend to his will, and Keaton eventually triumphs by engaging its hardness as a tool rather than as an impediment, in L&H, things take on the stolid, stubborn thickness of stuff in a late Philip Guston. The representative L&H shot—a closeup of an implacable tack on the carpet. It is there to be stepped on. It is, inevitably, stepped on. Matter isn’t quite dead yet, but in its decrepitude it has become sullen and malevolent.

At least three shorts are wholly given over to an extended struggle with the unyielding material world: Be Big! (1930), or the battle with the boot (getting Ollie into and out of one—a long, painful process, since it turns out to be Stan’s and hence much too small); 1929’s Berth Marks, a tussle for comfort in the confined space of a railway bunk; and The Music Box (1931), in which a hefty crate (and there’s nothing like L&H for making you feel weight) containing a player piano is transported up a nightmarish length of stairs. It slips back down, several times, the jangle of its mechanism sounding ever more irritable. Just when one begins to suspect that Sisyphus has been reborn as twins in the suburbs of Hollywood, the boys manage to reach the top—only to be informed that the trip was unnecessary, they could have driven the crate up a driveway in the rear. Naturally enough, they carry the crate down again to do so.2

L&H get their revenge in the cycle of films depicting escalating rituals of reciprocal destruction. In Big Business (1928), physical abuse of and by the nominal adversary (James Finlayson3) soon gives way to the real business of the film: the assault on property. At one point, L&H play baseball, with Ollie at bat using a shovel and Stan pitching Finlayson’s pitchers: Metamorphosis occurs only as a means to more creative destruction. And just in case we should forget the real enemy, near the end of the short, Finlayson wrestles with a Christmas tree—as itchy an image of intransigence as I can imagine.

As with things, so with bodies—the two are continuous in the slapstick metaphysic, Chaplin’s ever-changing, Keaton’s a lever, L&H’s mere flesh magnets for nails. And this is the Jerry Difference, his contribution to the great lineage. Jerry begins and ends with the body.4 One can’t speak of a mind/body dualism, for Jerry “thinks with his body,” as critic Raymond Durgnat put it. His predecessors occupied relatively unified, stable roles—Chaplin, for most of his career, is the Tramp, etc., etc. With Jerry one has a shifting flux of identities embodied in movement, a psychological slapstick of the search for a center. So any attempt to trace his career needs to attempt to limn his psyche in action.

But before there was solo Jerry, the misfit in perpetual search of “belonging,” or a context in which to explain himself, there were Dean and Jerry, “the handsome man and the monkey,” in the latter’s words. Today, the best way to get a glimpse of their unfettered dynamic, the act that brought them from nightclubs to movies and TV in just two years, is in their Colgate Comedy Hour television programs of the early fifties. It’s an incredibly aggressive act—the two burst the bounds of the crude sketches they’re given, turning on bit players with the perennial accusation: “You’re overacting,” harassing technicians and musicians, thrusting their faces into the camera in distorted closeup—Jerry even licks the lens. Or licks Dean on the cheek—and sometimes Dean would lick back. Never before (and maybe never since) have two men been so intimate and so comfortable with each other’s bodies on television. But Jerry always did describe the partnership as “a beautiful love affair between two men.”

Most of it was Jerry-initiated—kissing Dean on the lips, jumping into his arms. Aggression and affection collided, often around the mouth—Jerry would stretch Dean’s as he was about to hit the high note of a ballad, Dean would use Jerry’s as an ashtray when he adopted his slackjawed simian stance. Dean had to act quick—Jerry’s poses could change by the second, from cross-eyed, clawing monster to stiff-backed smoothie to slump-shouldered dullard with overbite as fast as the impulse hit him, with the appropriate voice for each stunted stance. Ah, the voice: typically a wheedling drone that rises like a buzzsaw to abrade the nerves of Jerryphobes, reaches a screech when he sings, slides to a lowdown hollow of utter imbecility, and climbs to a tenuous middleground when he “breaks character” (which one?) to ad lib with Dean or make a pitch to the audience, making all stops in between. Jerry’s speech is another aggression, always perfectly aligned with the maelstrom of his movement.

Movies tamed the team’s act a bit, or maybe sublimated its energies would be the way to put it, since Jerry seemed to serve as the ungainly embodiment of every fad, fear, and unnamed anxiety of the Freud-ridden 1950s. Are comic books corrupting the minds of the nation’s youth? In Artists and Models (Tashlin,5 1955) Jerry confesses they have made him “a little retarded.” In Hollywood or Bust (Tashlin, 1956), it’s movies that did the damage. The bomb? Jerry’s behavior in Living It Up (Norman Taurog, 1954) is explained as the result of his radiation exposure (though it turns out it isn’t). And in all of the films, some social scolds detected the symptoms of “momism.” If the designation is now largely forgotten, for the two-fisted psychologists of the time it rivaled communism in its threat to the nation’s moral fiber.

“Lewis capitalizes on this character of the Jewish lad under feminine domination who has never been taught to grow up,” critic Robert Kass wrote in Films in Review magazine in 1953. “Away from Mom, he screeches and stamps for the attention he gets at home, and cannot command in the world of men. A woman has nurtured this misfit who, away from her emasculating influence, might have learned to become an individual. Lewis’s comic character is an exaggeration of what feminist domination can do to the male…. The twisted youths—and girls—who think of Dad only as the stern provider whom Mom uses as a threat over them, love Lewis, because he dares to be uninhibited away from the influence of Mom. Lewis is the spokesman for a generation of mama’s boys.”6

These complaints would continue to be made against Jerry, even by admiring critics: At times, he was too “ethnic” (read: Jewish), and he had an unhealthy tendency to go “nantz” (as the above excerpt shows, Jewishness and sissiness were often seen as equivalents). They weren’t imagining things: Jerry took his tummler act from the Catskills to the living rooms of Middle America largely unaltered, occasional Yiddishisms and all. And a peculiar ratio emerged: The more masculine the environment, the nantzier Jerry’s behavior. Appropriately enough, he hits a sissy high in the armed forces movies the team made. In Jumping Jacks (Taurog, 1952), he’s a reluctant paratrooper dragged into service by Dean. His first night in the barracks, he’s brusquely instructed to undress. Immediately, Jerry contorts into a crouch, arms over his chest and leg twisted over his privates: “Here, I don’t even know you!”7 Instead, he hangs a shoulder length sheet around his cot and proceeds to do a sort of striptease for the awestruck soldiers, batting his eyes outrageously after he removes his boxers and drapes them over the line.

Dean was the anchor that enabled Jerry to travel so far from notions of appropriate masculine behavior. Their nightclub act and TV appearances allowed them to run wild without any need for character delineation, but the movies demanded some sort of psychological shading; Jerry’s behavior had to be justified in some way. What emerged was a figure trapped between childhood and maturity, a “hyperactive kid” acting out, with a good deal of the polymorphous perversity Freud attributes to children. It’s as if puberty weren’t a period but a permanent state of being and Jerry’s physical comedy its metaphor—the body out of control. So much of Jerry’s comedy is about discomfort (which is one reason a lot of people can’t stand him at all) and it all starts here—in a perpetual “awkward age” that grows ever awkwarder as Jerry grows older and the juncture between the manifest age of his body and the age indicated by his behavior widens.8 Dean, who was in fact nine years older, was often cast as an elder brother–type and figure of adult (hetero) romantic interest, implicitly reassuring audiences in his peculiar Dixie-by-way-of-Pennsylvania drawl, “Why, that’s all right, it’s just the boy.” (He generally referred to Jerry as “the boy”—both on and off stage).

It was a tenuous equilibrium,9 but as far as the public was concerned, it held. Jerry has always said the act could have—and should have—continued for the rest of his and Dean’s professional lives though even he admitted that playing “the Kid” might get a little grotesque around age sixty-five). Nevertheless, it was Jerry who took the decisive step of breaking up the act. Martin & Lewis split in 1956, ten years to the day after their first appearance together. And Jerry kept splitting for many years after that.

 

LESSON #2: FRAGMENTATION

The Little Clown is not the arm. The arm is not the Little Clown.

“I am THE dichotomy.”

—Jerry Lewis as quoted in The New York Times, 1993

Jerry never felt so whole as when he was half of an act. His autobiography (with Herb Gluck), Jerry Lewis In Person (Atheneum, 1982), compulsively circles two traumas: the breakup with Dean and his feelings of neglect and isolation as the child of vaudevillians more interested in their careers than the rigors of parenting.

At the age of three or four, my imaginings melted into fairy-tale dreams, then turned into something ominously vague and uncomfortable during my waking hours.

At five, they broke through like dreadful demons, evoking sensations of pain, of loneliness and despair. None was forgotten; all of them were impossible to escape.10

His maternal grandmother offered the unconditional love he needed (like so many of his characters, Jerry was a very needy boy), but her death in 1940 left him more insecure than ever. Until he met Dean, “the person [Jerry] loved more than anyone else in the world—more even than his parents, his wife, or his children,” according to Shawn Levy’s biography of Jerry, The King of Comedy (St. Martin’s Press, 1996). So why did he break up the partnership?

In his own book, Jerry attributes the initial tensions to shadowy influences in Dean’s camp, spreading dissension and stoking jealousy, as well as the classic straight man’s dilemma—being continually overshadowed by your partner. He adds:

The very same follies of life that made Dean and me successful inevitably drove us so far apart we stood at opposite poles, each feeling betrayed and hurt beyond repair. Chalk it up to stubborn pride, also give self-doubt its proper due, then infuse it with other traps such as mock humility, pseudo ignorance, blind desire….

It’s a pretty odd list. (Isn’t “pseudo ignorance” knowledge? What’s blind desire doing here?) Dean himself was known to grumble about the parts he was being given in their films (which tended to run the gamut from stiffs to shitheels) as well as Jerry’s desire to take artistic control of their production. He particularly disliked Jerry’s growing interest in pathos, part of his attempt to recreate himself as the new Chaplin. (As Dean said in a 1957 interview, “The two worst things that happened to Jerry were taking a good picture with a Brownie and reading a book about Chaplin.”) But the point of no return came a bit later, when Jerry made a last effort in 1956 to remind Dean of the real root of their partnership, as he saw it—beyond contracts, beyond money: love.

I stood looking at Dean, hoping, praying. I said, “You know, it’s a helluva thing. All I can think of is that what we do is not very important. Any two guys could have done it. But even the best of them wouldn’t have had what made us as big as we are.”

“Yeah? What is it?”

“Well, I think it’s the love that we still have for each other.”

He half-closed his eyes, and his head lowered. There was a long silence. Then he looked up. ‘You can talk about love all you want. To me, you’re nothing but a dollar sign.’”

These words cut at the core of everything Jerry wanted to believe about their relationship, both before and afterward, so it’s hard to believe they aren’t accurate, another nightmare phrase for those dreadful demons. Endearingly, he tries to take a bit of their edge off in his book (“He may have wanted to say more”). But that was it: Once love had been renounced, there was no way to continue.

He went on to make his first film as a solo performer, 1957’s The Delicate Delinquent (Don McGuire). Never before had the tonal shifts been so radical: It has the gritty noir look that passed for realism in Hollywood at the time (a back-lot neighborhood located somewhere between On the Waterfront and the Bowery Boys) and wavers between social drama and broad burlesque, Jerry in Chayefskyland. (The sudden gear changes between these two modes are actually the best thing about it, particularly an early tracking shot along a police lineup of gum-chewing, brutal youth that ends on Jerry in hysterics.)

The informing absence, the missing fulcrum, is Dean. Sometime in the fifties, Jerry had heard the story of Damon and Pythias, the model pallies of antiquity—was there a more perfect parallel for Dean and Jerry’s own friendship? Jerry thought there was not, so he set writers to work on a story. Dean would be Mike Damon, a cop assigned to a bad section of New York who tries to reform troubled teen Jerry, as Sidney Pythias.11 Dean, however, had no fond feelings for the police and was disgusted with the idea of appearing on screen in a cop’s uniform, which iced the project for the time being.

His replacement, Darren McGavin, couldn’t negotiate the curves of the Lewisian psychodrama with anything near Dean’s aplomb—in fact, the sweaty intensity he brings to the part make Damon’s intentions seem downright seedy, especially when he attempts to initiate his one-on-one reform school by inviting Jerry over to his house for dinner and some TV.12

The line between onscreen and offscreen Jerry, which had already begun to blur in some of his and Dean’s later films and TV shows, is erased for a moment when Jerry sings “By Myself,” a number best-known from Fred Astaire’s rendition in 1953’s The Band Wagon. It’s an explicit acknowledgement of the task of reinvention he was then undertaking: “I’ll face the unknown / And build a world of my own / No one knows better than I myself / I’m by myself / Alone.”13

“Alone” is a loaded word in the Lewis lexicon. It’s a theme his characters often voice. In the films with Dean, Jerry often expresses cloying fears as to the status of their relationship (“Ain’t we pals no more?”). As a solo performer, the anxiety becomes larger and more abstract. To sum it up in a hodgepodge of lines from different movies: the need to belong, to be needed, to be a people and not a nuthin. Because “alone” for Jerry is a very blank place to be. Consider this nightmare vision that closes the first, four-page “Book” of his autobiography (there are nine books in all, most much longer). Jerry has just returned to his dressing room suite at the Copacabana nightclub following his and Dean’s very last performance as a team:

I closed my eyes. I felt myself falling, tumbling over and over in space like a feather—down into a trackless desert…. No sign of life anywhere. Not a solitary bird crosses the sky. Even the stars are gone. I struggle forward, engulfed in a wide river of sand.

Suddenly the desert spreads open. A highway shimmers before me. I’m walking on it—to where? Then the movie marquee!—It straddles the highway; ornate, gilded, the lights flashing round and round.

There, appearing in bulging, silvery brightness is the most enormous word I have ever seen:

A L O N E

I stagger, sink to my knees. I’m screaming at the top of my lungs:

“ONE! ONE! ONE ALONE!”

Jerry’s hell is apparently located on the outskirts of Las Vegas, which seems fair enough. It’s an empty expanse where all the signifiers of fame only serve to advertise an essential, unbridgeable isolation. There’s a visual corollary in The Nutty Professor, Jerry’s fourth film as director and his most thorough examination of fractured personality. It’s a painting that hangs in the Purple Pit, the nightclub arena of the nightmare Jerry—“Buddy Love.” A dejected piano player slumps over the keys in a monochrome landscape stretching out to infinity. Shattered Greek columns sketch a line to the distant vanishing point and complete the sense of starving-artist-sale existentialism, an unlikely meeting of Keane and De Chirico—the performer in a void.

The Nutty Professor is the great exception among Jerry’s films, the one that even people who can’t stand him might like. Levy calls it “so far superior to his other films that it’s almost inexplicable.”14 (291) For one thing, it has a plot. In a number of Jerry’s films, the story motivation is lettuce-thin and either resolved with no great fanfare just a small ways into the film (as in 1961’s The Ladies’ Man) or introduced and then largely forgotten until a highly unconvincing resolution (as in The Errand Boy). There are advantages to such quasi-structures—they allow for a loose, associational flow around a central premise or environment and can be fertile ground for eruptions of Jerry strangeness15—but they are hardly likely to please literary-minded critics or audiences. The Nutty Professor, on the other hand, is uniquely disciplined in its revamp of Robert Louis Stevenson for early-sixties America: greasy quacking squib Jekyll (Julius Kelp) into dissipated lounge rat Hyde (Buddy Love).

Another thing that may surprise modern audiences is how uncannily it anticipates their own objections to the compound figure of Jerry Lewis as it exists on some substrata of the popular consciousness, a residuum of catching glimpses of Jer at his most unctuous while flipping the channels on Labor Day weekend and tired jokes about the French. The film forestalls such anti-Jerry sentiment by making all of these critiques itself—of the sleazy Buddy Love. He’s egotistic, boorish, self-righteous, and self-pitying. He overindulges in hair oil. He’s even given a smarmy pickup line that sounds an awful lot like the stilted homilies Jerry is fond of tossing into his other films (“Nothing delights us more than being enjoyed, appreciated, or just plain liked by somebody…”). The Nutty Professor seems self-aware, as opposed to self-conscious, and the really inexplicable thing is how Jerry, having diagnosed Love-ism with such precision, could take on so many of its attributes in the public eye.16

Ever since the film’s release, critics have speculated that Buddy was a slam on Dean. It really isn’t: Dean’s M.O. as a performer (and as a person, according to his ex-wife) was to use the minimum amount of energy necessary for any action, whether that be singing, acting, or even walking. Buddy bristles with energy and thinly concealed anger. His staccato rendition of “That Old Black Magic,” words ejected one by one like rummy gumballs from his strangely contorting jaw, is about as far from Dean’s long lines and relaxed phrasing as one can imagine. Buddy may be distilled essence of Rat Pack, but Jerry could have done a much better Dean had he so intended. But if Buddy isn’t Dean, he also is, in a sense—if not Dean proper, at least Jerry’s internalized Dean, an exaggerated masculine counterbalance drawn out of himself with a sharp eye on the psychological trends of the time.

As the influence of psychoanalysis drained through popular culture, it took on some strange shapes. One of these could even be called a new narrative form—the Freud Story. Basically it shifted
the tropes of the classic detective story to the realm of personal psycho­logy17 and the results could be hilariously reductive. Analysis interminable? Naw, once the shamus shrink reconstructs the primal scene of the crime, even psychokillers are up and out the door, newly cleansed citizens. The Nutty Professor contains a funny burlesque of such a scene—a harridan mother, a weak father almost cringing out of the frame, and, grotesquely, Jerry as slurping, traumatized baby Kelp. This isn’t the nurturing mother of “momism,” but then Kelp isn’t “the Kid”—he retracts into himself instead of exploding outward, hesitant and overdeliberate instead of fumblingly eager.18

Remembering this scene from childhood doesn’t resolve Kelp’s problems, but it’s supposed to help explain them—an unnaturally “masculine” and aggressive mother has produced a shrinking “feminine” son. It seems pretty straightforward, but when Kelp’s “inner man” is unleashed he’s a pretty odd customer. For one thing, he seems to wear more makeup, including rouge and eyeliner, than the film’s leading lady, Stella Stevens. Buddy is a painted man. His fighting technique probably wouldn’t get the Duke’s stamp of approval, either—he closes his knuckles but leaves the palms open and dispatches his adversary with a couple short flaps of the wrist. Then that name, “Buddy Love”—what is it, a gay porn magazine?

Unpacking that name can hold endless fascination for Jerryphiles. “Buddy” brings prototypical pal Dean to mind, of course—the missing half of Jerry’s ongoing desire and pursuit of the whole. And love, that’s what it’s all about; that was the root of the partnership, according to Jer. It’s what he’s been lacking and needing since childhood according to his autobiography; he used to campaign for Muscular Dystrophy with a jingle that went, “Can I have your love?” Why would Jerry take two of his most cherished concepts to tag a character he fully intended to be despicable? Why stamp this poster boy for narcissism with two emblems of connection? Jerry’s dichotomies have dichotomies of their own, and every time you think you have a handle on him, something spills over.

1. Or “Wellesian hall of mirrors,” as critic Scott Bukatman puts it in his 1991 Jerry essay in Comedy/Cinema/Theory, edited by Andrew Horton (University of California Press). I avoided reading much Jerry theory until I had written the first draft of the present piece; while revising, I was surprised to find I had unknowingly paraphrased Bukatman in two places—this one and a pun on the word split a bit later. Overall, I was pleased by the overlap, since his strikes me as the single best article I’ve read on this formidable subject, though many of the pieces in a recent anthology solely devoted to Jerry—Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film, edited by Murray Pomerance (New York University Press, 2002)—are likewise fascinating.
2. Curiously, The Music Box is regarded as a classic by L&H aficionados where the others are often seen as sub-par—perhaps they’re just too excruciating.
3. Finlayson, knobby Scot, who will sing your glory? I won’t at the moment, too far off-topic. But I will say that your fearsome squint has ever provided for me the living image of another Celtic hero—the mighty Cú Chulaind, who, in his battle rage, would close “one eye until it was no wider than the eye of a needle [and open] the other until it was big as a wooden bowl,” the myths tell us.
4. True, Jerry has plenty of scenes in which he gets tangled with objects, but the trouble often stems from his overemphatic actions—hence the Jerry Clench, when, in a moment of panic, his hands seize up and he strangles paper, drapes, or, in The Geisha Boy (Frank Tashlin, 1958), lettuce. Such gestures point back to his body rather than any qualities inherent in stuff. Likewise, in a way that extends beyond the character to Jerry the performer (a boundary that grows ever more nebulous in his work), one often sees an effort behind the interactions—Jerry willfully “making things difficult” in a literal sense. When he’s instructed to dust a collection of glass figurines in The Ladies Man, he barely even mimes the pretext of a fumble—he positively lunges for them. Breakage ensues. If anything, such behavior is close to the tics of a Tourette’s victim, instantly recognizing the wrong thing to do and compulsively doing it. It’s great fun to watch and somewhat embarrassing at the same time. Through it all, Jerry remains bodylocked; his efforts to reach outside himself always rebound.
5. Tashlin, Frank. 1913–72. One-time animator for Warner Bros. and Disney who smuggled salient traits of cartoon anarchy (notably a fantastic physics that sometimes sits uneasily with the gravity-bound presence of photographed things) across the border to live-action features, beginning with The First Time in 1952. Casts a satiric eye on American pop culture while grooving on its bold forms, bright colors, brash sexiness. When Peter Bogdanovich asked Jerry to name his biggest influence as a director, he replied, “Mr. Tishman, spelled T-A-S-H-L-I-N. He’s my teacher.” (Note the tribute of Jerry’s appellation, Morty S. Tashman, in The Errand Boy.) He is in fact the only strong director of Jerry’s comedies besides Jerry himself and his influence is apparent in all of the latter’s films. As are important differences: Jerry largely lacks any satiric impulse unless it can be screened through himself, which carries the curious corollary that none of Tashlin’s Jerry films are as stringent or coherent as The Nutty Professor (Lewis, 1963). As David Ehrenstein notes, Tashlin gags typically have cleaner lines and a recognizable target, where Jerry’s have a tendency to “take off into [a] childlike Cloud cuckoo-land.” I would argue that this increased oddity carries through to a formalist consideration of Jerry as a director, notably his (even) bolder color schemes. Likewise, Jerry sometimes snips even the wobbly connections Tashlin’s plots (barely) maintain.
6. My back stiffens and I gain in silent determination when reading such virile prose. Yes, the martial drumbeat underlying the prospect of “command in the world of men” thrills me, though I do not show it. And yet, I must out myself as a mama’s boy to confess that it seems to me Mom gets a pretty raw deal here. What’s her crime, after all? Nurturing a misfit rather than leaving it in the forest to fight with bears, I guess. Overall, I can’t help but like Jerry more for pissing guys like this off.
7. This was one of Jerry’s catch-phrases on the Comedy Hour, prompted by any command to disrobe or even remove his jacket. The others were: “Don’t lick it!,” “I like it! I like it!,” and “Melvin?” I have been unable to determine the origin of the “Laaaadyyyyy!” nowadays associated with him, as well as its variant, “La-la-la, nice lady!” He does scream “Lady!” a few times in The Stooge (Taurog, 1953), but it seems a natural outgrowth of the situation—he has fallen over a theater balcony and is requesting a lady to come to his aid. Anyone who can shed light on this matter is encouraged to do so, care of this publication.
8. Jerry’s notions of age in relation to himself tend to be incredibly elastic. Born in 1926, he was explicitly identified as a “boy” in the titles of five films, from That’s My Boy (Hal Walker, 1951) to The Errand Boy (1961). Within the films, he’s referred to as a boy as late as The Big Mouth (Lewis, 1967). And he persisted for decades in his efforts to secure the rights for his dream project, an adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye starring himself (“You never saw a more Holden Caulfield guy than you’re sittin’ with right now,” he told Bogdanovich in 1962). I, for one, think this is inspired casting and maintain hope that it may yet come about. He was still trying to finagle permission from J.D. Salinger in the late seventies. “He’s nuts also,” Lewis said of the noted recluse. “And that’s the only reason that he’s entertaining talking to me—because he likes nuts.”
9. For one thing, as Frank Krutnik points out in his pioneering English-language study, Inventing Jerry Lewis (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), “queer” undertones (and sometimes overtones) ran through the act in ways that were sometimes tough to reconcile with the films’ conventional romantic subplots. Jerry is often cast as Dean’s true domestic, not just professional, partner, cooking and cleaning for him and even sharing a bed on occasion. Krutnik pays particular attention to a sequence in The Stooge: Jerry asks Dean to sing him to sleep and Dean obliges with a love song, “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming.” Just in case the situation or Jerry’s blissful reactions should prove confusing (and they do), Dean pulls out a photo of his girlfriend to hold his gaze and deflect the tension. As perfunctory as that.
10. It was as a five-year-old, Jerry says later, that he killed his pet cat in a fit of rage at what he saw as his parents’ desertion: “I got so mad I threw my cat down the stairs. Killed it. You can get bad dreams from that, you know.”
11. The parallel isn’t subtle, but at least it’s not a bad name for a Jerry character. Other good ones include Myron Mertz, Virgil Yokum, Wilbur Hoolick, Eugene Fullstack, Herbert H. Heebert (the H. is for Herbert), Kreton, and Helmut Doork.
12. Pity poor Martha Hyer, the actress dropped in to play the equivalent of the photograph in The Stooge. Hyperbolically abused by the hysterical McGavin before he mysteriously develops a momentary passion for her, she’s abruptly yanked out once she’s served her purpose—but not before speaking the classic line “You must admit a girl can get tired of having her evenings spoiled by the spirit of Sidney Pythias. I only wish I meant as much to you.”
13. Jerry’s brassy interpretation of the second and third lines quoted brings out a tinge of megalomania in the lyrics undreamed of by Astaire.
14. Levy’s biography is smart, well written, thoroughly researched, and sincere in its attempts to do justice to Jerry’s convolutions. The one problem is that Levy doesn’t really dig Jerry’s peculiar aesthetic. It’s not that he never finds him funny—sometimes he makes an effort and a lot of times he doesn’t need to. But he admits in a retrospective essay written for Enfant Terrible! that he didn’t start out as an admirer, but rather chose Jerry as a subject because he offered a good vantage point for many converging strands of 20th-century culture. Consequently, he’s much too hard on a lot of the films, in my opinion.
15. There needs to be a new critical vocabulary for discussing such structures, because defining them by what they aren’t (not a plot, “just a collection of gags”) doesn’t get us very far. Bukatman suggests that an architectural model might be preferable. Citing the amazing set of The Ladies’ Man (an oversized dollhouse of some sixty ice-cream–colored rooms that sprawled across two sound stages), he notes that “the massive cutaway house (which is simultaneously open and closed) operates as the merest gesture of containment toward the multitude of frenetic actions taking place within.” I think that’s a promising line of enquiry and can be pushed even further following Levy’s suggestive notion that The Geisha Boy (Tashlin, 1958) is constructed in “block-by-block fashion.” As with the Ladies’ Man set, some gag blocks are linked through contiguous position, others “rhyme” through color schemes or symmetrical placement, while still others open doors to locales otherwise unglimpsed and unrelated. From a realist perspective, the set is utterly incoherent (for one thing, Jerry often stages stuff in the dead area at the front of the sound stage, which displaces the hypothetical front door to Little Clown-land), but on its own (artificial) terms, it offers a fertile representational playground.
16. And I’m not saying the public eye is seeing things. I can remember turning on the telethon in the small hours of the morning throughout the Eighties and discovering the naked Buddy hosting—Jerry used to get pretty mean ’round 3 a.m. But then the telethon used to be called “The Love Network.”
17. But hey, that’s pretty much what Freud did, too. I’d give him full props as a storyteller, except for the fact that his resolutions are drearily same-y.
18. I’ve probably given a few hints that I personally don’t buy these analytic models, but I can’t see any way to avoid them since this scene among others indicates that they did influence Jerry. And I suppose the Freudian mythology is true enough “if you believe,” as the ostritch said of the Little Clown.
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