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The Jerriad: A Clown Painting (Part Two: Caught in the Act)

(PART TWO: CAUGHT IN THE ACT) HE TRIES EARNESTLY, HE TRIES DESPERATELY, BUT JERRY JUST CANNOT ESCAPE JERRY.
DISCUSSED
Jerry as the Anti-Keaton, The Jerry Smear, Levels of Funny and Unfunny, Jerry’s Multiple Personalities (“The Kid,” Kelp, Buddy Love), Physical Empathy, The Void, Sad Clowns, Scenes of Unperformance, The Clown Messiah, Attempts at (Nonphysical) Empathy, Disability-Rights Activists.
by B. Kite
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

The Jerriad: A Clown Painting (Part Two: Caught in the Act)

B. Kite
13 Snaps

For those arriving late: On some forgotten shelf of a Hollywood prop barn, there lurks a Little Clown. Waiting for someone—maybe you, maybe me—to witness the protracted discomfort of his Bedtime Ritual. He hasn’t had a victim since 1961, when Jerry Lewis, director and star of The Errand Boy, stumbled across the happy monster. Jerry gaped as the Little Clown brought up a little bed, tugged off its tiny blanket, and tried to sleep. Impossible, for the Little Clown is a hand puppet attached to a Big Arm rising from the mysterious space below. The Little Clown struggled to conceal his bulk, close his eyes, come to rest without bringing a heavy elbow into the frame. He ends by covering his eyes in a vain approximation of sleep (his eyes are painted wide open).

What does it mean? We just don’t know; the Little Clown isn’t talking. But in his awkward fumbling, perhaps lessons can be discerned offering instruction on the nature of Jerry, and even the Jerry in ourselves.

In Lesson #1: Bodies, we hypothesized the Jerry Difference. Where Chaplin, Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy propose a mode of being in the world configured around their interactions with objects, Jerry remains bodybound, acting out on impulse. His partner Dean Martin served as a stable base for his psychophysical contortions. But Dean disavowed love, which led Jerry to break up the act and left him alone with his multiplying selves. In Lesson #2: Fragmentation, we watched as Jerry’s performing persona (“the Kid”) split further as he stumbled in search of a center. We noted the paradox that his most unified film, 1963’s The Nutty Professor, should be an examination of duality. Or triality. Or quadrality. Or….

 

LESSON #3: EXCESS

The Little Clown is a mystery inside an enigma wrapped around a Ping-Pong ball perched on a glove with an arm inside.

“When he goes too far, he’s heaven; it’s just when he doesn’t go too far that he’s unendurable.”             

—Orson Welles on Jerry

Jerry Lewis is always too much—or not enough. Jerry is the anti-Keaton. Where Buster aims to establish emotion and situation with the utmost precision and minimum display of effort, Jerry wallows around the extremes looking for (and often finding) humor within sheer overabundance of response. Buster’s face is a blank canvas on which the lightest tracings of feeling read large. Jerry’s makes every new state a shifting Greek mask of itself, mining new variations at the limit points of contortion.1 Buster conveys a transport of love by closing his eyes and taking an involuntary step backwards. Jerry grabs his head, drags his hand down his face, goes crazy-legged, and rolls on the floor. Buster makes extraordinary feats look incredibly easy. Jerry makes mundane activities seem extremely difficult.

And Buster’s essence is somehow silent: Sound seemed to ground him, for his voice was nowhere near as lovely as his face and objects become less susceptible to abstract transposition when their mundane thereness is reinforced with a clang and a thunk (enter Laurel and Hardy). Jerry is a big mouth in full babble, his speech every bit as fumbling, compulsive, and disjointed as his movements. Note his lunges toward language in moments of excitement, no phrase able to reach completion before being itself cut short by a more pressing ejaculation. Or the way his words launch themselves out toward a target, become confused midroute, circle back on themselves, and spiral in nonsensical permutations that might never end (another of Jerry’s intimations of an awkward eternity), so fascinating does his character find them, if his interlocutor didn’t inevitably tell him to shut up.

Take Kelp’s characteristically unhinged pedantry in conversation with his boss, Dr. Warfield, after he’s blown up his lab with another of those unsound chemical color combinations:

WARFIELD: All right, Kelp, simmer down and relax. I’m sure we won’t have to have another little talk like this again. Am I correct in assuming this?

KELP: Oh—ah—without question. You are absolutely—yes. We’ll never have to correct our talk. We won’t ever speak. Uh, that is, we’ll never have to talk again—we just never will discuss talking. We shouldn’t really converse about speaking–2

WARFIELD: Professor, our conversation has come to an end!

This is verbal humor far removed from the word-play sophistication of Woody Allen or the Marx Brothers—even from the wisecracks of Bob Hope (when Jerry does make a pun he guffaws over it himself, repeating the salient phrases to make sure his unamused interlocutor gets the joke—and that unfunniness in turn becomes the joke). It’s based around something more primal: the child’s amazement that words connote things and ideas, that they can be strung together in different orders of meaning, and that they are based on sounds. Jerry’s words often teeter on the precipice of devolving into pure sound—that is to say, nonsense. Names are particularly slippery in this regard. Witness his attempts to wrap his lips around the name of a movie studio exec in The Errand Boy (Lewis, 1961), “Mr. Babewosentall.” First attempt: “Bedvedbenten.” Second: “Ben-pay-bobo-pay-b’pay.”3

So, yes, there is something undeniably childish and broad in Jerry’s humor, and that may be one reason he has rarely received the lyrical tributes critics like James Agee and Walter Kerr have accorded his fellow pillars in the comedy pantheon, at least in this country. But that’s only the beginning of the story, for Jerry pushes broad beyond its boundaries, making a perilous trek from funny to un­funny (why’s he dragging this out so long?) to funny again (a kind of amazed, laughing disbelief that he’s dragging it out so long). On and on, sometimes stopping at Un­funny, Level 2, sometimes continuing to Funny, Levels 3, 5, and 7. When he really gets on a roll, each laugh is spaced between moments of extreme discomfort—and while the humor builds, so does the squirmy in-between feeling. Is it any wonder so many people find him intolerable?

“The Kid” always had a slightly queasy resonance, calling forth uncomfortable words like “spastic” and “retarded” even in the fifties. As time went on, the character only became more divided. Perhaps he was never really a character at all, more an ad hoc assemblage of behaviors.4 By the sixties these modes were so divergent that the figure was threatening to split at the seams. In The Disorderly Orderly (Frank Tashlin, 1964) you can quickly estimate the emotional tone of the scene through the depth of Jerry’s voice. Pitched low, he’s thoughtful, sensitive, concerned. But as it rises, Jerry gets nuttier and less sentimental. Nothing short of multiple-personality disorder could contain these contradictions with any degree of coherence, so the films come to rely less on the psychology of the individual characters than an over arching idea of Jerry-ness.

Protruding signs of Jerry had been a feature of his films almost from the beginning, notably the expensive watch and rings he started wearing in every picture, regardless of their relevance to the role he was playing (or playing around). They seem intended almost as a reminder to the audience—“Warning! Do not confuse this gibbering bonestack of insecurity with the real Jerry Lewis, a happily married and successful entertainer.” At times, this could produce pretty severe dissonance, as in a scene from You’re Never Too Young (Norman Taurog, 1955), in which Jerry is “disguised” as a twelve-year-old in order to escape gangsters. A concerned woman tucks him into bed, in willed obliviousness both to the jewelry and the fact that Jerry has very hairy arms.

These totems of Jer-hood take on a different resonance post-Dean. In The Delicate Delinquent he sets photos of his wife and kids in the dingy basement apartment inhabited by his character, a building superintendent, perhaps as a kind of emotional talisman, a way to ward off the aloneness of the solo performer. When he started directing his own films, the breaks became bolder. In The Bellboy (1960), “Jerry Lewis,” a movie star harassed by an overwhelming entourage, has a cameo. In The Errand Boy, his character is introduced at the end of the credits papering a billboard that reads “Directed by Jerry Lewis.” A few minutes into the film, once the plot (such as it is) has already cranked into motion, he’s rediscovered, still trying (and extravagantly failing) to efface his own name. At the end of The Patsy (1964), Jerry’s character falls off a balcony. When his leading lady expresses shock, he pops up from behind the parapet, asks her if she isn’t overacting (the old Comedy Hour line), reminds her that it’s only a movie, and dismisses the crew for lunch as the camera pulls back to reveal the set.5 All signs point back to Jerry, the man of contradictions—the hapless goon and the total filmmaker, the smoothie and the idiot, the nothing and the star.

The exception is, as always, The Nutty Professor. There, the shifts in vocal register directly indicate crisis points: at first, the fact that the formula is wearing off and Kelp is surfacing in Buddy; later, and more disturbingly, that the two personalities have begun an uneasy coexistence. (Kelp drones from a textbook “And carbon dioxide—,” then hipster Buddy breaks in “—has always been a gas!”)6

So it seems only proper that the biggest “elbow moment” of Jerry’s most controlled film should pop up right in the no-man’s-land between Kelp and Buddy—the initial transformation sequence. It begins with Kelp framed between the flame of a Bunsen burner and a whirling rack of test tubes, each containing its own neon liquid. (Jerry orchestrates a little color symphony with such tubes during the credits of the film—indeed, his considerable strength as a colorist is one of his biggest assets as a director.) He mixes the Pepto-Bismol–ish formula, drinks it—then lunges forward, toppling the equipment: The Kid’s jagged gesture gone truly, scarily spasmodic. He falls to the floor and we move to a lower angle, the flame shooting hellishly off the side of his desk as Kelp coughs and gags. Cut to overhead: The smashed tubes have left a rainbow puddle on the floor. Kelp (or is it Buddy? Let’s say Jerry) rolls in it. It’s as if the gesture somehow punctured the film and as he smears himself in its bleeding candy colors an unholy symbiosis of maker and object is being enacted.7 He crawls to the wall and lifts an arm thickly matted with fur (is Jerry reversing his own comedic evolution? Remember, he des­cribed the dynamic of his partnership with Dean as “the handsome man and the monkey.” Here, the monkey is literalized as an ape, but note: still wearing that gold ring). Close-ups of his face are intercut with a frightened cat and admonitions from his pet mynah bird, Jennifer (“I told you so, Julius. I told you so, Julius”).8 Pink face, with stylized red rings underneath and huge, twisted teeth, a distortion of Kelp’s already extreme overbite. A blue face with a white streak in the shaggy hair. A glimpse of red face as Jerry collapses into a chair. Finally, and most frighteningly, a cut back to the overhead position as he flings himself back onto the floor and writhes, his face gone completely dead white, all facial prosthesis gone and nothing but Jerry underneath.

 

LESSON #4: THE WHITENESS OF THE CLOWN

The Little Clown is a Little Clown.

“Don’t be afraid. The clown’s afraid, too.”

—Charles Mingus

OK, the transformation sequence needs a little bit of horror because of its Jekyll & Hyde pedigree and to set up the surprise of Buddy’s first appearance as a new kind of monster (this was the tag line of the film poster: “What does he turn into?”). But this just goes way over the top, into some kind of crazed interior psychodrama. If you don’t believe me, take Jerry’s word for it: “I kept pushing the Buddy Love sequences to the end, procrastinating my ass off, dreading to see him come alive on the screen. I remember the scene where Buddy [Jerry calls the inbetwixt creature Buddy] squatted in a corner facing the laboratory like a terrified animal, feeling an inconceivable loneliness, oblivious to the camera and the crew until, finally, I said, ‘Cut!’”

Take one of young Jerry’s lightning shifts of posture and character and slow the film to a crawl, until the movement that seemed effortless becomes loaded with weight, pain, and difficulty. Cut before the new position is reached, loop the frames, and live in that moment of reaching but never arriving.9 That’s the space where loneliness is, the private area in the middle of transformation where you can’t fall back on your partner because you don’t have one and even the people watching you don’t count as company. You’re alone with the multitudes inside you trying to pull an Other out of yourself. And behind and beneath the interior crowd there’s… what, exactly? Maybe nothing, maybe the void he intuited after the last Martin & Lewis performance and was later convinced he actually saw (if you can see nothing) following a heart attack in 1982. He gave an account of his experience in an interview shortly thereafter:

“I was gone and they brought me back. I saw the other side. And there was nothing. You know how at the end of the day your TV tube goes psssh and goes black? That was it. I was looking for a billboard that said, ‘Jerry Lewis Loves Brown’s Hotel.’ I should give people hope by telling them there’s a yellow brick road and all that, but I saw nothing.” He later added, “Judy Garland isn’t there. It isn’t beautiful. It’s bleak.”

Unlike the earlier vision of desolation, this time there aren’t even the signs of celebrity to serve as a tenuous bulwark against the creeping nothing, no billboards, a dead TV. And no loved ones—Brown’s Hotel was the Catskills resort where Jerry started in show-biz as a tummler, pulling faces, breaking dishes, doing anything to amuse the guests. Its owners were like second, and improved, parents. It was also the site of a public trauma when sentimental Jer wanted to hold the premiere of the 1955 Martin & Lewis film You’re Never Too Young there, to return “as a sort of hometown hero, the big international celebrity and King Shit of the Catskills.” Unsentimental Dean promised to attend but never showed up, leading to their first public breach. So much emotion in one absent billboard. (As for Judy Garland, Jerry made his post-Dean debut subbing for her in Vegas.)

The void is black, but it’s also white—clown-white, the pallor of that last face between Kelp and Buddy. Readers of Diane Keaton’s Clown Paintings (powerHouse Books, 2002) might think that Jerry loves clowns, since he’s one of the few celebrity contributors to speak kind words for those mis­begotten beings. But complications start to emerge when we learn that clowns aren’t funny for Jerry, they’re sad:

When we think of the bulbous red nose of a clown, we think of laughter. When I think of that nose I think of one of the great sad clowns, Emmett Kelly. He made pathos an art to me. I’ve always used that nose and that emotion to my advantage.

I love clown paintings. There is so much humor, sadness, and pride. To me, the paintings of clowns show… character! Yet, as beautiful as they are, the paintings of clowns rarely give a correct idea of who clowns really are—except to those who have known clowns.

I know them. I am a clown at heart, in body, and in mind. I’m proud of that.

But everything in Jerry seems to incorporate its opposite: If clowns are an emblem of character, they’re also a token of its absence, as he found out when he performed anonymously with Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey circus in 1965: “I played in front of twenty-five thousand people and not one of them knew who I was.” Afterward, “I pulled off the wig and took off the makeup and I burst into tears. Oh, did I cry! I experienced a shocking revelation—that when a clown is through with a performance, he’s nothing, nobody. The people had laughed and wept and applauded. But if I wasn’t Jerry Lewis, I could have walked through them afterwards and they wouldn’t have known who the hell I was. I trembled so much when I thought about it that I couldn’t sleep that night.” (Levy, 339) In fact, the experience was so shattering for him that he wrote a movie treatment on the subject. Its title: Two-Faced Clown.

All of his clown scenes carry these tensions. In Three-Ring Circus (Joseph Pevney, 1954), he’s Jerrico the Wonder Clown. Dean’s character is even more of a louse than usual in this one, until finally even Jerry can’t stand it anymore. He takes the ultimate step and dissolves their friendship (“You ain’t nice anymore”) and then, though his heart is breaking, goes out to perform at a benefit for orphans. Jerry is rarely funny as a clown—greasepaint saps not only his character but also his spontaneity, the “funny stuff” is all rote clowning-by-­numbers, and Jerry seems to always have his own payoff in mind, a crying clown just waiting to happen. Nevertheless, the kids are in hysterics—except for one little girl who sits stony-faced, enjoying Jerrico’s act even less than I am.10 This sour child is another intimation of the performer in the void. Staring into her face, looking to find himself reflected in her reaction, he sees nothing, until finally the emotion, the isolation, becomes too much for him and he starts crying. The scene is played for pathos, not dark humor, yet nonetheless the sight strikes this sadistic kid as incredibly funny: “Look, look! The clown’s crying!” she screams. Jerrico smiles through his tears. It’s a little signpost of things to come: With Dean there as support, Jerry could explore the permutations of personality (and even sexuality) with some assurance. Alone, the empty background reasserts itself and, as in The Nutty Professor, the film slows to a sputter and Jerry is left to writhe in the transitions. But not here, not yet, for Dean arrives on the scene repentant—in a car full of clowns. The onscreen breach was healed, the private one just beginning: This is the film where Dean’s disgust with Jerry’s “Chaplin shit” began to reach crisis proportions.

Cut to 1960 and Jerry’s TV production of The Jazz Singer. Jerry has had the old story of the Jolson film—the son of generations of cantors who disobeys his father’s wish that he continue the tradition and instead warbles in city nightspots—refitted for his biographical contours. The mother is renamed for Jerry’s beloved grandmother and the character’s life ambition also gets rejiggered—now he wants to become a clown.11 He gets his big break: a chance to perform a clown act on a popular TV variety show. But just as rehearsal is about to begin, his mother and uncle show up—his father is dying, and won’t be able to perform the Kol Nidre. Jerry must come home right away. He refuses at first but breaks down in rehearsal while singing “Be a Clown,” another “crying clown” scene, straight to the audience this time.12 He rushes back, reconciles with his father, and crosses the street to the synagogue to sing the Kol Nidre—in clownface. The program ends on this bizarre image, a uniquely Jerrian blend of the sacred and profane—maybe with the objects reversed. Because what does the peculiar parable of Three-Ring Circus point us toward if not a notion of Jerry the clown messiah? His pain is our release.13

All the strands come together in the great white hole of Jerry’s career, The Day the Clown Cried (1972, still unreleased due to legal problems). Here’s the plot synopsis offered in his autobiography:

The central character is a clown named Helmut Doork—Helmut the Great, once a very famous clown in Germany. But he had aged, his talent wasting away through drink, through an abhorrence of the Nazi regime.
A despondent, degraded and broken­-hearted reject consigned to the scrap heap, he’s arrested by the Gestapo, interned in a concentration camp and used to march Jewish children into the “showers”; that is, the ovens. He had to clown to keep the children from screaming and crying, “Mama, Mama, Mama…”

What can one say of this incomplete, largely unseen, and extensively ridiculed film? Perhaps it wouldn’t seem as strange to audience’s today, since both Life Is Beautiful and Jakob the Liar seem like near relations, plotwise, and Jerry strikes me as a more interesting performer than either Roberto Benigni or Robin Williams. Or perhaps it really is the bottomless pit of awfulness some of the few people who have seen it suggest. (One is comedian Harry Shearer: “The closest I can come to describing the effect is if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet on Auschwitz. You’d just think, ‘My God, wait a minute! It’s not funny, and it’s not good, and somebody’s trying too hard in the wrong way to convey this strongly held feeling.’”)

The notion of Jerry tackling the extremes of human suffering naturally arouses apprehension, since his attempts at empathy, to project himself out of himself, have a unique tendency to return Jer-wards.14 His ex-wife Patti includes a prose meditation Jerry wrote after the birth of one of his sons in her book I Laffed Till I Cried: Thirty-Six Years of Marriage to Jerry Lewis (WRS Publishing, 1993). It’s written in the voice of the newborn and says, in part: “I know how much LOVE and warmth you’re going to provide for me… I’m really a very lucky baby… If I would have come to another house with other people, they might have had lots of love and care as a child, and I might just have had to do without [….] Yet with my secure feelings, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for you, Dad, ’cause I think you would have loved it too.”

This is a strange trajectory—it moves from present to prospective retrospective future tense (if there is such a thing, and if there wasn’t, there is now), taking in the proposition (which runs a bit against the grain of experience) that people with happy childhoods are less likely to be loving parents, before reaching its goal: allowing Jerry another way of understanding and sympathizing with Jerry.

This maneuver may help explain (if not excuse) Jerry’s most notorious piece of writing, his 1990 Parade magazine article “If I Had Muscular Dystrophy.” In its intense focus on the minutiae of discomfort (“It’s still only the early hours of the day and already I am beginning to feel trapped and suffocated trying to visit that bathroom”) it resembles nothing so much as—I hate to say it, but I have to—a Jerry Lewis sketch.15 Some further “indignities”: the cruel children who find pleasure in “locking the wheels of the wheelchair, or putting their hands over the eyes of someone who might be pusher that day, or spilling oil in my path when I’m going it alone”; an odd vignette with the family photographer, who “pushes, pulls, slides, twists and does everything he can to take his Instamatic picture with what he will later call ‘great composition’”16; eating at a restaurant where “the chair arms hit the table and keep you far enough away so that 90 percent of the pasta winds up on your lap!” Another trip to the bathroom, this time on an airplane. Attending a Dodgers game. Medical examinations. Basketball—it’s the associational structure of many of his films. And then the remarks that outraged many disability-rights advocates: “I realize my life is half, so I must learn to do things halfway. I just have to learn to try to be good at being half a person.”

I’ve crossed over into some uncomfortable territory myself. I don’t for a second doubt Jerry’s sincerity, that his intentions are golden. But it just goes wrong somewhere and I think it may be due to another whack from the empathy boomerang. Jerry made his living through physical comedy—to be deprived of the control of his body would be a ghastly prospect, cutting at the root of his livelihood and even his full personhood. He can imagine being trapped in this other body with painful precision, but can’t quite make the leap to another consciousness, hence his genuine confusion and deep hurt at the anger this article and many aspects of the telethon have provoked in disability-rights activists.

However earnestly, even desperately, he may try, Jerry just can’t escape Jerry. If this is a personal failing, it’s also his contribution to the comedy tradition: He made slapstick of the struggle to escape his own skin and splayed his psyche across a body of work that’s “unbearable, beautiful, terrible, wonderful, stupid, brilliant, awful, shocking, inept, and even very funny,” in the words of Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of his most insightful American critics. But The Day the Clown Cried brings us to the boundaries, threatening to transpose the fascinating discomforts of his work into a new and nightmarish register. Everything in his films seems to expand as his emblem: The notion of the Holocaust as a metaphor for Jerrydom can’t help but seem grotesque.17

Still, it’s unfair to judge the film sight unseen. Here’s how he describes the last scene, in his autobiography:

Helmut in full clown makeup, walking the children through the compound, past the barbed-wire fence and the towers. They follow him like he’s the Pied Piper….

When I thought of doing that scene, I was petrified. I stood rooted in my clown’s costume, waiting for a take. Then the children came running toward me, unasked, undirected, clinging to my arms and legs, looking up so trustingly. I forgot about being an actor. I began to walk with them, and they went laughing and singing straight into the gas chamber.

And the door closed behind us.

Let’s stay with the camera behind that closed door and leave the film as a structuring absence. Jerry’s longest look into the void might be something no one is really ready to see. Even the Little Clown is covering his eyes.

 

SLEEP, LITTLE CLOWN, SLEEP

And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of snow.

—Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

Shhhh. The Little Clown can never find comfort, but somehow, impossibly, he has come to rest. And as he sleeps, he dreams of Jerry.

There is a map without coordinates. A central point is clearly drawn but the lines and arrows around it run wild, in various and contradictory directions. And the Little Clown is running, running, free at last of the arm that bound him and made all his movements tentative and fumbling. Through a field of plastic grass smeared with sunlight, past billboards more alive than the trees (one: a bright red mouth over a dark black hole. A moaning of machinery and there emerges: a perfect zero of smoke). Everything is so beautiful, it can’t possibly be real. (Run, Little Clown, run!)

 

The color is almost the color of
comedy,

Not quite. It comes to the point,
and at the point,

It fails….

A blank underlies the trials of

device,

The dominant blank, the

unapproachable.

—Wallace Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”

 

The Little Clown is getting nowhere, and nowhere is a scary place to be. He peers closely at the map but every point is marked “Jerry,” and Jerry is nowhere to be found. The lines on the map grow thicker, as though blurred by an inky finger. Then they fade, and as they do, the landscape fades with them. Soon, the white page can no longer be recognized in the white that engulfs him. So he drops it. Without any coordinates, any stain or mark, the Little Clown has no way to know if he’s moving or not. It seems to him that space has contracted, that he is smashed between its surfaces like a butterfly under glass.

 

And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues—every stately or lovely emblazoning—the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in nature but laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium on matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge—pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us like a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored or coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him.

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

 

Then, everything goes black. The Little Clown has never felt more alone and frightened. He even begins to miss the arm. He is a disembodied Clown Consciousness. This thought is comforting, something of him remains. The next thought is not: A clown’s consciousness is in the body! How long can it survive without it? And without light bulbs and doorknobs and fishhooks and orange peels and water coolers and fire trucks and toasters and fat women and bratty children and bank directors and…

Slowly the Little Clown feels himself dispersing into the anonymous nothing.

 

 The ruin or the blank that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

 

Don’t be afraid, Little Clown, it’s only a movie! Sure, the screen went blank, but that’s just what happens when one film ends. And the lights always go down just before the next one starts.

See, already a projector beam is hitting the screen and the space is expanding to surround you with all the things you lost or thought you never had.

 

1. Or put it another way: Buster sketches clean lines and elegant trajectories. Jerry is a smear which annihilates boundaries and bleeds over borders. Add the Jerry Smear to our growing list of representative emblems. One example can be found in The Delicate Delinquent (Don McGuire, 1957), when he stains a man’s shirt with ink, then expands the stain into a damp black mess trying to wipe it off. Another is in The Ladies’ Man (Lewis, 1961): Jerry is cleaning the portrait of the matronly Mrs. Wellenmellon but when his rag passes over her mouth, the lipstick smears in a Francis Bacon-esque blur down her cheek, incidentally breaking the painting’s illusion of a three-dimensional representative space.
2. This amazing ability to spontaneously gabble runs over into the Lewis interview. As he told his biographer, Shawn Levy, “Nobody gives interviews like I give. ’Cause I have nothing to hide. I just pour out. But some of the shit that I pour out, if it’s misconstrued, it sounds strange.” [488] It really does. Jerry on some early publicity photos: “I got some pictures where I look like Anthony Quinn’s cunt.” On the degenerate movies he was offered in the 1970s: “I had scripts put on my desk: ‘The Ant That Sucked Denver,’ ‘The Homosexual Matricide Case of the Undernourished Faggot Who Loved a Rabbi.’ But how many times can you watch two chicks in a motel with some guy with black socks whipping the bejesus out of some S&M?” (Levy notes in passing that Jerry’s titles for these unsavory productions—he would invent new ones in interviews throughout the period—have a tendency to revolve around homosexuality and matricide.) Even in his own books, where he can speak directly without any distortion by unreliable intermediaries, he goes off on some amazing benders. In the prologue to The Total Film-Maker (Random House, 1971), written in a slang all Jer’s own which Levy aptly describes as sounding like “some weird Las Vegas incarnation of Allen Ginsberg,” he offers the following advice to aspiring directors: “You have to know all the technical crap as well as how to smell out the intangibles, then go make the birth of a simian under a Jewish gypsy lying in a truck in Fresno during a snowstorm prior to the wheatfields burning while a priest begs a rabbi to hug his foot.” (Holy cow! Homoerotic cross-denominational pastoral podophilia! And a film I’d pay to see.)
3. This transcription of Jer-speak comes courtesy of Murray Pomerance’s article on the subject in Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film (edited by Pomerance, New York University Press, 2002). He continues with some entertaining speculation on this oddly-named individual: “Is he a man named Wosentall, whose first name has been modified by local consent and sensitivity into the nickname ‘Babe’? Yet why would a department head be introduced to a new errand boy by his first name? Perhaps he’s just a Mr. whose name is Babewosentall. Or is he a man named Rosentall…?” Things disimprove when Jerry is next introduced to a “Mr. Wabenlotnee.”
4. In this, he may be the perfect comedian for an age in which unified field theories of being seem to be dissolving. In the August 2003 issue of The Believer, Benjamin Kunkel writes: “Some post-structuralists (Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus)… imagine a schizophrenic hero whose proliferating, fissiparous selves would have ceased to cause her anxiety because they all knew one thing only: that there is no one to know, just desires to play host to. To anyone wishing to be that kind of hero there may be strictly nothing to say except ‘Good Luck.’” Or maybe “Hi, Jer!”—except that Jerry certainly never wished such a thing and only abandons the anxious search for the self in moments of transcendent idiot bliss, like a Zen master, or, like a dervish, dancing. This dispersal has its emblem too: The incomprehensible treasure map in The Big Mouth (Lewis, 1967)—it “doesn’t start anyplace,” the narrator informs us. The design of the film itself is equally eccentric. It ends right where it begins, a perfect pointless parenthesis in a larger, untold, and no doubt equally pointless plot.
5. The tenuous “illusionism” of the films is also frequently shredded by incredibly overt product placements. The Disorderly Orderly offers one of the strangest when Jer and his romantic interest (Karen Sharpe) perform a scene in front of a travel agent’s window with a large, illuminated TWA sign. The pair exit and the camera moves in on an ad inside the glass: “TWA Movies-in-Flight. Jerry Lewis in The Disorderly Orderly.” The purpose of advertising the movie inside itself escapes me—I suspect a collision between Tashlin’s mocking eye for ad culture and Jerry’s enthusiastic flackery. Another highlight is fried-chicken man Colonel Sanders’s pointless cameo in The Big Mouth. He comes across as a mean old coot, rapping his cane repeatedly on a hotel’s registration desk and calling the innocent clerk a “bungling moron.” Companies must have been less obsessed with “brand integrity” in those days.
6. Kelp and Buddy may be Jerry’s only fully realized characters, as far as characters go. So his attempts to add the former as a stock figure in his repertoire in later films and TV shows always strike me as disturbing. Like that quasi-­character “the Kid,” he takes on different names, but that just seems wrong—Kelp is Kelp. The Big Mouth compounds the confusion when the protagonist, a more sedate “everyman Jer,” disguises himself as Kelp. This leads to scenes where Jer in Kelp-face speaks in normal Jer voice as well as moments when normative Jer begins talking in strangulated Kelp-tones. Jerry breaks even his most stable creation to pieces, then pokes around the parts.
7. It wouldn’t be the only time Jerry attempted to merge with his movie. In The Total Film-Maker he writes: “I have a confession. Crazy. I have perched in a cutting room and licked emulsion. Maybe I thought more of me would get on to that film. I don’t know. I do know that plumbers don’t lick their pipes. With emulsion, it’s easy to get turned on.”
8. There’s a weird shot of the bird with a tiny man’s head. What the hell is this? Whose head? It doesn’t resemble any of the other cast members. Answers eagerly anticipated, care of this publication.
9. I’m not aware of any theorist who addresses the important topic of “physical empathy” in films, the way a kinetic performer acts on the muscles of an audience. But to see Cagney’s compressed spring, Astaire’s liquid flow, the discipline of a Robert Bresson character handling every object with precise respect for its individual weight and character, is somehow to internalize those gestures and carry their energies oneself, at least for a time. The great comedians each offer their own distinct shades in this spectrum, with Jerry usually at an awkward outer limit. Except when he dances. As Scott Bukatman notes in his article collected in Comedy/Cinema/Theory (edited by Andrew S. Horton, University of California Press, 1991), “To watch Jerry Lewis dance is a most particular pleasure. The dance is where the character’s uncoordination is transcended as grace and control emerge in fantastic balance. Movements that first seem spastic become instead signals of emancipation: the normally repressive tendencies of the Jerry character and the freedom represented by the act of dance stabilize in a precarious but exhilarating equilibrium.” In fact, Jerry is my second-favorite film dancer (Astaire is number one, of course) and I point interested readers in particular to the flailing, sharp-angled jitterbug of Living It Up (Taurog, 1954), the strutting stair dance that’s by far the highlight of Cinderfella (Tashlin, 1960), and the surprising eruption of Kelp’s internal hot-cha-cha in The Nutty Professor.
10. Actually quite a bit less, because at one point Jerry brings out some cute monkeys. Who doesn’t like performing monkeys?
11. Though he does sing a few jazzy songs, so the title can be retained. This production marks the first time Jerry played an explicitly Jewish character.
12. There are so many scenes of unperformance in Jerry’s work, where an audience gathers to be entertained but is instead offered an excruciating but compulsive spectacle of disintegration, uncontrolled emotion, unfunny incompetence. See also his debut as comedian in The Patsy, his rocky descent into Kelp-dom at the end of The Nutty Professor.
13. Tashlin casts a more cynical light on this trope in Artists & Models (1955). Jerry the comic-book addict dreams of success with the anodyne adventures of Freddie the Fieldmouse, but it’s his nightmares of bloody Vincent the Vulture that sell.
14. In The Disorderly Orderly, Jerry’s character suffers from “neurotic identification empathy”—he feels people’s pain, literally. This is demonstrated most graphically in the scene where he attends to one “Mrs. Fuzzibee,” a woman who relishes the fact that her every constituent part seems to malfunction in some sickening way. One example from many, her perforated gallbladder: “It’s a sieve! All day and all night [bile] just keeps dripping, dripping, dripping, dripping into my stomach, where it mixes with the acid that Dr. Smathers tells me is generating constantly in my poor, sick intestines.” Jerry’s struggle to overcome empathy is at the center of the plot; only thus can he succeed as a “brilliant doctor.”
15. One that comes to mind is the credit sequence of Smorgasbord (a.k.a. Cracking Up, 1983), his last feature to date as a director. Jerry, having failed in his efforts at suicide, visits a psychiatrist. But the floor is so highly polished that he’s unable to take a step or even crawl on it. After several spills, he finally finds a way to negotiate the treacherous terrain by laying down a trail of cigarettes to step on—only to find that the furniture is equally frictionless. And on and on it goes.
16. From his autobiography: “[Directors would] place me in front of the camera—‘OK, Jerry, make your little funny faces’—and after they were finished and had walked away, I would be left standing, of no further interest to them until the next setup.”
17. According to one of the screenwriters, even here Jerry couldn’t help but include some protruding details of Jerryhood: “In one scene, Jerry is lying in his bunk wearing a pair of brand-new shoes after theoretically having been in a concentration camp for four or five years.”
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