“Jerry Lewis, the brash slapstick comic who teamed with Dean Martin in the 1950s and later starred in The Nutty Professor and The Bellboy before launching the Muscular Dystrophy telethon, has died,” report Richard Natale and Carmel Dagan for Variety. “The Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John Katsilometes reported that he died at his home at 9:15 a.m. and his agent confirmed the news.” Lewis was ninety-one.
“Inside the comedy world, Lewis was revered as a genius,” writes David Hinckley in the New York Daily News. “The 2011 Lewis documentary Method to the Madness featured comedians from Billy Crystal to Eddie Murphy to Chevy Chase praising his singular style of comic lunacy and pathos. ‘I get paid,’ Lewis once said, ‘for what most kids get punished for.’ . . . For American audiences, Lewis's career had three major segments: his early television, stage and movie collaboration with Dean Martin, which ended in 1956; his solo movie career, which peaked in the 1960s; and his return every Labor Day for the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon, which he hosted until 2010. . . . Inside the movie industry he was known for pioneering a filmmaking process known as ‘video assist,’ which was eventually adopted by all the major studios. But he made his most indelible mark as a comedian, with a style that featured physical comedy, prominently including facial contortions, and rapid-fire repartee.”
“New Wave critics and filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard spurred his popularity in France, where he became known as ‘Le Roi du Crazy,’” notes Mike Barnes in the Hollywood Reporter. “In 1960’s CinderFella, directed by Frank Tashlin, he offered up a comic gender reversal on the Cinderella tale and danced down an impossibly long staircase to sounds of the Count Basie Orchestra. In 1961’s The Errand Boy, which he directed, he played an inept employee in a studio mailroom. But it was 1963’s The Nutty Professor that cemented his reputation. Directing himself, Lewis starred as a near-sighted professor and chemistry egghead who dazzles his coeds by becoming the ultra-cool pop singer Buddy Love.”
Updates: “His career had its ups and downs, but when it was at its zenith there were few stars any bigger,” writes Dave Kehr in the New York Times. “A mercurial personality who could flip from naked neediness to towering rage, Mr. Lewis seemed to contain multitudes, and he explored all of them. His ultimate object of contemplation was his own contradictory self, and he turned his obsession with fragmentation, discontinuity and the limits of language into a spectacle that enchanted children, disturbed adults and fascinated postmodernist critics. . . . ‘There’s something about the risk, the courage that it takes to face the risk,’” Lewis told Times in 2012, “’I’m not going to get greatness unless I have to go at it with fear and uncertainty.’”
Last summer, Daniel Fairfax introduced a special dossier in Senses of Cinema, “Deconstructing Jerry: Lewis as Director,” by writing about the famed affinity for Lewis among the French, and more specifically, among the contributors to and editors of Cahiers du cinéma: “From Jean-Luc Godard’s 1957 encomium that ‘the height of artifice blends at times with the nobility of true documentary’ in Lewis’s face, to Serge Daney’s admiration of Smorgasbord as a ‘tragically funny’ film in 1983, the journal dutifully followed his films, lavishing them with praise. . . . In an almost unparalleled case of critical accord between the two rival reviews, Positif shared Cahiers’ glowing appraisal of Lewis’s œuvre, an appreciation that reached its apotheosis with Positif critic Robert Benayoun’s mammoth 5½-hour documentary Bonjour Mr. Lewis.”
In a piece for Vanity Fair in 2013, Bruce Handy wrote that “my own exhaustive investigation has uncovered new evidence that, indeed, the French love Jerry Lewis and take his work very seriously—a hoary punchline, yes, but not a myth.”
In a 2005 essay that ran in LOLA in 2012, Miguel Marías focuses on the later years, when “the American cinema had lost its most avant-garde filmmaker . . . Nobody has so far convincingly explained why Lewis—rather than enjoying his status as a star and producer—became, from the moment he was finally allowed to direct his first film, so intent on breaking the illusionist simulation of reality that all Hollywood cinema, before or since, has been so intent on preserving. But it is not so strange that he had to pay the price for such a breach of the unwritten commandments of American filmmaking.”
“Lewis was born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926 in Newark, N.J.,” writes Bruce Haring for Deadline, where Greg Evans is gathering tweeted tributes from Hollywood players. “The son of professional entertainers, he made his own debut at age five by singing ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’ at a Borscht Belt hotel in upstate New York. He later dropped out of high school to work on a comedy routine, working as a soda jerky and theater usher to support his career development. In 1946, he was working an Atlantic City nightclub when he made the acquaintance of an Ohio-born crooner named Dean Martin.”
“The pair collaborated on seventeen pictures, including The Stooge,Living it Up and Three Ring Circus, with Martin typically playing the suave straight man to Lewis’s unruly clown,” writes the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. “Following the partnership’s acrimonious breakdown in the late-1950s, Lewis went on to score solo successes . . . In later years, Lewis appeared on screen in Hardly Working,Arizona Dream, and Funny Bones. For many, however, his finest film performance came courtesy of 1982’s The King of Comedy, which cast Lewis in the role of Jerry Langford, a successful TV host who finds himself preyed on by a stalker. A box office flop on its first release, Martin Scorsese’s acid black comedy has since been hailed as a classic portrait of modern celebrity.”
Time’s Stephanie Zacharek argues that “to understand Lewis as a performer, it’s essential to grasp the reach, and the brilliance, of Martin and Lewis, a duo that were like rock stars before rock stars even existed. . . . If not for that partnership, Lewis would never have become the Jerry Lewis we know. You can see their rapport in the movies they made, like the Frank Tashlin-directed Artists and Models (1955) or Hollywood or Bust (1956), the pair’s final film, made as their partnership, and their friendship, was disintegrating. But the truest revelation of Martin and Lewis’s grandness, together and separately, comes from watching clips from the show that made them stars, The Colgate Comedy Hour. . . . Martin was Lewis’s ideal partner and perfect audience rolled into one.”
In 2013, Christoph Huber, writing about a Lewis retrospective in Vienna for Cinema Scope, argued that the films Lewis made from the mid-Sixties on “are neglected despite scattered endorsements. Seeing them again on the big screen . . . confirmed that these half-dozen orphans are more than overdue for (re)consideration.” Capsule appreciations of Three on a Couch (1966), The Big Mouth (1967), One More Time (1970), Which Way to the Front? (1970), Hardly Working (1980), and Smorgasbord (The Movie) (aka Cracking Up, 1983) follow.
In 2015, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody reported on an onstage interview with Lewis conducted at the Museum of the Moving Image by Martin Scorsese: “Lewis discussed one of his most surprising and enduring achievements—he invented, and holds the patent on, the video assist, the little video camera attached to the movie camera, which enables the director to observe, in real time, the movie frame. He devised it in conjunction with Sony (he spent four months in Japan, he said, working on it) and he first used it in The Bellboy. As Scorsese explained, before video assist, the only person who actually saw through the eyepiece was the camera operator; directors, in effect, ‘were blind,’ and had to rely on the operator’s judgment in evaluating a take. Lewis explained why he had to use video assist, from the time he started directing: ‘I can’t stand to ask anyone, “How was that?”’” Film Comment has transcribed the full conversation.
“At least theoretically,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum in his essay for that retrospective in Vienna, “one can subdivide not only Lewis but most of his pictures as writer-director-performer into two pairs of templates, best represented by his masterpieces The Ladies Man and The Nutty Professor: (a) nonlinear collections of gags versus linear narratives with beginnings, middles, and ends, and (b) free-form conceptual fantasies versus fictions grounded in some form of social commentary. But in practice, these features rarely opt for one or the other.”
“I’ve always found Lewis more fascinating than ha-ha funny,” wrote James Wolcott for Vanity Fair in 2011, “and the source of his fascination is the core power he possesses, his prodigious boiler system. So many comedians seem to shrink into themselves when they’re not going for laughs, the light in their refrigerator going out once the door closes. When Jim Carrey and Robin Williams go the sincere route, they lose their elasticity as performers, become ordinary. Lewis is the opposite. When he isn’t ‘on,’ he’s the opposite of off; his presence intensifies with an increase of dark matter, transmitting scary-dad authority even when trussed up and immobile, as he was playing the talk-show host held hostage in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983).”
“It was not a comeback as such,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “at least in part because the movie itself was not properly appreciated at the time. But Lewis had a sensational charisma. And he did, in his hatchet-faced way, present the metaphorical properties of his own reputation: bound and gagged by De Niro and his partner-in-crime, Sandra Bernhard, held hostage by a younger generation, who derided him, or admired him, or idolized him, but at all events made him mute, refused to let him be fashionable or accepted on his own terms.”
“His infamous attempt at a serious film about the business of clowning, the 1972 Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried (in which he played a washed-up clown who entertains Jewish children in Auschwitz), was such a disaster that it was never released and was tied up in an abyss of litigation for decades afterwards,” writes the Atlantic’s David Sims. “Lewis would mock the effort himself, once saying, ‘I was embarrassed. I was ashamed of the work, and I was grateful that I had the power to contain it all, and never let anyone see it. It was bad, bad, bad . . . But I can tell you how it ends.’ However, it became part of the legend of his diminished career in the 70s, as he struggled to adapt to a grimmer, more subversive comedy world.”
And “while he inspired a generation of young male comedians,” writes Matthew Dessem for Slate, “Lewis was less of a role model to women, proclaiming in 1998 that he didn’t like any female comedians, not even Lucille Ball, because he thought of women as ‘a producing machine that brings babies into the world,’ a position he walked back only slightly in later years.”
“Tashlin directed some of Lewis’s best early outings (Artists and Models,Rock-a-Bye-Baby),” wrote Eric Henderson in 2004, introducing a round of reviews in Slant, “but eventually Lewis grew restless with raking in unprecedented profit shares (six on the dime) from his films and itched to take his comedic theories to the next level, to become, as the title of his later film theory text read, a ‘total filmmaker.’ From that first self-directed showcase, the nearly dialogue-free collection of blackout sketches and celebrity-dissection The Bellboy, right through his own late-inning comeback (Hardly Working,Cracking Up) following the notorious The Day the Clown Cried debacle (the film is still probably the most famous of unviewable films), Lewis has indeed been the example of auteurism-the sculptor of a body of works whose collective personality enhances the individual pieces.”
Updates, 8/21: “I watched him shooting The Ladies Man when I was out here in Los Angeles for the first time in 1961,” Peter Bogdanovich tells the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg. Bogdanovich wrote a piece for Esquire “called ‘Mr. Lewis Is a Pussycat,’ and he loved it. It was his favorite piece for years, and in fact he mimeographed it, if anyone remembers what a mimeograph is, and he sent it out to everybody. And we were friends from then on. . . . I had been an abject fan of Martin and Lewis when I was a kid. I just thought they were terribly funny. None of their movies captured the kind of chemistry they really had. The movies were OK, but they didn't capture what they had on live television.”
“Whenever I would cite Jerry Lewis as an influence, I would qualify the statement by saying he inspired me more as a philosopher than a comedian,” Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip,Golden Exits) tells IndieWire. “The philosophical drive of using cinema to represent yourself as the subject of abuse and humiliation (specifically to delight others) while agonizing through the shame, anxiety, Jewish neurosis and barely-concealed rage changed movies in a way usually reserved for works of literature written over a span of decades. His life’s work is closer in form and impact to Joyce, or Proust. If you haven’t personally been touched by it, you somehow have anyway through cultural osmosis.”
“Lewis is one of the most original, inventive, and, yes, profound directors of the time,” writes Richard Brody in a new piece for the New Yorker. “In his films of the nineteen-sixties, he put himself through a wide range of humiliating situations and discovered a range of sentimental triumphs, using technical devices onscreen and off with a gleeful audacity . . . In the enormous cutaway set of The Ladies Man and the metacinematic airplane comedy of The Family Jewels and the inside-studio farces of The Patsy and The Errand Boy and, of course, the enduring twist of the Jekyll-and-Hyde story The Nutty Professor, Lewis made his mark on the times by way of a distinctive cinematic consciousness.”
“As a tender, teenage cinephile, I was knocked out by the vision of a veritable Pop Art tableau in The Ladies Man,” wrote Adrian Martin in 1999. “Like a true ‘vulgar modernist’—to use J. Hoberman’s apt term—Lewis also became fascinated with foregrounding the very processes of filmmaking and storytelling. Cameras, sets, crews and showbiz cameos were everywhere to be seen; multiple beginnings, open endings, and baroque plots brought Lewis’s gags closer to Bertolt Brecht than Mack Sennett. Lewis’s career is, in truth, a bundle of contradictions. He has effortlessly married the greatest vulgarity to the finest craftsmanship; the ickiest, most sanctimonious messages to the boldest, most daring experiments in form and technique. Even his body is a paradox, expressing extreme chaos and discombobulation with the utmost grace.”
“A premier Jewish clown of American cinema, his innovative understanding of the medium ensured that his ethnic identity was an inescapable part of his celebrity in the United States,” writes Benjamin Ivry for Forward. “As his biographer Shawn Levy emphasizes, Lewis scarcely needed to remind American audiences of his Judaism, since his essence and ambience were so obviously imbued with Yiddishkeit.”
Levy’s posted a note on Facebook, which Ray Pride passes along at Movie City News: “Jerry and I met twice while I was working on the book and spoke/wrote to each other perhaps a dozen times. Like many of his relationships with the press and his partners/subordinates, it ended badly, with Jerry hollering profanities at me in the cabin of his yacht in San Diego. I wrote about it in the epilogue to my book, and over the years I’ve had the scene quoted back to me by Steve Martin, Harry Shearer, Paul Provenza, and Penn Jillette. Tom Hanks once told me that he had a dinner with Paul Reiser and Martin Short at which Short spent the night imitating Jerry throwing me off the boat. Jerry was a lot of things: father, husband, chum, businessman, philanthropist, artist, innovator, clown, tyrant.”
Also at MCN, Leonard Klady recalls a few meetings with Lewis: “The first couldn’t have been funnier or more fruitful. Emboldened by the initial discussion, I suggested including footage [in the Academy tribute reel embedded above] from The Day the Clown Cried, as Orson Welles had his with unfinished The Other Side of the Wind when he was honored by the American Film Institute. I waded in as delicately as possible, knowing his sensitivity to the issue, as well as the fact he controlled the material. There probably was no diplomatic way of suggesting it. Lewis exploded and called me every derisive name in the lexicon. . . . But I always will love Jerry Lewis.”
“There are few filmmakers who have equaled his achievements as a comic actor, writer and director, and theirs are the names alongside which his should be mentioned: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, Woody Allen.” Scott Jordan Harris for RogerEbert.com: “There are those for whom the screeching child-man will never be funny. But there are others, me among them, for whom he will always be irresistible.”
Seven or eight years ago, Glenn Kenny was asked to draft an obituary, and he admits that it’s “newspapery, dry, factual , but it does have a thread of critical appreciation running through it. . . . Lewis is a subject near and very dear to both my heart and my aesthetic. The more you learn of his work, the more impressive he becomes.”
Marc Maron’s posted the interview he conducted with Lewis last year for the WTF Podcast (31’16”).
Updates, 8/22: “Jerry Lewis’ films, and his comedy more generally, are characterized by an infantile excess, something that knows no boundaries and has no sense of restraint or of good taste,” writes Steven Shaviro. “This in itself makes Jerry’s comedic figure both delightfully twisted and utterly embarrassing. Jerry’s persona doesn’t feel any such embarrassment or shame, but this unawareness makes it all the more embarrassing for me to like him and identify with him. There is no sense in Lewis’s comedy of a raging id set free of repression; rather, the persona almost always has an overwhelming desire to please the fatuous authority figures who are set against him and whom he unwittingly destroys.” Shaviro has made a collection of three of his essays on Lewis freely available “as a free e-book (or, more properly, e-pamphlet).”
In the New York Times,Jeremy Dauber argues that “Lewis’s most successful work was, in its own way, a fundamental part of the great story of Jewish comedy in America—a story that also functions as a microcosm of American Jewish life writ large. It was a metaphor for the successes, and the anxieties, of a generation of postwar American Jews of the 1950s: busily engaged, often extraordinarily successful, and trying to prove they were no different than everyone else. They wanted to believe they were the same, and yet their creative success, paradoxically, was borne of the tension that their very real difference created.”
“Few comedians before him had so brazenly turned arrested development into art, or held up such a warped fun house mirror to American identity in its loudest, ugliest, vulgarest excesses,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “Fewer still had advanced the still-radical notion that comedy doesn’t always have to be funny, just fearless, in order to strike a nerve.”
“The Family Jewels rarely turns up in greatest-hits lists of Lewis’s career,” writes Lara Zarum in the Village Voice. “But with the benefit of fifty-odd years of hindsight, the film is a key showcase for Lewis’s chameleonic comedy skills and singular flair for slapstick.”
“There’s a reason Lewis has persisted as a touchstone in conversations about, say, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, and a particular brand of juvenile men,” writes K. Austin Collins at the Ringer. “Not only did Lewis, drawing from vaudeville and traditional Jewish comedy, seem to invent that form, but he remains, long after the height of his career-making films, at its apex.”
“He was 82 when we met, and I was 36,” writes Daniel Noah, who directed Lewis in Max Rose (2013), at IndieWire. “ cannot explain the chasm between the ‘monster’ I was warned about and the beautiful man whom I was lucky enough to know for the last ten years of his life. He was kind and loving and patient and limitlessly generous with his genius.”
For more on the work, see Lewis’s page at Critics Round Up, gathering reviews and links to further reading.
NPR has posted Terry Gross’s 2005 interview with Lewis (30’40”).
Updates, 8/23: For New York’s David Edelstein, “the truth is that Lewis was monstrous, infantile, narcissistic, pretentious, tasteless—and brilliant, life-affirming, thoughtful, and sometimes visionary. He was a definitive monstre sacré whose likeness we have rarely seen. . . . As zany a formalist as he was, he could also seem like an establishment fuddy-duddy in an era that saw the rise of more scabrous, countercultural comedy. His lovable little man began to seem increasingly phony, as did his films’ sentimentality. ‘I like good entertainment, nothin’ sordid,’ he told Bogdanovich. ‘I keep all the sordid things in the confines of a room with a broad; nobody sees that.’ Some of us wish that he’d set aside the Chaplinesque innocent persona as he aged, and explored his dominant darker side. He more or less stopped—at least in his own work—with Buddy Love.”
“When a list is made of the key pop cultural artifacts of wartime anxiety and the post-World War II atomic age, with its rhythms of fragmentation and a hint of the apocalypse, that list must include bebop, Waiting for Godot, Jackson Pollock and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis,” writes Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune. And he’s got a story to tell:
After our testy interview, the one in between the two less hostile ones, I ran into Lewis at Nate and Al’s deli in Beverly Hills, which we agreed was the best New York deli in LA or New York, even. He felt bad about losing his cool, he said, and wanted to pay for my lunch. I declined, he insisted, I declined, he insisted, the vein now going boinnngg in his neck, his voice getting a little louder.
The standoff occurred up by the front counter, by the unstaffed cash register. The phone started ringing, and nobody answered it, and Lewis instinctively did what he knew he should do at that moment: He picked up the phone and started taking orders like a maniac in That Voice, the Julius Kelp voice, and the customers at the booths nearby cracked up, and I couldn’t quite believe it was happening.
He came up with something better than picking up a check.
Bruce Reid at Parallax View on finding Lewis funny to this day: “Lewis’s reaction to calamity—the spasmodic efforts at extraction, interspersed by rounds of disturbing calm, building to the burst of apoplectic frenzy that proves as futile as any other measure tried—is as iconic and hilarious as Keaton’s unperturbed fatalism or Groucho’s peevish snipes.”
The Nutty Professor “is really about how Lewis’s spirit took him in every direction,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “He was a geek and a rock star, a protean talent whose impulses built a bridge from the purity of silent film (his 1960 directorial debut, The Bellboy) to the anarchy of Jim Carrey.”
RogerEbert.com gathers tributes from Pablo Villaça, Donald Liebenson, Susan Wloszczyna, and Peter Sobczynski.
At JSTOR Daily, Matthew Wills points us to a piece by Jean-Pierre Coursodon that ran in Film Comment in 1975. “Coursodon argues that ‘The merit of the French critics, auteurist excesses notwithstanding, was their willingness to look at what Lewis was doing as a filmmaker for what it was, rather than with some preconception of what film comedy should be.’”
Updates, 8/27: “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to the total sense of freedom in Jerry’s work,” writes Jim Carrey for Time. “I’ve never been particularly grounded in the real world myself, and I love the idea of rebellion against reality. . . . Every artist is fed by the people who came before them. In the same way that Jimi Hendrix learned from Chuck Berry, I learned from Jerry. He is part of my makeup. I don't do exactly what he did, but his freedom and his disrespect for the norm is there in my work.”
“Lewis’s last genuine triumph,” writes Jonathan Romney for Sight & Sound, “was a magisterial Broadway debut in 1995, playing Lucifer figure Mr. Applegate in a revival of the musical Damn Yankees (he had previously been involved in an ill-fated mid-70s attempt at the 30s revue Hellzapoppin’). Damn Yankees saw him hoofing alongside Broadway star Charlotte d’Amboise and replaying various phases of his ever-changing persona to a rapturous audience—some of whom may have remembered the ‘monkey’ from his heyday, but all of whom clearly knew which nostalgia button Lewis was pressing when he donned a firefighter’s helmet, went cross-eyed and whined, ‘Hey, lay-deeee . . .’”
Bright Lights has revived Michael Stern’s appreciation: “Listed in critical ledgers as either a sanctimonious retardate or an inspired genius—or both—Jerry Lewis is clearly and self-consciously extraordinary. But somewhere between the infant-fool and the towering renaissance film-man (both images that Jerry Lewis himself has promoted) is the notion of Jerry Lewis the average guy. And central to an understanding of his work is the myth that threads its way through his films with Frank Tashlin in the mid-1950s, and is developed with parabolic dynamism in his first five self-directed films, from The Bellboy through The Patsy. That is the myth of the ordinary man in an extraordinary world—more specifically, of Joseph Levitch in Hollywood.”
From David Robson in the Jewish Chronicle: “‘Don’t say the swell stuff over my grave,’ said Jerry Lewis, ‘I want to hear it now. Tell me now.’ Most of us would like that. And how much would we want to hear it? Probably not as much as Jerry Lewis. He really needed it. As he said: ‘People who have had enough “good boy baby” from their parents rarely turn to comedy.’”
Writing for Trailers from Hell, Charlie Largent suggests that “Lewis’s formidable successes and inevitable failures might best be understood through the lens of his acrimonious bust-up with Dean; once that rocket ship fell to earth he simply brushed himself off and replaced the easy-going crooner with the movie-going public as the designated victim of both his demands for love and his passive-aggressive tantrums. That so many in the audience would react as did Dean didn’t seem to faze him, in Jerry’s mind he probably felt like he gave too much. In some respects, perhaps he did. Thanks for all the laughs, Jer.”
For Poytner, James Warren talks with an old colleague, Dave Kehr, about his outstanding obituary in the New York Times.
Update, 8/29: Peter Labuza and Jaime Christley look back on the legacy in a special episode of The Cinephiliacs, The Total Film-Maker: Jerry Lewis (1926–2017) (70’51”).
Update, 8/31: “To love and admire Jerry’s work, as I do,” writes Jesse Hawken for the TIFF Review, “is to be forced to overlook or rationalize a lot of hot garbage. The old cliché about ‘separating the art from the artist’ is tailor-made for assessing the career of Lewis, who despite his mercurial persona was undeniably gifted, willing to experiment at great financial and personal cost, and who pioneered some key innovations in the film industry that are still with us today, for better or for worse. Several of his films (as actor and director) represent this paradox: the hateful man who only wants to be loved, the lovable man quick to volcanic anger, the goony-faced manchild who could also channel great charisma, the exacting perfectionist who put out a lot of sloppy work.”
Updates, 9/2: In a remembrance for the Guardian,Martin Scorsese recalls working with Lewis on King of Comedy: “Jerry Langford was an uncomfortable role for him to play, because he was skirting the edges of his own life in absolutely every scene. Sometimes it went beyond that: he was wearing his own clothes, he was playing scenes where he was often expressing his own feelings about showbusiness and celebrity, and at times you didn’t know if you were seeing Jerry Langford or Jerry Lewis. And through it all he was, needless to say, a consummate professional. It was a remarkable and moving experience to watch him at work, improvising with Bob De Niro and the other actors and with his old friend Freddie de Cordova—I felt like I was watching a virtuoso pianist at the keyboard. And he knew his way around live television so well that I asked him to direct some of the actual on-air sequences for The Jerry Langford Show.”
Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden have a book coming out soon, How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels, and they asked Jerry Lewis to write the foreword. They were surprised and relieved when he agreed to: “Jerry Lewis was a long-time Ernie Bushmiller fan,” they write at Boing Boing. “Exhale. Of course he was. Our suspicions had been validated. Both Lewis and Bushmiller were famously demanding, obsessive experts on the complex structures and hidden mechanics behind the production of the most seemingly ‘simple’ kind of visual humor. In other words, they were both serious gagmen.”
“Broadly speaking, Three on a Couch is a fruitcake of Lewisian anarchy crammed unwillingly into a letter box of prehistoric gender politics,” writes Jaime N. Christley for the Village Voice. “The sort of ‘a woman isn’t truly whole until she has a family’ bunk that ought to have been out of fashion long before threatens to run the whole enterprise aground just as the script is establishing its core conflict. . . . Lewis sinks not insignificant narrative costs into erecting this relationship dramedy, to an extent where, while the architecture is implausible and even vaguely disturbing, it doesn’t entirely vanish when the necessary tonal shift opens the floor for Lewis to regale us with the gags and the pageantry.”
Update, 9/7: “I first met Jerry in Las Vegas, where we rehearsed,” recalls Funny Bones director Peter Chelsom in the Guardian. “Walking through the crowded gambling floor of a Vegas casino with Jerry, the reactions ranged from hysteria to the shock that comes with seeing a ghost. He’s alive! Very much alive. (In fact, he was a very sprightly 69.) From the outset, he was generous. There was only one alarm bell: he made a show of presenting me with a signed copy of his book, The Total Film-Maker. It threw me, humbled me. It reminded me I was directing a director.”
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