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It seems to me that there is only one modern joke: the joke of powerlessness. And Charlie Chaplin me no Charlie Chaplins. The grand joke of modern fiction is the Lucky Jim joke of making faces behind the professor’s back. Now, the grand jokes of A Bad Man or The Dick Gibson Show—whatever I’ve written—are the jokes where the character in trouble, confronted with a force much stronger than he is, mumbles under his breath something that is absolutely devastating to the authority which threatens him. But the fact that he has to mumble it under his breath, you see, is what makes it funny. Had he shouted it at the aggressor, at the warden, or what have you, it wouldn’t be funny.
-Stanley Elkin, Paris Review Interview
Why do people hate Jerry Lewis so much?
Sure, Jerry Lewis is not a perfect person or filmmaker. Who is? His “asian” character is, of course, cringeworthy. However, this regrettable stereotyping doesn’t explain the widespread cultural hatred and denigration of Lewis. Buster Keaton is still respected despite the use of blackface in many of his most respected silent features. Woody Allen’s films had similarly regrettable Italian stereotypes, and while niche and rather strange, he has an obsession with punchlines that consist of the word “Armenian”. Black people barely ever show up anywhere in Allen’s films; his Manhattan was whitewashed long before Giuliani got to it.
But these comedians haven’t evoked the same level of animosity that Lewis has, to the point where the Cahiers du Cinema’s liking Lewis has become a standard means of otherizing the French despite the questionable foundations of the claim. The other comedians and the early Warner Brothers cartoons had most of their racism acknowledged but forgiven as cultural artifacts. They were things of their time. But so was Jerry Lewis’s Asian character. Patronizing orientalism was commonplace enough in the 1960s that it appeared in a series of nationally broadcast Jello Ads. Only 3 years before Lewis got his first break in My Friend Irma the US still had ~110,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps. So the animosity towards Lewis can’t be explained as a culture shifting toward a more progressive reading of its past.
Part of the animosity towards Lewis comes from a broad trend in criticism toward the separation of the wheat from the chaff in terms of the separation of the body from the mind. Of course the mind and body can’t be separated. The symbolic manifestations of what constitutes “mind” and what constitutes “body” and the creation of their borders tend to be dictated by the hierarchical relations of a given time as the dominant ideology always is, and like any seemingly monolithic tendency it both bleeds outside its borders and contains the seeds of its own eventual destruction into synthesis. As it stands, the border of what distinguishes “high” physical comedy from “low” physical comedy is the indication of intention; of mannerism that approaches “gracefulness”; an awkwardness that comfortingly reveals itself as still being distinct from the movements of life “outside” art, marked by the indicators of consciousness as acknowledging and pantomiming its self-awareness as such.
JOKES THAT KNOW THEIR PLACE (IN OTHER WORDS)
Jerry Lewis traffics in the comedy of powerlessness. His characters are the worker, the little man, and less regularly the lumpen. The standard Jerry Lewis narrative shifts the assimilation narrative of the superhero into a different key. Where the superhero positions the reader to relate their own struggles to those of men in power that “must” rule through juridically meted out “justice”, the aesthetics of the Jerry Lewis work more dialectically; on some level we’re expected to subjectively inhabit the space of the Lewis character through relation but the brash, abrasive manner in which the Lewis character presents itself to the world of the film and the space of the viewer aggressively resists the consummation of this process of narcissistic viewer identification that US commercial film runs on. It’s the very things that people single out to hate in the Lewis character that lend it its value; the screechy voice, the lack of realism in his exaggerated movement that refuses to play the game of the magic trick; the space of “believability” that marks the perceived value of earlier physical comics.
Jerry Lewis is the other-he’s the spiritual unwashed and lumpen. He refuses to play the games of sophistication and when he toys with sophistication it mirrors his relation as a filmmaker to the technical specifics of the craft. Lewis the filmmaker creates elaborate confined spaces such as the famous doll house set in The Ladies Man so that Lewis the character can inhabit them and break everything. Woody Allen, in films like Annie Hall, dramatizes the narrative of failed assimilation in the sexual desire of the Jewish ethnic other’s other-the normative of the midwestern WASP family. Allen resolves this narrative with a lament that you can’t always get what you want and a nihilistic appeal to the nonsense of jokes. Allen’s comedy of powerlessness is in the face of the universe, a universe that can’t cleanly give the Allen character what he wants outside the sanitized suburb he creates of the urban area of the cinema.
Lewis meanwhile dramatizes the narrative of assimilation in The Nutty Professor as a roundabout form of alcoholism that he resolves by embracing the physically unattractive and oppressed proletarian professor character. He eventually comes to the realization that he’s weird; he makes a plea at the end for his acceptance as being such. But within Lewis is the screetch, the barely repressed desire to break with convention; the will to resist. The anarchy of the Marx Brothers is in part the compulsive desire to entertain; to work. The social anxiety so frequently displayed in his set pieces is in fact a flattened awareness of the pressures by which the Russian doll structure of power and class relations reifies itself.
As Deleuze and Guattari play at in Anti-Oedipus, capitalism creates schizophrenia. It probably isn’t a race, but either way, Jerry Lewis got there first. The condition of capitalism creates a schizophrenic disconnect between flattened personas that Lewis refuses to or actually cannot reconcile except in a recursive branching out into more schizophrenic personas that nevertheless undermine each other and seem unable to exist except in spite of each other. The bosses in his films are always played by terrible actors because they can portray pure abrasive outside authoritarianism
Has anyone ever made a boss look quite as flatly authoritarian and unlikable as Lewis did?
Lewis is not an intellectual; I’m not reading these films on the level of conscious intent, whatever that actually constitutes. It’s in Lewis’s “failures” to be serious or believable that the specter; the ghost of language and identity can be evoked as a thing outside the self and the moment punctured to shine a searchlight on the bare truth so that it can sulk into the shadows to yet again recompose itself. The supposedly “bad” performance lays bare the artificiality of “real” performance in a stark and shocking manner that can only be reconciled through repression and loathing. This is why we laugh so sincerely at B-movies but can’t consciously recreate them; they exist in the stark discomfort of “intent”‘s failure.
Of course Lewis always gives the narrative capstone of reconciliation of personas at the end of all his films, but even this seems hardly believable, for the same reason Dick Van Dyke trips over the couch and is helped up only to reliably trip over the couch exactly the same way the next week and be helped up again. The uneven and tossed off quality of Lewis’s films betrays his revolutionary insincerity. Lewis the director is both boss and employee; beholden to the customer and the higher boss of the studio; man who cannot be actualized for society’s having folded him in on himself.
The ceaseless social anxiety of the Lewis character so often aestheticized in the uneven distribution of unpleasant and amplified sound that only applies to his own movements such as in the opening to The Nutty Professor, in attempting to grasp an object and repeatedly almost dropping and breaking it, shows the perpetual panopticon creating in the uneven distribution of power endemic to the employer-employee relationship itself. And this relationship recreates itself in varying levels throughout the society; even the boss fears the boss above him and so on. The unruly customer will relish his opportunity to exercise the arbitrary power of the boss; at the moment of purchase, for a moment he is the boss.
The Lewis character only finds relief in the imaginary unencumbered; in the play of being the boss without an object to subjugate or in the outright descent into silliness; talking to inanimate objects. Notice the similarities between Lewis’s “playing the boss” below and to the famous beach ball sequence in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
But these flights of fancy are, as they are for the actual subjugated worker, a necessary but only temporary relief. He must reconcile with the boss and the arbitrary dictates of the society surrounding him or face exile.
THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED WILL REPRESENT THE APEX OF THE IDEAS PERMEATING LEWIS’S WORK
Lewis, knowing better than his derisive audience except for the always keen-eyed Godard, hoped and felt at the time of its making The Day the Clown Cried would be his masterpiece. And now it’s only 10 years from finally meeting the public eye.
The plot is simple enough: an alcoholic clown, Lewis, is recruited by force by the Nazis to entertain children as they’re being sent to death camps so they don’t make a fuss. At the end they all die. As is often the case in the American cinema, the Holocaust is the imaginative safe-space wherein the deepest most socially unacceptable anxieties about the nature of industrial capitalism can play themselves out; the Nazis are pure evil, like the communists and as such make a perfect pivot point for an insecure and narcissistic nation to carve out definitions of itself in the negative space of the unambiguous “wrong” and “bad”.
Except here, Lewis takes the brilliant tack of placing the Lewis character, finally collapsed into a singular or at least more monolithic entity, and using this negative space to break through into the anxiety, which so plagued Lewis in his desire for Chaplinesque “pathos”, and that afflicts the worker everyday, of whether his work “meant anything”; whether it was just an empty repetition.
I, for one, am quite eager to see it.