Tag Archives: Jerry Lewis

Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958)

Popular wisdom asserts that Lewis did his best work under director Frank Tashlin’s supervision. It seems a reasonable enough assertion. Lewis’s gags are given structure and direction by Tashlin-he’s not pulling himself in 8 directions at once (as in Three on a Couch or The Family Jewels) or indulging in failed pathos, since let’s be honest here, his only non-failed pathos was the prom-speech that ended The Nutty Professor.

I was very curious to see what this film was exactly, since the premise of Lewis adopting triplets seemed, well, curious, as the premise of most solo Lewis outings is “Jerry Lewis breaks things.” However, none of the expected child abuse occurred. The film as a whole was fairly sweet if somewhat raunchy. Nowhere near the amount of strained sentimentality one would expect. Some gags showed some real invention and this is the film where Lewis has the most bizarre gadgets; if Lewis were Buster Keaton and The Ladies Man his Seven Chances, his picture dealing with horrific anxiety around the opposite sex, Rock-A-Bye Baby would be his take on The Electric House, his picture dealing with the anxiety the gadgets around you might get the better of you. One of the better Lewis solo-outings.

The Comedy Canon, The Body, and The Day the Clown Cried

Senior London Shia scholar declares jihad against extremism, against the forces misusing the name of Islam; against ISIS

-Ahlulbayt News Agency Headline

Native American Council Offers Amnesty to 220 Million Undocumented Whites

-Daily Currant Headline

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 of separating pursuits of the body from those of the mind in order to praise the mind at the expense of the body. Of course the mind and body can’t actually be separated. 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.

The comedy of the mind presupposes a complete physical comfort in ones’ environment-the urban space as playground. The comedy of the body is about the awkwardness of existing as a physical presence in designed/controlled/undesigned/uncontrolled environments. Woody Allen is a comic of the mind; he can wander down the middle of a Manahattan street without fear of traffic in Manhattan but can’t feel comfortable relating to human beings. Jerry Lewis a comic of the body; the physical environment itself is going to exact its revenge on him for existing and you can see in his face that if he only understands one thing, its this.


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 relating to him. But the 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. It’s the very things that people single out to hate in the Lewis character that lends it its value: the screechy voice, the lack of realism in his exaggerated movement; 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 assimilation. Lewis is more akin to Mel Brooks than Woody Allen in his assimilation attitudes. Lewis 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 which he half-heartedly laments. He sees his anxieties as coming from things like relationships. Lewis’s comedy of powerlessness is meanwhile a series of blunt metaphors for the anxiety of the 20th century living space itself.*

Lewis 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. 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. They are dramatically flattened if narratively powerful.

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. 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. There is an extent to which “bad performance” is not innocence, or unawareness but openly veiled hostility. 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 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, 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.

The King of Comedy (1983)

The King of Comedy, while less well-known than the overrated Network, is the better film by far.

If Network, Sydney Lumet’s classic 1976 black comedy, is so highly praised on liberal Democratic web sites like Media Matters or Digby, then it’s almost certainly because the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky looks back with nostalgia on an idealized early TV news culture that never existed. The King of Comedy resists this temptation. Martin Scorsese has no illusions about the golden age of Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, and Fred W. Friendly. The King of Comedy is not another self-aggrandizing tale about how See it Now brought down Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Scorsese centers the debate on America’s corrupt mass media right where it should be, on class. Rupert Pumpkin, De Niro, is a 34-year-old would be comic who lives in the basement of his mother’s house in Jersey City. Every day he joins a crowd of autograph hounds and crazed fans outside of the studios of the Jerry Langford show. While a thinly fictionalized version of Johnny Carson, Jerry Langford could just as easily be David Letterman or Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Simon Cowell, or any figure in the mass media with the power to make or break careers. Rupert Pumpkin, like a contestant on American Idol, is hoping against hope for just a few minutes of his time. Pumpkin, who’s unwilling to work his way up through small clubs and open mics, sincerely believes that he’s a comic genius ready for the big time. All he needs is a few minutes of time on the air.

One day he gets what he thinks is his big break. Masha, an even more deranged fan played by Sandra Bernhard, manages to sneak into Langford’s limousine. She’s waiting for him in the back seat after he finishes taping the show. Langford is so terrified that Pumpkin is able to take control of the situation, and get into the limousine in her place. They drive off together. During the ride home, Pumpkin makes his pitch. Langford, now sufficiently calmed down — Pumpkin wants to be Langford, not fuck him — like any high status figure in the mass media does when he’s forced to deal with a persistent wannabe. He brushes him off. Here’s my card. Talk to my agent. Send my producer a tape. We’ll get back to you.

Rupert Pumpkin doesn’t take the brush off for a brush off. He’s in his own world. We get an idea of just how deluded Pumpkin really is when we see him practicing his monologues in the basement of his mother’s house. It’s not only that he has life-size cut outs of Jerry Langford and Liza Minelli. It’s not even that he imagines himself as a guest on the Jerry Langford show. Scorsese digs much deeper than this. While Rupert Pumpkin dreams about finding a place inside the mass media, we can very clearly see that he’s already there. The way he speaks, his body language, his jokes, his self-deprecating humor, Pumpkin is not an individual human being. He’s a composite, a collage of what the corporate mass media has made of him. What he wants is not to get into the mass media, but to raise his status, to work his way up from the proletariat to become part of the media’s elite.

Rupert Pumpkin’s redeeming quality is that he actually tries to get what he wants. He takes his illusions seriously. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, Blake said. “If a fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” Rupert Pumpkin is that fool.

If Americans love their oppressors, adore their own ruling class, then it’s mostly because they believe in the illusion of upward mobility. Americans accept their subordination because, for them, it’s just another type of deferred gratification. If they work hard, they assume, if go to the right schools, and have the right attitude, they’ll get ahead. When Rupert Pumpkin goes to Jerry Langford’s studios, he’s the perfect American. He’s bright, chipper, patient, polite but with a touch of persistent aggression. He wants a spot on Langford’s show the way most of us want a job. Nobody at the office has any idea who he is, but he still manages to convince the receptionist that Langford told him to drop by, so he gets a meeting with Cathy Long, a producer and agent played to ice-queen perfection by Shelly Hack. If Jerry Langford is the 1% then Cathy Long is the upper-middle-class, that layer of professionals that stands between the elite and the great unwashed. She knows just how to handle an obnoxious peon like Pumpkin, how to give him just the right dose of “hope” while putting him in his place, her thin veneer of civility more social control then graciousness, but so skillfully managed that anybody but Rupert Pumpkin would have taken her rejection as encouragement.

Cathy Long is the first hurdle the ruling class puts up for would be members, propaganda. Rupert Pumpkin, like any good revolutionary, can’t be turned back by propaganda. As soon as he realizes he’s not going to get a spot on the show chatting with Cathy Long he drops the charade. “Mr. Langford trusts my judgement,” she says after telling him that his routine isn’t ready for prime time. “Mr. Langford may trust your judgement,” he responds. “But I don’t.” Cathy Long’s icy civility becomes simple ice. She’s had enough. She calls security, the second hurdle, propaganda mixed with the promise of muscle. She goes back inside her office, and shuts the door. But the polite security guard who tries to finesse Pumpkin out of the office isn’t enough. The Jerry Langford Show’s front office needs real muscle, not white collar muscle. Soon, we see three armed, security guards who drag Pumpkin out of the building and throw him into the street. Pumpkin has now been met with the ruling class’s plan B, brute force uncut with persuasion

If Rupert Pumpkin is persistent, it’s partly because he’s motivated by love. Nobody is more persistent than a persistent romantic. Rita Keane, played by Robert De Niro’s real life wife Diahnne Abbott, tends bar at a saloon Pumpkin frequents in Hell’s Kitchen. They also went to high school together. Loser who lives in his mother’s basement though he may be, Pumpkin, his delusions about a spot on the Jerry Langford show very much alive, finds the courage to ask her on a date. She’s dismissive, but not totally dismissive. We get the sense that Rita is as attracted to Rupert as he’s attracted to her. If he gets his shit together, he’d have a chance. He shows her a book of autographs. She’s impressed. He’s a good collector. Then he shows her his own autograph in the same book. She’s even more dismissive. His penmanship sucks. Nevertheless, when he invites her out to a party at Jerry Langford’s house, she believes him. Perhaps she has aspirations towards stardom herself. Perhaps he’s just persistent. But, for whatever reason, she gets on the train out to suburbia, where they both crash Langford’s weekend mansion, with predictably disastrous results.

If propaganda and brute force are the first two hurdles, Jerry Langford himself is the third hurdle. A star struck fan is not going to be deterred by Cathy Long or the building’s security. They’re just lackeys. Rupert Pumpkin, as a future Jerry Langford, knows he doesn’t play in their league. Like the Russian peasant who thinks that the Czar is a good person manipulated by scheming government, he thinks Langford will understand him where Cathy Long didn’t. He has so internalized the values of the media elite, he not only genuinely likes Langford, he thinks Langford likes him. Needless to say Langford doesn’t. Langford, like most celebrities, actually despises his fans, the more devoted the more he thinks they merit his contempt. He orders Pumpkin to leave. Pumpkin refuses. Rita wants to go. She tries to make Rupert see that Langford wants nothing to do with them. It still doesn’t work. Pumpkin loves Rita. He’s not willing to be discouraged by her. Finally, Langford just explodes.

“You’re a moron.”

For most directors, this would put an end to it all. Pumpkin, slapped across the face, would realize he’s been living a lie. Perhaps he’d decide to work the small comedy clubs and open mics after all. Maybe he’d give it up altogether. But whatever Scorsese may be, The King of Comedy is a revolutionary film. Rupert Pumpkin isn’t going to give up his false consciousness. He’s going to persist in his folly until he becomes wise. Enter Masha. Masha has a big townhouse near the Langford show’s studios. What’s more, Jerry Langford, while he despises and fears his fans, still likes to take walks through the city, alone, without undercover security. This is all the opportunity Rupert and Masha need. They stalk Langford, kidnap him, then hold him hostage until his producers agree to give Pumpkin a 5 minute spot on the air. They do. We finally get to see Pumpkin’s monologue. It’s terrible. Or is it? Whatever Pumpkin’s talent, or lack of talent, as a comic, his spot on network TV convinces people he’s good. He’s sentenced to six years in jail for kidnapping. But he gets out in two. The gun wasn’t real. Besides, he’s now a media star. To punish him too severely would be to destroy the illusion. It would be roll out the brute force when all they need is propaganda. This is still 1983, not 2011. They can let Rupert Pumpkin become another star, yet another King. As long as he does nothing to threaten the system as a whole, they can assimilate him. He can wear a crown.

We don’t find out what happens to Masha. We assume she did some jail time as well. If Rupert Pumpkin is the prototypical male member of the 99%, then Masha is the prototypical female member. Pumpkin wants to be the 1%. Masha wants to fuck the 1%. With Jerry Langford tied up in her townhouse and Pumpkin at the studios, she gets her opportunity. She sexually assaults Jerry Langford. There’s really no other word for it. Reverse the genders, and you open up a whole new can of worms, but, here, it says something very important about the cult of celebrity. Masha is basically a Maenad, a shrill, Jewish New York Maenad but a Maenad nonetheless. Jerry Langford’s initial terror in the limousine comes from the way that, deep down inside, he knows that the media star is also a sacrifice. Dionysus will be ripped apart. The peons will kill their idols. Scorsese’s genius is how well he understands the capitalist response. Someday in the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes. Jerry Langford escapes when Masha unties him so she can fuck him. But he’s been replaced. Pumpkin is the new Jerry Langford, the new King of Comedy. Eventually he will have his own versions of himself, men who want to take his place, and his own version of Masha, women who want to fuck him then rend him to pieces after they’re done with him. When he’s gone, capitalism will throw up another Dionysus,  another American Idol. Reality shows, the empty presidency of Barack Obama, Jersey Shore, Snookie, it’s all down here on film in 1983.

My only criticism of The King of Comedy would be this: Martin Scorsese had Jerry Lewis tied up. He had him at his mercy. And he didn’t demand that he release “The Day The Clown Cried?” It’s just not credible.