This may be hard to believe, but Jerry Lewis turns 80 on March 16. For more than 60 years, Lewis has loomed in our collective pop culture imagination as the perpetual “kid,” the 9-year-old “nudnik” to America: carrying on, driving us crazy, making us laugh — and wince.
Whether you love or hate Lewis — and his utterly distinctive mode of antic physical comedy has triggered intense debate for more than half a century — he remains an iconic presence in American culture, shaping the comic personae of such actors as Martin Short, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey and Jack Black, as well as a teacher of a generation of important filmmakers, among them George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. And his long career embodies the history of show business itself, from the slapstick and schmaltz of vaudeville and the Borscht Belt (where, in the early 1940s, Lewis got his start as a novelty act, lip-synching to records and serving as all-purpose Catskills tummler), to the heyday of nightclubs and the infancy of television as part of the legendary comedy team of Martin and Lewis. By the early 1960s — above all in his now-canonical film “The Nutty Professor” (1963) — Lewis had emerged as a bona fide movie star and film director, an auteur in his own right, elevated by the French to the status of comic genius.
But the question must be asked: Why did America take to Lewis’s zany performances as unabashed “nudnik”? In his memoir “Dean and Me (A Love Story)” (Doubleday, 2005), Lewis claims that the phenomenon of “Martin and Lewis” spoke powerfully to a nation still reeling from postwar gloom and anomie. The twosome “exploded” onto the entertainment scene in the late 1940s, enacting mostly improvised routines loosely structured by what Lewis calls “the playboy and the putz”: Dean Martin (whose underrated comic artistry was crucial for Lewis’s achievement and subsequent career) playing the unflappable crooner/straight man to Lewis’s unhinged “monkey.” Their hilarious stage antics often crossed the boundaries separating the performers from the initially stunned but hugely receptive audience. “In a tense and conformist time,” Lewis wrote, “the country needed wildness, needed nonsense.”
Sadly, only fragments of their live club act survive; we can, however, gain some sense of the pandemonium, the “electric chaos” (in journalist Craig Wolff’s phrasing) of early Martin and Lewis from the 1950s variety show “The Colgate Comedy Hour.” The weekly show featured a rotating guest host or hosts, with the newly minted team of Martin and Lewis as the most frequent. The “Comedy Hour” episode for February 4, 1951, opened with a high-toned wedding ceremony; of course, within minutes it is disrupted in high-manic style by the “kid,” Jerry Lewis’s. Dressed in tuxedos, Martin and Lewis literally crash through the facade of (genteel? gentile?) civility; Jerry plants a huge kiss on the startled, ambushed bride and proceeds to overturn everything in sight (furniture, guests, etc.). He then gorges on all the food on display. When the comedy team emerges from the inspired chaos to assume roles as hosts, Jerry, still munching on the food he has been fressing, senses his personal gastronomic transgression. Flinging his arms around Martin — no longer a wiseass, but a frightened kid needing to be consoled — in accents of shame and despair, he yells in that familiar, high-pitched screechy voice, “Oh, Dean, I’m eating ham!” We hear the live audience howl at Lewis’s mock chagrin.
Indeed, what remains striking about early Martin and Lewis shticklach is just how “ethnic” their improvised antic routines were, and how utterly at ease each appears in his Italian American or Jewish American funny bones. In addition, Lewis’s “nudnik” draws on earlier forms of Jewish comedy: His surreal screechy “up-talk,” with its Yiddish lilt and reversals of syntax (“So giant malted, I should drink?”), sounds uncannily like the Second Avenue comics Ludwig Satz and Menasha Skulnick. And while onstage, Lewis couldn’t resist putting his Jewishness on display (today, a placard with the phrase “Super Jew” graces his Las Vegas office desk). Indeed, much of Martin and Lewis’s act draws on the contrasts between Italian American and Jewish American styles of voice and gesture. During the February 4 show’s finale, while Dean croons the Italian standard, “Oh Marie,” which begins with the lyric “Hey Marie,” Jerry parodies the smooth singer’s rendition with his own screeching, rhyming version, “Hey Shloyme.” And during the familiar show business ritual of competing celebrity impressions, after Dean’s take as “Cary Grant,” Jerry spins around, doing an “impression” of Winston Churchill — with a Yiddish twist: “Tenks, varry muuch” is how Jerry, with a Jewish insider’s wink, wickedly re-voices (reduces?) the British statesman to television audiences in 1951.
Audiences in the relatively staid 1950s took to Martin and Lewis for many reasons: the sheer overflow of their physical-comedic energy onstage, thus subverting comedy team expectations (think of the structured acts of such older contemporaries as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby); their palpable affection (Lewis scholars consider Jerry’s playful kissing and licking of Dean an implicit challenge to 1950s conventions of bounded maleness), and, above all, their unselfconscious appropriation of ethnicity as a mode of comedy itself. In retrospect, the pair’s phenomenal success re-invigorated show business traditions (vaudeville slapstick and Borscht Belt Yinglish) as they anticipated the emergence, the eventual “revival” of ethnicity a decade or so later.
After the Martin and Lewis breakup in the summer of 1956 — a legendary show biz saga played out in the national press — Lewis struggled to locate himself as a single act. “Deprived of his partner,” the film critic J. Hoberman has observed, “Lewis went on a prolonged search for love.” We can follow Lewis’s lonely, urgent quest in a number of post-Martin film and television vehicles: “The Delicate Delinquent” (1956), part wicked parody of gritty 1950s street-gang movies, part deeply personal journey toward wholeness; the TV version of “The Jazz Singer” (1959), in which Lewis as show biz “clown” seeks filial reconciliation with his ailing cantor father by chanting “Kol Nidre” in “clown-face”; the contradictions of “The Nutty Professor,” in which Lewis sounds the darkest aspects of his divided self (loveable schlemiel-nudnik vs. oily narcissist); Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” (1983), in which Lewis draws on the authority of his own life as an icon in order to portray a lonely celebrity harassed by an annoying pest, and the unjustly neglected British film “Funny Bones” (1995), with the biographically charged plot of a famous comedian-clown father (portrayed by Lewis) whose son fails miserably at the family business.
Still, one can’t help feeling that the core psychic origins of Lewis’s story reside in the Jewish American shtick on display at the onset of his career, through a mode of Jewish intimacy indelibly shaped (indeed, nourished) by the singular empathy of Dean Martin. In the end, perhaps he alone could appreciate the nudnik’s — and ultimately, the clown’s — deepest desire: to be loved.
Donald Weber is author of “Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture from Cahan to ‘The Goldbergs’” (2005).