The world lost a veritable comic genius this week as we mourn the passing of Jerry Lewis. From his early beginnings as a stage comic, to the magical fundraising power of his telethons to raise money in the search for a cure for Muscular Dystrophy, Lewis was many things to many people.
Lewis had his faults. He was said to be difficult to work with at times, a bit of a control freak, probably from the desperation he felt as an upstart comic in the 1940s. But the fact is he was a writer, director, producer and a technical innovator in film as well. He invented something called the video assist, which allowed a director to instantly watch what they’ve just shot.
Of course, it’s the French who are fabled to have loved Lewis’s movies and considered him a genius. But, like with so many tales of the famous, much of that is exaggerated or taken out of context. According to some reports, if you ask a French person to name a Lewis movie, they usually have a tough time coming up with an answer. Seriously? I mean, who doesn’t know, “The Nutty Professor?” (No, not that terrible Eddie Murphy remake. Don’t get me started.)
You can probably find countless tributes and retrospectives on the King of Comedy, so I’m not going to lay out another laundry list here of his successes and failures. But I wanted to share my thoughts as somewhat of a student of his craft and fellow writer and performer.
If you follow my work regularly, or Google my name, know that I’ve led a dual life in the professional and stage worlds for most of my time on this earth. Beginning at the age of 5, as a budding ventriloquist, I have won awards for my talents, written comedy scripts and produced all manner of shows, from the musical stage to Vaudevillian-style variety shows.
Not much in my repertoire could even begin to compare to a giant like Lewis, but comedy was always the foundation for a great deal of my work. I’ve always believed that if you could make people laugh, no matter what you were doing, singing, dancing, writing, juggling, whatever, they would be entertained.
For me, Jerry Lewis was a one-of-a-kind, a true struggling artist, always trying to get people to take him seriously through laughter. You read that correctly. It’s tough to get people to take notice when your entire goal is to make them laugh. It’s even more difficult when your whole self-worth is wrapped up in that laughter and thunderous applause.
Lewis’s physical comedy, funny vocalizations and incredible timing is what I enjoyed and what I have always emulated. I’m a one-liner, storytelling kind of comedian on stage. I do a little physical comedy, but it’s generally centered around hand gestures or other smaller movements. Jerry Lewis could leave an audience in stitches with a simple facial expression – that’s talent (and a rubbery face helped too.)
For nearly two decades, my dear friend Jim Karns and I have worked together on stage much like Martin and Lewis in their early years. Our timing and banter is very similar, as was that of Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy (after the silent days), and so many other comedy teams. The dynamic duo of Jerry’s goof to Dean’s straight man, which kicked off in Atlantic City in 1946, became a national phenomenon lasting a mere 10 years, though to many fan it’s unimaginable it was such a short time. Regardless, the pair was unstoppable during their run, and watching anything they did is still a pleasure.
I ignore the public negativity surrounding most celebrities I admire, whether they brought it on themselves or not. After all, they’re only human, good people trying to entertain people in an unforgiving and sadistic industry. I left the big stage behind many years ao in favor of smaller one with kinder audiences.
But no matter how large the stage, Jerry Lewis’s influence will be there, for me and for many generations to come. “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” – Jerry Lewis.
Gery L. Deer is a writer, producer and performer with “The Brothers & Co Variety Show.” More at www.thebrothersvarietyshow.com.