‘Funny and brooding’: the two sides of the comedy legend Jerry Lewis

Few entertainment figures were as divisive as Jerry Lewis, who enjoyed such public adoration but also endured scorn

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 August, 2017, 2:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 August, 2017, 9:13pm

Jerry Lewis, who died Sunday at age 91, delighted millions with his slapstick antics, earning a devoted following and propelling him to dizzying heights of fame at a young age.

He influenced the likes of Richard Pryor, trailblazed moviemaking techniques and raised more than a billion dollars for charitable causes.

He also became a polarising figure, one who was notoriously difficult during interviews and with audiences, made disparaging comments about women and gays, and faced criticism about his approach to fundraising.

Few entertainment figures were as divisive as Lewis, who enjoyed such public adoration but also endured scorn.

Kliph Nesteroff, author of The Comedians, a history of American comedy, said Lewis’s “influence cannot be overstated” and added that he serves as one of our best examples of the comedic mind.

“The comic neuroses, the good and bad side, the happy, funny, smiling side and the brooding, angry, depressed side - Jerry Lewis had both of those,” Nesteroff continued.

“Whether he was aware of it or not, we frequently saw both sides of him on display.”

Watch: Jerry Lewis dead at 91

Alongside partner Dean Martin in the late 1940s, Lewis, then in his teens, became a sensation, experiencing the kind of early comedic success that remained unparalleled until Eddie Murphy’s rise in the 1980s.

“ ‘Martin and Lewis,’ ” Nesteroff said, “is the closest thing we’ve ever had in comedy to Beatlemania.”

Lewis had a prolific film career, both with Martin and after the duo’s acrimonious 1956 split, churning out hit after hit.

Lewis wrote, shot and edited his directorial debut, 1960’s The Bellboy, at a breakneck pace. He followed that smash hit with The Ladies Man and The Nutty Professor.

He was a pioneer behind the camera - especially with his application of “video assist” technology that lets filmmakers view takes immediately after filming. The practice is now standard on movie sets.

For decades, Lewis headlined an annual telethon to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The telethon became a popular-culture TV staple and raised more than a billion dollars for the organisation. In 2009, Lewis received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy Awards.

Lewis parted ways with the MDA after the 2010 telethon under unclear circumstances - although the organisation issued a statement Sunday praising Lewis’s legacy.

Despite his silliness, Lewis had a dark side. During his early years, the tabloids were rife with stories about his feuds with Martin. He developed a reputation for being cruel with some and was acerbic before audiences. All of his physical humour and years of pratfalls took a toll on his body; an addiction to painkillers coincided with the downturn in his career.

Lewis spent much of the 1970s absent from the big screen after making The Day the Clown Cried, about a circus clown in a concentration camp. The movie became the subject of heated controversy and was never released; Lewis would later say it was “all bad” and “no one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work.”

He was known for being a difficult interview. Just last year, his on-camera sit-down with the Hollywood Reporter, labelled “the most painfully awkward interview of 2016,” went viral.

Lewis declared in 2000 that he didn’t like any female comedians (a declaration he tried to soften in 2014.)

He apologised after saying an anti-gay slur on-air during a 2007 telethon. But he said the same slur the following year on Australian television.

His relationship with the disabled community also was complicated. Those telethons - named after him and featuring him trotting out “Jerry’s Kids” - became the subject of derision in the 1990s, with protesters picketing and a George H.W. Bush administration official criticising Lewis’s approach as casting people with disabilities as objects of pity.

While the telethon raised a lot of money, Lewis did it through perpetuating harmful stereotypes, The Nation argued in 2011. “Jerry’s message was simple: ‘crippled children deserve pity.’ His critics offered an alternative: ‘people with disabilities deserve respect.’”

“I have all the strength in the world to fight those morons,” Lewis said of his naysayers in an interview with The Washington Post.

“Do they want to talk to the 135,000 who are afflicted, who call me their hero? They’ll get killed. And what about the S.O.B.’s who come to you and say, ‘How much do you get out of this action?’ You have to smile, because they have capital punishment in most states.”

The entertainer, after all, was never one to mince words.