Jerry Lewis is dead.
August 20, 2017 12:05 PM   Subscribe

He was 91. Joseph or Jerome Levitch March 16, 1926
An American actor, comedian, singer, film producer, film director, screenwriter and humanitarian. He is known for his slapstick humor in film, television, stage and radio. He and Dean Martin were partners as the hit popular comedy duo of Martin and Lewis. Following that success, he was a solo star in motion pictures, nightclubs, television shows, concerts, album recordings and musicals.

Lewis served as national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and hosted the live Labor Day broadcast of the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon for 44 years. Lewis received several awards for lifetime achievements from the American Comedy Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Venice Film Festival, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and was honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
posted by shockingbluamp (78 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 12:09 PM on August 20, 2017

posted by coldhotel at 12:12 PM on August 20, 2017

posted by Cash4Lead at 12:13 PM on August 20, 2017

posted by Melismata at 12:17 PM on August 20, 2017

posted by cazoo at 12:22 PM on August 20, 2017

Remember that people are complicated. He had a long and storied life and career, so also remember this Lewis quote: “Pity? [If] you don't want to be pitied because you're a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in your house!”
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:23 PM on August 20, 2017 [19 favorites]

He ended up being, in my mind, an avatar of spite, schlock and mawkishness, mainly as a function of his MDA telethons. But his early work with Dean is pretty great. There had been high-energy, knockabout tummlers who'd made it big in show biz, but they'd been teams, such as the Ritz Brothers or the Three Stooges. Lewis took all that energy and craziness and crammed it into one human being. And the bits one can see from TV appearances and films in the '50s show some of that effervescence, like a seltzer bottle that's been agitated and suddenly popped open. This 1950 Colgate Comedy Hour features some of that. It also shows the direct line of descent to Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler, among others.

posted by the sobsister at 12:28 PM on August 20, 2017 [7 favorites]

posted by tommasz at 12:29 PM on August 20, 2017

posted by bonobothegreat at 12:32 PM on August 20, 2017

posted by marimeko at 12:38 PM on August 20, 2017

Many of my Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the '70s, when I was a kid, were spent watching Martin and Lewis, then Lewis, on TV so for that I am grateful.

posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 12:40 PM on August 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

. -glavin
posted by ShawnString at 12:41 PM on August 20, 2017 [11 favorites]

So The Day the Clown Cried is getting a Criterion release in time for Christmas, right?
posted by Etrigan at 12:41 PM on August 20, 2017 [33 favorites]

He made me laugh as a small kid, but I quickly lost it for him past about age ten. I do recall reading some fiction (which I assume was based on him and Dean) wherein the Funny Guy, now middle aged, is reflecting on the moment his career really began. He was a young teen, about to get his head kicked in by some gang-types for some minor transgression. In desperation, he went for some idiot-shtick, and the gang-types laughed. They loved it in fact, took him on as their sort of resident clown. And they did much the same for Dean, though for him, it was his singing that won them over.

Wish I remembered the book, or the author.
posted by philip-random at 12:47 PM on August 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Wish I remembered the book, or the author.

I think that might be Dino by Nick Tosches. It's a pretty great book about the essential unknown at the heart of Dean Martin's life.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 1:00 PM on August 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

posted by allthinky at 1:16 PM on August 20, 2017

I loved him in "The King of Comedy". I always thought that must have been a hard role for him, because he had to play it straight the whole time.
posted by Gorgik at 1:16 PM on August 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

RIP. When I was six to nine years old, maybe even ten, there was nothing better than catching one of those early Jerry Lewis movies.
posted by Ber at 1:17 PM on August 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

I cannot think of Jerry Lewis without the memory being colored by the Animaniacs. Fruenlavan, silly clown, fruenlaven.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 1:17 PM on August 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

The Day The Clown Cried is cleared for release only after 2025, as per his agreement with the Library of Congress.

It's easy to forget he was one of the most famous entertainers in the world.

And he was also reportedly instrumental in inventing the on-set video assist rig.

He famously played a rendition of his real-life persona in the cult classic "The King Of Comedy".

His positive contributions far outweigh any legitimately critical assessment of the man.

May he RIP.

posted by dbiedny at 1:18 PM on August 20, 2017 [9 favorites]

posted by Pendragon at 1:20 PM on August 20, 2017

I liked him in The King of Comedy, and I loved the Mr. Show spoof "The Dr. X Annual Save The Earth Telethon". We didn't watch the MDA Telethon in our house unless some famous black person was performing, but boy, do I remember Lewis' voice. It sure carried! My cousin loved watching those old Jerry Lewis solo films, and I'd go into another part of the flat to read.

Well. 91's a good run.
posted by droplet at 1:22 PM on August 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

My younger brother is such a fan of Jerry Lewis, which caused me to take another look at his movies later in life. And I'm glad I did, because when I was little (1970s) things like Who's Minding the Store or Ladies Man would be on tv and I would watch and feel totally unsettled. Something about the character he played, the 1960s colors and overall weirdness (Miss Cartilage!) of his movies upset me much in the way clowns did. It was the stuff of nightmares, which is so funny to think about now. Then, 40 years later my brother became a huge fan and now I have to admit I am too. RIP, Jerry Lewis, you were some kind of genius.
posted by marimeko at 1:23 PM on August 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

A deeply complicated man. Not convinced he was ever truly happy here on Earth. End of an era.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:25 PM on August 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

The French flag flies at half mast.
posted by chavenet at 1:34 PM on August 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

posted by Malingering Hector at 1:36 PM on August 20, 2017

posted by From Bklyn at 1:39 PM on August 20, 2017


I never watched his comedy, but enjoyed (maybe the wrong word) his recent terrible interview with the Hollywood Reporter.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 1:43 PM on August 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

posted by jadepearl at 1:44 PM on August 20, 2017

Legendary. One of the last icons of that era. Thank you, Jerry.
posted by davidmsc at 1:49 PM on August 20, 2017

"Complicated" doesn't even begin to describe this brilliant, strange, important, horrible, massively talented, bizarre, compelling man - nor my feelings about his life or his death. I regard Jerry Lewis as one of the most important people of the 20th century - and certainly one of its most complex.

I'm a film historian who specializes in American film comedy. I've studied Jerry Lewis's work intensely, and he was the second-most important figure in my dissertation, which I later turned into a book. That doesn't mean, of course, that my opinions on him are "better" than yours - just that I've spent a lot of time thinking about Jerry Lewis. More, probably than is healthy for me. Or anyone.

I genuinely believe him to have been a genius. Not just as a performer, though that's certainly the case, but as a filmmaker. As a performer, he is, no question about it, the single most important and influential comedian of the latter half of the 20th century. No one else even comes close, in my opinion, except perhaps Richard Pryor. Jerry was a master of physical comedy, verbal comedy, facial comedy, narrative comedy, intellectual comedy, abstract comedy, sentimental comedy - every facet of what I regard to be the most difficult and complex of performative modes. (Comedians make the best actors, I've always thought.)

As a director, his eye for composition was nearly unmatched. His mastery of mise-en-scène puts him in the ranks of the greatest film stylists. In my Intro to Film classes, I always make a point of showing the "dollhouse scene" from The Ladies Man to show what a skilled director could do when given a large budget and the opportunity to control every last damn aspect of image-making. Note also the fine synchronization of action to music, which was a particular specialty of Lewis's. In this regard, the typewriter scene from Who's Minding the Store? is a great example.

He was one of our last living links to vaudeville (he actually performed onstage with his vaudevillian parents when he was a small boy), and to the Catskills tummler-style comedy, as well. Other comedians carry on this legacy, but none so directly and eloquently as Jerry did.

He was also a mawkish, politically incorrect, arguably mentally ill sonofabitch. I've heard some variation of these descriptors from many people who knew him, including some who were quite close to him. I don't doubt at all that he was one of the most difficult people in the entire world.

I strongly encourage anyone with even a faint interest in Jerry Lewis to read Shawn Levy's superb biography, King of Comedy.

In researching my dissertation, I managed to connect with his manager and arrange an interview. I was in LA for the summer, and I was to have driven to San Diego, where he then resided, to interview him. When I got to LA, per instructions, I called the direct line I'd been given to confirm my appointment. To my surprise and near-paralysis, I found myself speaking with the Great Man himself. I managed to retain composure somehow.

I sputtered that I was excited to speak with him. Alas, he put me off, saying that he had too much work to do in preparing the telethon, which was then still airing annually. I was disappointed but thanked him for his time. We spent perhaps three minutes on the phone. Though the bearer of bad news to me, he was utterly polite and professional, and enthusiastic about my project.

I tried again a couple of times to interview him, but no dice. When I told another interviewee about my attempts, he said that, in all likelihood, Jerry would refuse to speak with me; then, eventually, the book would come out, and he would read it and call me to scream bloody murder at me for not having included him in the project. To my surprise, this didn't happen. When the book came out, I mailed him an inscribed copy. I never heard back from him, but I like to think that my book wound up on his shelf somewhere.

Today, I still have framed posters from his films on my walls, and I've taught my two-year-old to shrug comically when I say, in a Lewisian voice, "JERRY LEWIS!"

Jerry said in more than one interview that he was intending to outlive everyone who ever criticized him, just to show them who got the last word. When I heard of his death this morning, my first response, honestly, was one of surprise: "Huh. He didn't wind up spite-outliving everyone, after all." I could barely believe it. He was such a stubborn, strange, complex, immensely-and-out-of-this-world talented guy that I genuinely thought he'd live to 120 just to piss everyone off. If anyone could've done it.

I love Jerry Lewis and am sad that he's gone. His comedy and directorial talents are so incredibly meaningful to me. Here's one of my favorite of his scenes, this one from The Errand Boy.

Jerry, you made my living life no death.
posted by Dr. Wu at 1:51 PM on August 20, 2017 [114 favorites]

And if you do nothing else about Jerry Lewis, watch The Caddy. Or at least listen to Jerry and Dean try to record a promo for it.
posted by delfin at 1:58 PM on August 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

This clip from his telethon where he asked for money from drug users is a delight. "Put the cards away" implies he is going off script and knows the producers might not approve! He then tries to talk to users in their own language, but sounds completely out of touch.
posted by munchingzombie at 2:00 PM on August 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

I was amazed to discover that The Continental, the bit Christopher Walken used to do on Saturday Night Live with the subjective camera where Walken is being sleazy directly at you through the camera, was based on a real TV show from the early days, when they were still figuring out what worked and what didn't on TV. It was done by an Italian actor named Renzo Cesana.

Then I was even more gobsmacked to come across this clip of Jerry Lewis doing young Marlon Brando as The Continental.

Granted he's letting a lot of his usual shtick into this, but he could do very different styles. Check him out as the main character's alter ego Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor. He could really be that guy when he wanted to.
posted by Naberius at 2:03 PM on August 20, 2017 [7 favorites]

Dr. Wu - I think this is the link to the typewriter scene.

Thanks for posting this - he reminds me so much of my child's music teacher, it's creepy.
posted by Toddles at 2:04 PM on August 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Dr. Wu, what's the name of your book?
Also, Portuguese tv is running that typewriter scene in the obituary roll.
posted by chavenet at 2:06 PM on August 20, 2017

Oops - thanks for correcting that link, Toddles.
posted by Dr. Wu at 2:06 PM on August 20, 2017

posted by drezdn at 2:12 PM on August 20, 2017


and speaking of funny things i hadn't thought of in a long time

Rock Me Jerry Lewis
posted by murphy slaw at 2:12 PM on August 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." - Walt Whitman

He was at his best: a brilliant director, a man who could frame what he saw in his head and summon it into being on the screen. No small feat. I can say that much. The opening to Cracking Up is sheer brilliance in physical comedy.

At his worst: he was a human. Possibly every bit as awful as anyone could be. I can forgive him that, if I try.

For now, I only wish him peace... that accolade which had eluded him for so long.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 2:18 PM on August 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Watching him, who I only previously knew as a goofball, do a serious role, dead serious, completely changed my view of him. Darkened because, I didn't fully understand or separate actors from their roles, yet. I thought of him as really deeply evil for a long time. Then I grew up and he did marathons to help MDA, but no more goofball stuff. So the masterful goofball turned out as just a normal man, influential, but the magic had gone, replaced by human respect.

That last blow-up with that one interviewer trying to get him to perform showed the Show-Biz side of him that made me realize all the behind-the-scenes side we may never get to see. More respect.

R.I.P. Mr. Jerry Lewis
posted by filtergik at 2:18 PM on August 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Dr. Wu, what's the name of your book?

Thanks for asking. The book in which Jerry Lewis figures prominently is Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin.
posted by Dr. Wu at 2:23 PM on August 20, 2017 [8 favorites]

posted by mikelieman at 2:24 PM on August 20, 2017

posted by evilDoug at 2:27 PM on August 20, 2017


The Day The Clown Cried is cleared for release only after 2025, as per his agreement with the Library of Congress.

Will this be going into the public domain then and ending up on or similar, or will there be rightsholders who get to monetise all the morbid curiosity?
posted by acb at 2:38 PM on August 20, 2017

A comedic genius. Loved the old movies with Jerry and Dean.

(I would add Lucille Ball as one of the groundbreaking comedian geniuses of the 2nd half of the 20th century.)
posted by AugustWest at 2:53 PM on August 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

posted by Sphinx at 2:53 PM on August 20, 2017

When i was about 11 years old a friend asked me to help him with a kid's fair for Muscular Dystrophy. I had no idea what Muscular Dystrophy was, but I figured employing my great brain power that it had something to do with muscles and trophies.

My family and I were poor at the moment but I figured this fair was a way of making money, so I went all out. Everyone thought I was the most wonderful, self-sacrificing kid, ever.

When we collected all of the money, I was convinced I was going to split with my friend partner. Then someone explained to me what muscular dystrophy is. I gritted my teeth and turn over the hundred-some dollars. ($12 million in today's currency)

Looking back on it, I suspect Jerry Lewis was something like me. He got caught up in a charity that he didn't realize would be such a big deal, an effort that would take so much of his time. And he stuck with it. And this generosity defined his later years as much as his aging schtick.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 3:12 PM on August 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

In his obituary in The Guardian it mentions that the MDA telethons raised 2.5 billion dollars. That is a staggering amount.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:19 PM on August 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

In The Family Jewels one of his characters is a prissy Anglophile with a "special friend" played by Sebastian Cabot who is a potential candidate for taking custody of his niece. He's more interested in playing pool, but no mention is made of his living situation. This was 40-odd years before he used a gay slur on his telethon.
posted by brujita at 3:20 PM on August 20, 2017

posted by Splunge at 3:22 PM on August 20, 2017

posted by JoeXIII007 at 3:39 PM on August 20, 2017

We watched the telethon every year for years, when I was a kid. One of my more vivid childhood memories is when Charro had a "wardrobe malfunction" while performing and Jerry Lewis said something to the effect of "boy, I just had a pair of ideas..." It was probably the funniest thing I had heard in my young life.

posted by Serene Empress Dork at 3:48 PM on August 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

Cracking Up.
posted by Splunge at 4:41 PM on August 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

posted by radwolf76 at 5:01 PM on August 20, 2017

posted by Joe in Australia at 5:41 PM on August 20, 2017

posted by fencerjimmy at 5:52 PM on August 20, 2017

Moments after Lewis' death was announced, I heard from my sister to wit: she could never think of Jerry Lewis without thinking of an incident from our childhoods.

My folks took us to see The Nutty Professor in an old theater in Rochester, PA. I was a sensitive five-year-old but my folks reasoned, "It's a Jerry Lewis picture, it's probably very silly."

Apparently I was just fine until the transformation scene. Holy crap! Suddenly there were weird colored lights and lots of broken glass and Jerry Lewis looked like he was in pain! I screamed and cried, forcing my mother to haul me out to the lobby where a kind older woman bought me a bag of popcorn. Mom peeked in to see if the scene had ended and we returned to our seats. The rest of the film was pretty much beyond me, but I have never forgotten the horror and incongruity.

My parents were flying back from Vegas a few years later and Lewis, who was also on the plane, chose to drunkenly tell blue jokes to the "poor souls who couldn't afford First Class," much to my folks' disgust.

I guess the guy worked hard, but somehow I just never "got" him. He was good in King of Comedy.

posted by kinnakeet at 6:01 PM on August 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Jerry Lewis' comedy always made me uncomfortable, and seeing him just as himself did the same. But seeing him in "King of Comedy" basically "acting" his own character, I thought his performance was brilliant. Between his performance and Sandra Bernhard's, man, what a pair of revelations. Loved that film.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:36 PM on August 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you can find the show anywhere, his arc on Wiseguy as Eli Sternberg is terrific. Most of the other arcs were known as the main guest character's name (the Sonny Steelgrave arc, the Mel Proffitt arc), but the garment district story was known as the Jerry Lewis arc.

Hell, even his one-off role on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit as Detective Munch's homeless uncle is excellent.

Don't like anything I know about the human being, and his comedy was never to my taste, but the sonofabitch could act.

posted by tzikeh at 7:17 PM on August 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

nice LADY!

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:30 PM on August 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

posted by sammyo at 8:40 PM on August 20, 2017

The typewriter scene reminds me!

I must write a MacOS extension where every return plus tab makes a "vrrrrpt-TING" noise.

Also Tom Hanks collects typewriters, and talks about this at length on Reddit.

Also Michael Winslow, Jones from Police Academy, collects typewriter sounds, and can recreate them with his voice going back more than a hundred years based on make and model with perfect accuracy for every character.

Also I am reminded Jerry Lewis was a fantastic comedian and a genius filmmaker.


posted by Slap*Happy at 10:00 PM on August 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

posted by Joey Michaels at 2:58 AM on August 21, 2017

He was one of my favorite comedians growing up. So sad!
posted by bluecorn at 6:27 AM on August 21, 2017

He finished every telethon by singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" to children who could not walk without assistance. Way to keep their hopes up, Jerry.
posted by pracowity at 7:04 AM on August 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

The King of Comedy...
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 8:57 AM on August 21, 2017

Between his performance and Sandra Bernhard's, man, what a pair of revelations. Loved that film.

Her rendition therein of Come Rain or Come Shine comes to mind now and then.

Which I saw in a near empty theater with her older brother, my best and oldest friend, and his wife. We did not have much to say thereafter. That was not exactly a feel good movie.

But I understand, from later conversation, that Scorsese and his buddy Robby Robertson were rather mean to her during its making. And Jerry was just like that irl.
posted by y2karl at 11:27 AM on August 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace.

“Telethon” [PDF], Harry Scherer, Film Comment, May/June 1979
posted by ob1quixote at 5:03 PM on August 21, 2017

We should remember how much Jerry Lewis loved the disabled.

After all, they were his favorite punchline.
posted by kafziel at 10:52 PM on August 21, 2017 [1 favorite]


Mr Lewis was excellent (as per) in Funny Bones, by the way.

On reflection, he makes me laugh harder than any other comedian, I think.

For that, & for all the great work, godspeed.
posted by On the Corner at 1:55 AM on August 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Theodore Sturgeon's short story The Comedian's Children was, to my mind, inspired by Lewis's telethons from the time I first read it back in the 50s.

From someone's Tumbler post regarding Jerry Sandusky, a sort of synopsis in passing:
I can’t remember just when I first read “Comedian’s Children.” Like most of Theodore Sturgeon’s short stories, probably shortly after it came out in paperback – in this case, around 1957.

It horrified me and, for that sequestered time, would likely have horrified almost anyone. The plot features an adored and respected entertainer, performing on the equivalent of futuristic TV, who has established a haven for children beset by an incurable and continually re-inflamed disease. He visits regularly, hugging them, bringing hope and presents, ruffling their hair.

Following an accidentally thwarted attempt to sabotage a spaceship, it becomes incrementally clear that the comedian is both originator and facilitator of the “disease,” which he spreads through a pathogen nestling in his pocket, distributed during that chuckling, fatherly hair-ruffling.

Years later I saw how eerily Sturgeon paralleled the rise of the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy marathon. I can’t believe for a minute that he didn’t have that in mind – Lewis started his disease-pumping in New York in the mid-‘50s, years before he went national.

Not to accuse Lewis of nefarious designs (he has always given me hives, but only for being Jerry Lewis, the French cinematistes be damned; I remember Orson Welles on late-night TV intoning, “There is this idea afoot that Jerry Lewis is highly intelligent; this should be stopped”).

Sturgeon must have seen, early on, the clear road to abuse left open by such undiluted adulation of beneficent celebrity. The context wasn’t sexual in “Comedian’s Children” of course; in the '50s, you didn’t suggest such things.
I think the Chisler's writer was too ambivalent. The Comedian's Children was directly inspired by Lewis's telethons rather than in any eery parallel to them.
posted by y2karl at 10:24 AM on August 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

"Jerry said in more than one interview that he was intending to outlive everyone who ever criticized him, just to show them who got the last word."
I've always despised Jerry Lewis, not so much for how cheap that mean old bigoted considered my humanity to be, but more for how he revealed that so many people I know and don't know either feel the same way or care so little. I may have finally beaten him in this sick game of his, which you only really see clearly when you don't neglect to point out that he was playing mostly against people with life-limiting conditions, but his fame will live longer than any of us. Because of him I will spend the rest of my life learning things I will wish I hadn't about how worthy exactly close friends and perfect strangers feel I am of the same dignity they feel themselves entitled to.

Shame on you for presenting this genuinely deep insight into who exactly this man was as if it were some kind of charming example of him being eccentrically stubborn, rather than truly vicious bullying it really is. Jerry Lewis was a hateful cruel man whose bigotry and malice was infused into almost everything he did in his unfortunately long life. He doesn't deserve this send of off a 'complicated' man, and I'm amazed that there could be biographers who talk about him without the caution applied to other artists like Leni Riefenstahl or Bill Cosby.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:18 AM on August 22, 2017 [8 favorites]

posted by PippinJack at 11:54 AM on August 22, 2017

Thank you, Blasdelb, for laying out Lewis's vile nature so well and so personally.

Here's some sources of people with Muscular Dystrophy blasting Jerry Lewis. When all of Jerry's Kids hate him and his methods, it should tell you something.
posted by kafziel at 1:55 PM on August 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

And the typewriter scene -
posted by fluffycreature at 11:07 AM on August 23, 2017

posted by Blasdelb at 1:52 PM on September 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

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