As I mentioned the other day, the charm of Martin and Lewis completely eluded me for years, having only seen their relentlessly trashy movies and therefore not having grasped their real appeal. With the release of their Colgate Comedy TV shows on DVD, however, one gets a glimpse (at the end of every show) of the nightclub act that wowed the audience at the Copacabana in the late 1940's and put them on the map as America's biggest, newest (and scareiest) entertainers. That act is, essentially, what they did to close every Colgate TV show--a free-form , improvisatory, free-association, no-rules melange of jokes, impressions, dancing, and insults hurled at the band, the audience members and each other.
In the vaudeville years, comedians were either about "polish" (the ones who wore tuxes and prided themselves on their monologue skills) or scruff (the one's who did bum/clown/drunk acts). Martin and Lewis's singular innovation was in combing the roughhouse, often tasteless, style of the latter--with the tuxedo's of the former. Lewis makes this point in his very good new book, "Dean And Jerry"--saying that early on he realized that he and Dean could do any sort of insane thing they wanted too--but if they were in tuxes the audience would somehow trust them more. He also says that, no matter how free-form and chaotic things could get, it was always important to end with a slickly rehearsed dance number--thereby showing the audience that they really were "pros".
The below clip, which runs just over five minutes, encapsulates every one of these points. Here, the show has apparently run short and Dean and Jerry have to dip into their nightclub bag to pad an extra five minutes of airtime. (Though I suspect this may have simply been a ruse to get the home audience to buy into watching their act. In any event, most of the Colgate shows end with material like this.) Watch now as Jerry kisses Dean on the mouth, insults the floor staff of the tv show for encouraging applause at inoppurtune moments, dances with Dean and calls his partner's impression of Cary Grant "terrible".
Clearly the electricity these two set off in crowds was something all new and never before seen. You can still feel it emanating from this old clip...
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 2:29 PM