Labor Day Monday, in my childhood at least, meant only one thing: staying up with Jerry and watching the "stars come out." Even as the years progressed and the biggest names on the show were Buddy Greco and Constance Towers, I hung in with my Labor Day ritual for a simple reason; my undying love and admiration for one of our greatest comics and filmmakers, Jerry Lewis.
So why I am still ashamed and defensive about my fondness--idolatry, really--for this great American institution? Perhaps because he is still, as far as I can tell, generally loathed and disliked in a way that absolutely stumps me. Was he crazy? Certainly. A big ego? The biggest. Insufferably self-centered and filled with self-love and willing to go to extraordinary lengths to convince us that he was somehow Christlike in his devotion to the muscular-dystrophy community? Yes, yes to all the above charges!
Still, Jerry Lewis is a comedy genius and one of the last living BIG STAR links to the show-biz world of the early and middle twentieth century. (Kirk Douglas is the only other male movie star of the period still breathing. Who am I missing, male or female? Can't think of any others). I have a sorry feeling that the love for Jerry will return once he's no longer here--to quote Orson Welles, who we must remember was looked upon quite condescendingly in his later years for his wine commercials and fatness--"Oh how they'll love me when I'm gone!"
As a kid, I passed over the Martin and Lewis movies not understanding their charm (they're still pretty charmless: its the Martin and Lewis nightclub act stuff--which can be seen at the end of their Colgate Comedy Hour TV shows which are now on DVD --that really shows off their delightfully wacked out and still oddly emotional act). Instead I went straight for the Jerry Lewis solo movies--the ones he directed and co-wrote with Bill Richmond were my favorites--"The Bellboy". "The Ladies Man" and the still brilliantly funny "The Errand Boy." Frankly the egg-head approved "Nutty Professor" had too much plot for me--and that awful last apologia speech which still makes me cringe for Jerry. He had a tin ear in a lot of respects--his telethon ramblings were sometimes so painful as to take one into a whole other realm of humor, one in which you were viewing a genuine show-biz monster melting down in a fit of self-love...but something in me even liked that part of Jerry.
Below is a great little clip from "The Errand Boy." In it, Jerry dreams of being "the boss." The funny thing is, this is actually who he was--a demanding movie business tyrant who ordered his lackeys about and laughed at his own jokes. Which to me means that the real art of Jerry Lewis is partly self-reflexive. He always knew that a big part of his act was that we all knew the score; behind the "little lost boy" a not terribly well-hidden monster lurked. And when he accessed that monster, he could be truly, devilishly funny. I haven't watched the telethon in years--perhaps because he's not really a part of it anymore. His book, "Dean and Jerry", is highly reccommended--much more honest and insightful than one might imagine. I love you, Jer. Keep swinging, baby. Jesus. What's happening to me? I must be turning into Buddy Love...