Comic Genius

11.19.08

Left: Cover of The Total Film-Maker (1971) by Jerry Lewis. Right: Jerry Lewis, The Bellboy, 1960, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 72 minutes.


TO UNDERSTAND JERRY LEWIS the performer, simply rewatch a handful of his sixty-odd films, from the self-described “handsome man and a monkey” comedies made with Dean Martin in the 1950s, through the movies Lewis directed at the height of his gooney powers like The Bellboy (1960), The Nutty Professor (1963), and The Family Jewels (1965), up to his late-career revival via the angsty slapstick of Hardly Working (1980) and Cracking Up (1983), and the disturbingly unfunny reflexivity of his performance in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982). But to understand Lewis the thinker—the theorist, even—it’s useful to dig up a copy of his 1971 book, The Total Film-Maker, a primer in Lewis’s own concept of auteurism, containing a cogent study of film comedy. Here, Hollywood’s spastic, saccharine goofball reveals himself to be a Siegfried Kracauer of the wisecrack, a Georges Bataille of the banana peel.

True to Lewis’s own technological prescience (he developed and patented the video-assist system that became standard in professional filmmaking), The Total Film-Maker wasn’t written in the typical pen-to-paper fashion. Rather, Lewis recorded lectures he gave during a stint as professor at the University of Southern California, then distilled a two-hundred-page book from a reported “half million feet of audio tape.” For Lewis, the total filmmaker is one who controls all aspects of the film, working as producer, director, and star (Lewis himself performed the three roles in seven pictures, from The Bellboy on, and directed himself as an actor in many others), and must have an absolute passion for the medium. “I have a confession,” Lewis writes. “Crazy. I have perched in an editing room and licked emulsion.” He must translate this devotion into a comprehensive technical knowledge and be enough of an on-set diplomat to sway the work of a team toward his personal vision. “The goal,” he argues, “is to have a one-man project made with one hundred and two pairs of hands.” In order to achieve this, the filmmaker must embrace creative “mind fights” within himself since he “cannot lie to any of his separate parts.” Being “totally identified with his product,” he risks never being satisfied. “There’s no easy way to shake that schmuck you sleep with at night,” Lewis confesses. “I have to sleep with that miserable bastard all the time. Very painful, sometimes terrifying.”

But the intellectual core of The Total Film-Maker resides in its final thirty pages, in a section simply titled “Comedy.” Here, Lewis forges a philosophy of humor as a form of social redemption. “The premise of all comedy is the man in trouble, the little guy against the big guy,” he argues. “It is the tramp, the underdog, causing the rich guy, or big guy, to fall on his ass.” Therein lies an essential link between comedy and tragedy—the depiction of violence. “Road Runner is worse than Bonnie and Clyde,” Lewis observes, but yukking it up is an attempt to ward off danger: “A hollow laugh is the normal reaction to being backed into a corner by a guy with a shiv.” Play also enables the catharsis of regression. Noting that all actors, himself included, possess the mentality of “nine-year old children,” Lewis observes that “at that age, hurt is possible, but degradation is seldom possible.” For Lewis, comedy is nothing less than the “surviving fabric of life.”

At the end of The Total Film-Maker, Lewis concludes by predicting—prematurely—his own retirement from acting in favor of directing. “I am moving more behind the camera,” he writes. “I have been taking pratfalls for thirty-seven years, and my ass is sore.”

The Museum of the Moving Image will host a conversation between Jerry Lewis and Peter Bogdanovich on November 22 at the Times Center in New York. For more details click here.

Ed Halter