French Were Right About Jerry Lewis


For many years a standing joke to make fun of the French has been: They think Jerry Lewis is a genius. Well, guess the joke is on me for buying into it (and anyone else who thinks this was funny). But unlike too many other people I encounter, I actually enjoy being proven wrong. It means I am open to learning more. Like most every American around my age, I grew up with Jerry Lewis movies.

I made the mistake of thinking his humor as something childish and puerile, to be abandoned and even mocked as one matured into seriousness and intellectualism. Damn, what a fool I was (in this case).

Many’s the time over the years when I would tune into his Labor Day telethon for Muscular Dystrophy as an exercise in kitsch as Lewis pleaded, cajoled and even broke down over its 24 hours in his effort to raise funds for “Jerry’s kids.”

To me it was an exercise in mawkish sentiment worthy of only my most cynical scorn. Well, guess what? Now I think that Jerry Lewis is a comedic and cinematic genius, a fine humanitarian, and a person worthy of my great esteem. What caused such a radical change of mind?

The documentary Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis on the Encore premium movie channel.

When a documentary film can cause such a radical shift of opinion, there must be something to it, right? It’s not that there’s anything all that groundbreaking or even different about Method to the Madness. Rather, it’s seeing Lewis in a brand new light.

That new perspective is that Lewis is one of the great natural comedic geniuses of all time. As well, in the realm of physical comedy, he is at least the equal of master Charlie Chaplin, possibly even better. The film makes short work of Lewis’s fascinating childhood on the vaudeville circuit, where his parents were performers. A little more time lingering in his roots would have been a bit more revelatory perhaps.

It does give a fair shake to his partnership with Dean Martin, a pairing that took them both to the heights of stardom. It doesn’t answer the question of why Martin ended it so abruptly. Any answer to that died with the enigmatic and guarded Martin. But where the doc really shines is in revealing Martin’s brilliance as a filmmaker. He understood the art of cinema as well as satisfying mass audiences time and again. He also was brilliant at creating a free creative atmosphere on the set that allowed him and the rest of the cast to shine. And he gave the support personnel the room and support to do their best work. He treated everyone around him with kindness and dignity.

Lewis also had the innovative foresight to retain ownership of the films that he made. Segments of Lewis performing in recent years reinforce the impression that Lewis is a comedic and entertainment master. And the film touches on what first helped me see just what a brilliant actor Lewis was when Martin Scorsese sagaciously cast him in King of Comedy.

Comments by directors like John Landis and a range of fellow comedians comment to bolster the point of Lewis’s brilliance. The doc is so mind-changing that I had to admit that some of the most insightful comments are by my least favorite director, Quentin Tarantino.

The documentary’s showing I saw was surrounded by some of his best films, which are now on my DVR and I am going through them with a brand new eye and perspective. Yes, this time, the French were dead right and saw Lewis for what he is while I was fool enough to dismiss him.

Yes indeed, you live and you learn. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Rob Patterson is an entertainment and political writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2012

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