After seeing several Jerry Lewis movies, checking out lots of random clips online, and reading the comedian's memoir of his relationship with Dean Martin, I get why people call him a genius. Lewis has worked hard to perfect his craft, but he was also born to entertain. He's got this remarkable confidence in himself, like he's telling the audience he's in command, and not to worry about things getting too out of control. And yet seeming out of control is what can make him exciting to watch.
The thing that always turns me off about Lewis is his mugging. Sometimes that still drives me a little mad, but his idiot faces and squeaky voice can also be the funniest thing about him. It's the part of his comedy that catches you off guard. He just goes for it. Sometimes he falls flat, sometimes it's the funniest thing you've ever seen.
I think that's why he and Dean Martin were such a popular team. Their act was pretty much Lewis jumping off a cliff and building his wings on the way down (to paraphrase Ray Bradbury). That created unbearable tension for the audience, but Martin just stood there being amused, which made it all funnier. They couldn't quite capture that same energy on the budget-conscious sets of Hollywood, I don't think anyone could, but they came close many times.
For the most part, I still find Lewis' films uneven. I think he was just meant to be a live performer, where he can balance meticulous planning with the kind of improvisation that can only be inspired by the wild energy of a crowd. Still, I appreciate that he is a versatile talent, and he has made me laugh out loud plenty. There are lots of things I've come to admire about Jerry Lewis, here are a few that strike me the most:
His Musical Pantomime
Lewis got his start comically lip-synching to records on any stage that would have him. So it doesn't surprise me that he knows how to time comedy to music. I think he's at his best when he's a silent comic in general, and particularly when he's got a good tune to jive to. My favorite example is his wordless tirade to an empty boardroom, scored by Count Basie's Blues in Hoss' Flat, in The Errand Boy (1961):
This legendary routine has inspired all sorts of imitations. Check out how many highschoolers and young actors have posted videos of their renditions on YouTube. My favorite version is from The Family Guy.
Other great Lewis pantomime: his also-influential typewriter routine from Who's Minding the Store? (1963) and the orchestra scene from The Bellboy (1960)
His Physical Humor
There have been so many times that I've been about to give up on a Lewis flick when he gets me back with a simple movement: a double take, a flailing limb or most often, by just falling suddenly. You have to be in pretty good control of your body to look this out of control:
Lewis is most famous for what he calls his "Idiot voice"--that high pitched squeal with the heavy New Jersey accent. Sometimes that whole monkey boy act drives me mad, other times it's just so bizarre that I can't help laughing. But the thing that really intrigues me is when he switches to his regular voice, which is smooth, warm--almost seductive. Sometimes he moves between the two voices in one scene, as he does in the clip from Geisha Boy (1958):
His Love for Dean Martin
Long before the birth of the gag-worthy term bromance, Lewis had the deepest platonic love for Dean Martin. You can actually see how much he loved him on the screen. There's a moment in the last scene of The Stooge (1952) where he sort of jumps into Martin's arms and gives him this affectionate nuzzle. It's like watching a boy and his puppy. These two had a complicated relationship, one that we will probably never fully understand, but I have no doubt that Lewis adored his partner, no matter what they went through.
The clip below is a famous television moment, where the two reunited on Lewis' Muscular Dystrophy telethon twenty years after the unhappy dissolution of their partnership. It's kind of an awkward moment, but you can see that Lewis is clearly thrilled to see his old partner:
This is where Lewis really shines, because being in front of an audience allows him to create chaos in the manner that made him famous. He knows how to play the crowd, bringing them up and down as he pleases and with unwavering confidence. Just look at his entrance here, he's being the performer that people expect, but the way he does it is delightfully surprising: