The Late Jerry Lewis
It is a sweet serendipity, a full circle of the respect in comedy that The Legionnaires of Laughter Academy resoundingly select The Late Jerry Lewis to be the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Joseph Levitch universally known as the King of Comedy, Jerry Lewis was a comedic genius and hero.
Not only was he the ultimate in all forms of comedy he was an all rounded actor, singer, director, producer, writer, teacher, inventor and humanitarian. His tireless efforts to use comedy to volunteer in hospitals from the launch of his last Legacy charity Jerry’s House, to raising over $2.6Billion for sick and disadvantaged children saw him the first comedian to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Over 200 research and treatment facilities were built with donations raised by Jerry Lewis.
Today we have had the privilege of enjoying the works of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Jim Carrey, Martin Short, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, Martin Scorsese and many more, who have all been taught or influenced by the genius that was Jerry Lewis.
Jerry Lewis pushed the boundaries of comedy touching every aspect through every medium, from 20th Century entertainment, vaudeville, burlesque, the ‘borsht belt’, nightclubs, stand up, radio, Classical Hollywood Cinema (The ‘Golden Age’), Las Vegas, television, variety, drama, sit-coms, talk shows, Broadway and independent films.
Jerry Lewis always managed to teach us about the fragility of life, it’s vulnerabilities, it’s tragedies and it’s triumphs by looking inward at ourselves and reflecting only that which brings joy back to the world. He used the power of comedy to connect every divide.
Jerry’s last legacy was The Legionnaires. His colleagues, his peers, his friends his comedy baton holders. The launching of The Legionnaires of Laughter and The Legacy Awards meant to Jerry that for the first time the greatest comedians from every genre around the world will be honored and appreciated for their art form. For bringing what they do best Comedy, Humor and Laughter to mankind. This was Jerry’s last Legacy.
Jerry Lewis along with the great Dean Martin were early pioneers of great comedy teams, that rivaled their peers and set the stage to inspire those who came after. His respect for the art of a great quality comedy team still shows at the box office today as the most profitable style of entertainment. From Abbott and Costello, Conway and Korman, Frick and Frack, The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Lucy and Ethel, Lucy and Desi, Hope and Crosby, The Smothers Brothers, Burns and Allen, Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, Cheech and Chong, The Goodies, Monty Python, Steve Martin and Martin Short. To the modern-day Garfunkel and Oates, Flight of The Conchords, Key and Peele, James Franco and Seth Rogen, Frost and Pegg, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson.
The Legacy of Jerry Lewis was that he hoped that on every Legacy Awards night, comedians around the world paused and realized for just one moment, how much of what they do is important. Whilst in the past they may not have been valued for their art, they do in fact matter. They matter to the world. A legacy that transcends so that it can never be too late again to tell the likes of the late comedy genius that they are the true heroes. What you do matters.
Tributes and Legacy
For almost two decades, from the late ’40s to the mid-’60s, Lewis was a virtually unprecedented force in American popular culture. Widely acknowledged as a comic genius, Lewis influenced successive generations of comedians, comedy writers, performers and filmmakers. Often referenced as the bridge from Vaudeville to modern comedy, Carl Reiner wrote after Lewis’ death, “All comedians watch other comedians, and every generation of comedians going back to those who watched Jerry on the Colgate Comedy Hour were influenced by Jerry. They say that mankind goes back to the first guy…which everyone tries to copy. In comedy that guy was Jerry Lewis.”
“Jerry Lewis was the most profoundly creative comedian of his generation and arguably one of the two or three most influential comedians born anywhere in this century.”
Lewis’ comedy style was physically uninhibited, expressive, and potentially volatile. He was known especially for his distinctive voice, facial expressions, pratfalls, and physical stunts. His improvisations and ad-libbing, especially in nightclubs and early television, were revolutionary among performers. It was “marked by a raw, edgy energy that would distinguish him within the comedy landscape.” Will Sloan, of Flavorwire wrote, “In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, nobody had ever seen a comedian as wild as Jerry Lewis.” Placed in the context of the conservative era, his antics were radical and liberating, paving the way for future comedians Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, Paul Reubens, and Jim Carrey. Carrey wrote: “Through his comedy, Jerry would stretch the boundaries of reality so far that it was an act of anarchy…I learned from Jerry” and “I am because he was.”
Acting the bumbling and stammering ‘everyman’, Lewis used tightly choreographed, sophisticated sight gags, physical routines, verbal double-talk and malapropisms. “You cannot help but notice Lewis’ incredible sense of control in regards to performing—they may have looked at times like the ravings of a madman, but his best work had a genuine grace and finesse behind it that would put most comedic performers of any era to shame.” They are “choreographed as exactly as any ballet, each movement and gesture coming on natural beats and conforming to the overall rhythmic form which is headed to a spectacular finale: absolute catastrophe.”
Lewis’ work, specifically his self-directed films, have warranted steady reappraisal. Richard Brody in The New Yorker said, Lewis was “one of the most original, inventive, …profound directors of the time.” and “one of the most skilled and original comic performers, verbal and physical, ever to appear on screen.” Film critic and film curator for the Museum of Modern Art, Dave Kehr wrote in The New York Times of Lewis’ “fierce creativity”, “the extreme formal sophistication of his direction” and, Lewis was “…one of the great American filmmakers.”
“As a filmmaker who insisted on the personal side of his work—who was producer, writer, director, star, and over-all boss of his productions in the interest of his artistic conception and passion—he was an auteur by temperament and in practice long before the word travelled Stateside.” – The New Yorker, 2017
“Lewis was an explosive experimenter with a dazzling skill, and an audacious, innovatory flair for the technique of the cinema. He knew how to frame and present his own adrenaline-fueled, instinctive physical comedy for the camera.” – The Guardian
Lewis was in the forefront in the transition to independent filmmaking, which came to be known as New Hollywood in the late 1960s. Writing for the Los Angeles Times in 2005, screenwriter David Weddle lauded Lewis’ audacity in 1959 “daring to declare his independence from the studio system.” Lewis came along to a studio system in which the industry was regularly stratified between players and coaches. The studios tightly controlled the process and they wanted their people directing. Yet Lewis regularly led, often flouting the power structure to do so. Control over material was smart business, and it was also good art. Neither the entrepreneur nor the auteur were common types among actors in mid-20th century Hollywood. But there Lewis was, at a time of strict studio control, doing both.
No other comedic star, with the exception of Chaplin in the silent era, dared to direct himself. “Not only would Lewis’ efforts as a director pave the way for the likes of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, but it would reveal him to be uncommonly skilled in that area as well.” “Most screen comedies until that time were not especially cinematic—they tended to plop down the camera where it could best capture the action and that was it. Lewis, on the other hand, was interested in exploring the possibilities of the medium by utilizing the tools he had at his disposal in formally innovative and oftentimes hilarious ways.” “In Lewis’ work the way the scene is photographed is an integral part of the joke. His purposeful selection of lenses, for example, expands and contracts space to generate laughs that aren’t necessarily inherent in the material, and he often achieves his biggest effects via what he leaves off screen, not just visually but structurally.”
As a director, Lewis advanced the film comedy genre with innovations in the areas of fragmented narrative, experimental use of music and sound technology, and near surrealist use of color and art direction. This prompted his peer, filmmaker Jean Luc Godard to proclaim, “Jerry Lewis…is the only one in Hollywood doing something different, the only one who isn’t falling in with the established categories, the norms, the principles. …Lewis is the only one today who’s making courageous films. He’s been able to do it because of his personal genius”. Jim Hemphill for American Cinematheque wrote, “They are films of ambitious visual and narrative experimentation, provocative and sometimes conflicted commentaries on masculinity in post-war America, and unsettling self-critiques and analyses of the performer’s neuroses.”
Intensely personal and original, Lewis’ films were groundbreaking in their use of dark humor for psychological exploration. Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times said, “The idea of comedians getting under the skin and tapping into their deepest, darkest selves is no longer especially novel, but it was far from a universally accepted notion when Lewis first took the spotlight. Few comedians before him had so brazenly turned arrested development into art or held up such a warped fun house mirror to American identity in its loudest, ugliest, vulgarest excesses. Fewer still had advanced the still-radical notion that comedy doesn’t always have to be funny, just fearless, in order to strike a nerve“.
Pre-1960, Hollywood comedies were screwball or farce. Lewis, from his earliest ‘home movies, such as How to Smuggle a Hernia Across the Border, made in his playhouse in the early 1950s, was one of the first to introduce satire as a full-length film. This “sharp eyed” satire continued in his mature work, commenting on the cult of celebrity, the machinery of ‘fame’, and “the dilemma of being true to oneself while also fitting into polite society.” Stephen Dalton in The Hollywood Reporter wrote, Lewis had “an agreeably bitter streak, offering self-lacerating insights into celebrity culture which now look strikingly modern. Even post-modern in places.” Speaking of The King of Comedy, “More contemporary satirists like Garry Shandling, Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais owe at least some of their self-deconstructing chops to Lewis’ generously unappetizing turn in Scorsese’s cult classic.”
Lewis was an early master of deconstruction to enhance comedy. From the first Comedy Hours he exposed the artifice of on stage performance by acknowledging the lens, sets, malfunctioning props, failed jokes, and tricks of production. As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote: Lewis had “the impulse to deconstruct and even demolish the fictional “givens” of any particular sketch, including those that he might have dreamed up himself, a kind of perpetual auto-destruction that becomes an essential part of his filmmaking as he steadily gains more control over the writing and direction of his features.” His self-directed films abound in behind-the-scene reveals, demystifying movie-making. Daniel Fairfax writes in Deconstructing Jerry: Lewis as a Director, “Lewis deconstructs the very functioning of the joke itself”.…quoting Chris Fujiwara, “The Patsy is a film so radical that it makes comedy out of the situation of a comedian who isn’t funny.” The final scene of The Patsy is famous for revealing to the audience the movie as a movie, and Lewis as actor/director. Lewis wrote in The Total Filmmaker, his belief in breaking the fourth wall, actors looking directly into the camera, despite industry norms. More contemporary comedies such as The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Office continue this method.
Robert DeNiro and Sandra Bernhard (both of whom starred with Lewis in The King of Comedy) reflected on his death, Bernhard said, “It was one of the great experiences of my career, he was tough but one of a kind”. De Niro said, “Jerry was a pioneer in comedy and film. And he was a friend. I was fortunate to have seen him a few times over the past couple of years. Even at 91, he didn’t miss a beat… or a punchline. You’ll be missed.” There was also a New York Friars Club roast in honor of Lewis with Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer. Martin Scorsese recalls working with him on The King of Comedy, “It was like watching a virtuoso pianist at the keyboard”.
Peter Chelsom, director of Funny Bones wrote, “Working with him was a masterclass in comic acting – and in charm. From the outset he was generous.” “There’s a very thin line between a talent for being funny and being a great actor. Jerry Lewis epitomized that. Jerry embodied the term “funny bones”: a way of differentiating between comedians who tell funny and those who are funny.” Director Daniel Noah recalling his relationship with Lewis during production of Max Rose wrote, “He was kind and loving and patient and limitlessly generous with his genius. He was unbelievably complicated and shockingly self-aware.”
Actor and comedian Jeffrey Tambor wrote after Lewis’ death, “You invented the whole thing. Thank you doesn’t even get close.”
In Popular Culture
In The Simpsons, the character of Professor Frink is based on Lewis’ Julius Kelp from The Nutty Professor. In Family Guy, Peter recreates Lewis’ ‘Chairman of the Board’ scene from The Errand Boy. Comedian, actor and friend of Lewis, Martin Short satirized him on the series SCTV in the sketches “The Nutty Lab Assistant”, “Martin Scorsese presents Jerry Lewis Live on the Champs Elysees!”, “The Tender Fella”, and “Scenes From an Idiots Marriage”, as well as on Saturday Night Live’s “Celebrity Jeopardy!”. Also, on SNL, the Martin and Lewis reunion on the 1976 MDA Telethon is reported by Chevy Chase on ‘Weekend Update’. Comedians Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo both parodied Lewis when he hosted SNL in 1983.
Comedian and actor Jim Carrey satirized Lewis on In Living Color in the sketch “Jheri’s Kids Telethon”. Carrey had an uncredited cameo playing Lewis in the series Buffalo Bill on the episode “Jerry Lewis Week”. He also played Lewis, with impersonator Rich Little as Dean Martin, on stage. Actor Sean Hayes portrayed Lewis in the made-for-TV movie Martin and Lewis, with Jeremy Northam as Dean Martin. Actor Kevin Bacon plays the Lewis character in the 2005 film Where The Truth Lies, based on a fictionalized version of Martin and Lewis. In the satiric novel, Funny Men, about singer/wild comic double act, the character Sigmund “Ziggy” Blissman, is based on Lewis.
John Saleeby, writer for National Lampoon has a humor piece “Ten Things You Should Know About Jerry Lewis”. In the animated cartoon Popeye’s 20th Anniversary, Martin and Lewis are portrayed on the dais. In 1998, The MTV animated show Celebrity Deathmatch had a clay-animated fight to the death between Dean Martin and Lewis. In a 1975 re-issue of MAD Magazine the contents of Lewis’ wallet is satirized in their on-going feature “Celebrities’ Wallets”.
Lewis, and Martin & Lewis, as himself or his films, have been referenced by directors of differing genres spanning decades, including, Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1960), Andy Warhol’s Soap Opera (1964), John Frankenheimer’s I Walk the Line (1970), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Randal Kleiser‘s Grease (1978), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons (1978), Quentin Tarantino’s Four Rooms (1995), Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), Hitchcock (2012), Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), Jay Roach’s Trumbo (2015), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017).
Similarly, varied musicians have mentioned Lewis in song lyrics including, Ice Cube, The Dead Milkmen, Queen Latifah, and Frank Zappa. The hip hop music band Beastie Boys have an unreleased single “The Jerry Lewis”, which they mention, and danced to, on stage in Asheville, North Carolina in 2009. In their film Paul’s Boutique – A Visual Companion, clips from The Nutty Professor play to “The Sounds of Science”. In 1986, the comedy radio show Dr. Demento aired a parody of “Rock Me Amadeus”, “Rock Me Jerry Lewis”.
Apple IOS 10 includes an auto-text emoji for ‘professor’ with a Lewis lookalike portrayal from The Nutty Professor. 🤓 The word “flaaaven!”, with its many variations and rhymes, is a Lewis-ism often used as a misspoken word or a person’s mispronounced name. In a 2016 episode of the podcast West Wing Weekly, Joshua Malina is heard saying “flaven” when trying to remember a character’s correct last name. Lewis’ signature catchphrase “Hey, Laaady!” is ubiquitously used by comedians and laypersons alike.
Awards and Honors
Lewis’ motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6821 Hollywood Blvd.
1952 – Photoplay Award
1952 – Primetime Emmy Award Nomination for Best Comedian or Comedienne
1954 – Most Cooperative Actor, Golden Apple Award
1960 – Two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for film and one for television)
1965 – Golden Laurel, Special Award – Family Comedy King
1966 – Golden Light Technical Achievement Award for his ‘video assist’
1966 – Golden Globe Nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical
1977 – Nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, for his work on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association
1978 – Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged, a Jefferson Awards annual award.
1983 – British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The King of Comedy
1984 – Chevalier, Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, France
1995 – Theatre World Award, for Outstanding Broadway Debut for Damn Yankees
1997 – American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award
1999 – Golden Lion Honorary Award
2004 – Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Career Achievement Award
2005 – Primetime Emmy Governor’s Award
2005 – Goldene Kamera Honorary Award
2006 – Satellite Award for Outstanding Guest Star on Law and Order SVU
2006 – Commandeur, Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, France
2009 – Induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame
2009 – Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 81st Academy Awards
2009 – International Press Academy’s Nikola Tesla Award in recognition of visionary achievements in filmmaking technology for his “video assist.”
2010 – Chapman University Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters at the 2010 MDA Telethon
2011 – Ellis Island Medal of Honor
2013 – Homage from the Cannes Film Festival, with the screening of Lewis’ latest film Max Rose
2013 – Honorary Member of the Order of Australia (AM), for service to the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation of Australia and those affected by the disorder
2014 – “Forecourt to the Stars” imprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood
2014 – New York Friars Club renames clubhouse building The Jerry Lewis Monastery
2015 – Casino Entertainment Legend Award