WEIRDLAND: Jerry Lewis: A Sincere Phony

Monday, November 27, 2017

Jerry Lewis: A Sincere Phony

“Do you know how many would-be comics there are in this quaint little business we’re in? When there’s a full moon, they all crawl out of the woodwork. There are only half a dozen really top comics. The others will never make it. Comedy is the most serious business in the world. It’s goddamned hard work being funny, whether you’re a comic or a comedian. A comic opens funny doors. A comedian opens doors funny. Did you ever stop to think what makes one comedian a smash and another a failure, 'material'? The last new joke was invented by Aristophanes. Jokes are basically all the same. George Burns can tell six jokes that the guy on the bill ahead of him just told, and Burns will get bigger laughs. Do you know why? 'Personality.' You start with a personality and you turn it into a character. Take Bob Hope. If he came out and did a Jack Benny monologue, he’d bomb. Why? Because he’s built up a character. That’s what the audiences expect from him. When Hope walks out, they want to hear those rapid-fire jokes. He’s a likeable smart-ass, the big city fellow who gets his lumps. Jack Benny—just the opposite. He woudn’t know what to do with a Bob Hope monologue, but he can take a two-minute pause and make an audience scream. Do you know what you’ve got? A lovable face. There’s a naïve sweetness about you. You’re a good kid, but you’re stupid, I guess that’s part of being a genius. If you package it right, it could be worth a fucking fortune.” —"A Stranger in the Mirror" (1976) by Sidney Sheldon

Interestingly, women and men appear to differ in humor appreciation not only in terms of the content of humor but also in terms of the preferred structure of humor, according to Peter Derks (professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary, Virginia) in The Primer of Humor Research (2017). Behavioral studies of humor appreciation have generally indicated that men are more likely than women to enjoy humor containing aggressive or sexual content, whereas women are more likely to enjoy nonsensical or absurd humor structures. Researcher Professor Allan Reiss said: 'Our findings fit the stereotype of how men and women react to humour. We found greater activity in the pre-frontal cortex in women, indicating women are processing stimuli that involve language areas of the brain. The interpretation of that finding is that women tend to respond more to narrative and wordplay than slapstick.' Analysis of a 'feelgood' brain region called the nucleus accumbens also revealed that men and women have different attitudes to humour. Professor Reiss, of Stanford University in California, said: 'Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punchline of the cartoon. So when they got the joke's punchline, they were more pleased about it.' The funnier the cartoon was, the more the women's nucleus accumbens lit up. But this was not the case for men, who seemed to expect the cartoons to be funny from the start. Men are more likely to use 'hostile' humour to criticise each other and establish dominance, while women employ humour to maintain relationships and put each other at ease. Source:

Mark Twain wrote in Following the Equator (1897): “Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” Abraham Maslow (“A Theory of Human Motivation”) discovered that most self-actualized people do not have the same sense of humor as the average person. For example: they do not laugh at unfunny or smutty jokes. Comedians tend to be more introverted than the average person but on the stage they often portrait a different personality. Humor operates through a variety of techniques, which first generate surprise, then amusement, and laughter once the unexpected incongruity is resolved. As different types of jokes use different techniques, the corresponding humor processes also differ. The findings revealed differences in brain activity for an interaction between sex/gender and joke type. Women displayed greater activation in the temporoparietal–mesocortical-motor network than men, demonstrating the importance of the temporoparietal junction presumably for ‘theory of mind’ processing, the orbitofrontal cortex for motivational functions and reward coding, and the supplementary motor area for laughter. Women also showed greater activation than men in the frontal-mesolimbic network including the anterior (prefrontal cortex) for executive control processes, and the amygdala and midbrain for reward anticipation and salience processes. Men of superior intelligence tended to use humor that involved projecting oneself into a different situation. Women were more likely than men to enjoy jokes based on the semantic technique of allusion. The study also found that jokes with double meanings were funnier to men than women, but the difference was not statistically significant. Furthermore, the expressive behaviors of laughing and smiling have been found to directly influences the funniness ratings given by women but not by men. Source:

It is in Hollywood or Bust and Artists and Models, coming at the end of his partnership with Dean Martin and the start of his collaboration with Frank Tashlin, that the dominant myth of Jerry Lewis begins to clearly emerge. Jerry the simple idiot-boy starts to develop a self-consciousness. In Artists and Models he is a creative comic book genius. And in Hollywood or Bust, the awareness he reveals of Dean Martin’s duplicity is not merely a revelation pulled from Tashlin’s hat. It is a sign of an increasing self-awareness and distance from his stereotyped screen persona. Placed in Tashlin’s surreal universe, Jerry’s increased consciousness serves to reveal the world’s (and Dean Martin’s) hypocrisy. In his child-like personality, he is holier than the Machiavellian adults around him, and his innocence (a basic principle carried over into his own films) in Tashlin’s hands is pure— all the better foil to reflect the films’ caricature of mass culture.

In Artists and Models, Jerry demonstrates the phoniness of the world around him with the same idiotic innocence displayed by Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It. Jerry was the ultimate Tashlinesque male, Joe Schmoe taken to his logical, spectatorial conclusion. In Hollywood or Bust he sets out with his trusty steed, accompanied by Dean Martin (the no-nonsense crook), to find the holy vessel (Anita Ekberg) in the land of dreams (Hollywood). The central developing issue in Jerry's self-directed films, from The Bellboy through The Patsy, is an elaborately choreographed movement around the problem of his uncertain relationship to the world around him. The complexity of the problem assumes schizophrenic dimensions when Lewis begins to spin off alternate personalities. These are Jerry Lewis’ desperate words at the end of The Patsy: “Hollywood: it’s a dumb city... I’m Jerry Lewis. This is a film set.” In The Big Mouth, rather than revealing the falseness of Hollywood (as he does in The Patsy), Jerry Lewis strays only slightly from the reality context of the film’s narrator; and most importantly, has the narrator celebrating with good-natured idiocy the falseness of the medium.

As a companion film to The Nutty Professor, The Patsy even more directly tackles the problem of Jerry Lewis’ troublesome image. Paralleling the transformation from Julius Kelp to Buddy Love is the gradual transformation of Stanley Belt, bellboy, to Stanley Belt, the great comedian. More harmonious in tone than The Nutty Professor, The Patsy is surely no more comforting to watch than its predecessor, through a clearly expressed bitterness toward the world of show business. Is it any accident that the supporting characters of Jerry’s rags-to-riches-and-fame story are played with appropriate ghoulishness by horror and gangster film veterans Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Everett Sloane, George Raft, and Phil Harris? Clearly, The Patsy is a horror story. But whereas the transformation of character in The Nutty Professor occurred within a traditional horror plot (Jekyll and Hyde) in a traditional horror location (a scientific laboratory), here the plot is more Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life — the settings are the Beverly Hilton and the sound stages in Hollywood. Peter Lorre, playing the film director, says at the beginning of The Patsy, “This scene has all the makings of a great melodrama.” And for Jerry Lewis, the Hollywood melodrama is a horror story — his horror story.

Thus also begins his willing victimization, which would be horrible if it weren’t funny. His hair falls out at the barber; he destroys his voice at the teacher’s house; and, finally he bombs at the Copa in a nightmare vision of failure and inadequacy. Deserted by all the leeches who have tried to make him into something other than Stanley Belt, he seems to invent an act that, in itself, recapitulates the structure of the film. He has proved—as Julius Kelp proved—that he isn’t an idiot. Upon his success, the question arises of how deliberate were his earlier failures. One suspects that Stanley may have played the fool purposely—to expose the insincerity and opportunism of his promoters. This attitude is the protest of an ordinary man against the constraints of his stardom. He is obstinate with his promoters in order to retain an identity outside of the image they want him to become. In one expressive, low-angle shot, we see that he has been made over, his innocence lost. But, as if this transformation from well-meaning clod to powerful star is too much to take (as it was in The Nutty Professor), the new Stanley falls off the balcony to his death. Are we to read this as a lament for the old, lost Stanley? Apparently, so Ina Balin starts to cry. The average guy has climbed to the heights and fallen. And unlike his fall at the beginning of the film, he can’t bounce back. Lost with his innocence is the magic. But a new magic enters the picture along with what looks like a third Stanley Belt: Jerry Lewis the director.

In another move of psychic desperation. Jerry Lewis’ relentless self-criticism has boxed him into a corner. The appearance of “Jerry Lewis” in front of the camera does not clear up the unsolved questions of what happened to the old, original Stanley. Instead, the Pirandellian ploy underlines the nightmare quality of the two Stanleys and their inexplicable appearance/disappearance. To say it s only a movie at the end of a film that has shown the movie business in such a frightening light is hardly reassuring. The Patsy is the last Jerry Lewis film to deal so directly with the director-star’s ambivalent feelings about his alternate or concurrent screen image. In The Family Jewels, Three on a Couch, The Big Mouth, and Which Way to the Front?, there is always a constant Jerry Lewis character. Even when other roles must be played, never again does the director allow the “other characters” to vie for center stage, as they did in The Patsy and The Nutty ProfessorThe Patsy is Lewis as Hollywood burnout. He's Buddy Love desperately trying to turn back into Julius Kelp—a phony, but a sincere phony.

Within the slick aesthetic precision of Three on a Couch, the appearance of alter-egos Warren, Rutherford, Ringo, and Heather seem positively therapeutic in contrast to the compulsive personality shifts in the earlier films. Christopher Pride, far more than any previous Jerry Lewis character, is not only normal, but, as his name suggests in contrast to Heebert, Stanley, Gerald, etc., is an integrated heroic character. In a comic style reminiscent more of Lubitsch than of Keaton or Chaplin, Three on a Couch for the first time presents Jerry Lewis the actor playing a character quite distant from the clods or clowns or egomaniacs who populate the worlds of his earlier films. A character who might easily have been played by Cary Grant, Christopher Pride is a smooth operator who plays his roles with a full consciousness of logical purpose. Of course, in these roles are remnants of the other Jerry Lewises — aesthetically synthesized into the story and emotionally integrated into the clear conception of the main character. Source:

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