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Jeff Simon: When Jerry Lewis got older, his dark side got darker

Jeff Simon

It cost $40 million. In 1963, no less. Jerry Lewis never disputed that.

He never disputed that it was a mega-budget catastrophe either. I would, all these years later.

"The Jerry Lewis Show" was based on the undeniable fact that whenever Lewis took over as guest host of the "Tonight Show," he was hilarious and even sometimes brilliant. So ABC figured, why not give him $40 million for a couple of hours nightly which would put the network, at long last, into the late night business with a proven comedy giant?

Everybody on the show would wear tuxedoes. At Lewis' behest.

Well, Jerry admitted later, "I forgot to do a minor thing called 'get funny.' "

As he said on the air on the delayed broadcast of the final broadcast, "It boils down to a simple disagreement. I wanted the show on. They wanted the show off." The decision was made in the first week.

Critics hated the show. The audience didn't disagree -- except for me in my teens, who thought it was a fascinating megastar mess, somewhere between pretentious incompetence and promising. But, in just nine shows (that's it) here's whom they were able to present to America: Mort Sahl, Sid Caesar, Clifton Fadiman, Sammy Davis Jr., Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Jack Jones, Ruby Keeler, The Four Step Brothers, Steve Allen, Muhammad Ali (his name was Cassius Clay back then), Sam Cooke, Count Basie, Peter Falk, Ben Blue, Robert Goulet, Phil Foster, Harry James, George Kirby, Don Knotts, Peggy Lee, Ethel Merman, Carl Reiner, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Jonathan Winters, Senor Wences, Terry-Thomas and Phil Silvers.

I would have taken a chance for a few more weeks. With people like that passing through the green room of the new studio Jerry built, maybe he would remember how to be funny again.

When Lewis died at 91 over the weekend, he remained one of the most loved and loathed legends in the history of show business. This is a man who not only threatened to kill Joan Rivers in a letter but after writing his pique, admitted it.

Jerry Lewis accepts the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award during the 81st Annual Academy Awards in 2009. Lewis, the comedian and filmmaker who was adored by many, disdained by others, but unquestionably a defining figure of American entertainment in the 20th century, died Sunday, at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

Heaven knows Rivers was a woman who, with surprisingly little effort, could bring out the worst in anyone. What she said about Lewis that he hated so much was that if it weren't for his annual MDA telethons, he wouldn't have a career. She also said that her loathing of Lewis came from a telethon one year when "he was standing there with a child next to him, saying 'This child's gonna die.' " To which Lewis, with equal rhetorical vileness replied "I will get somebody from Chicago to beat your (expletive) head off."

Rivers, wisely, declined to elaborate further. As James Wolcott wrote in this piece on Lewis called "Last Tuxedo Standing": "When Jim Carrey and Robin Williams go the sincere route, they lose their elasticity as performers, become ordinary. Lewis is the opposite. When he isn't 'on' he's the opposite of 'off.' His presence intensifies with an increase of dark matter, transmitting scary-dad authority even when trussed up and immobile, as he was playing that talk show host held hostage in Martin Scorsese's 'King of Comedy.' "

It was fascinating reading the Lewis tributes online, all of them inarguable. Ellen DeGeneres called him a "comic and philanthropic icon." Carrey tweeted: "I am because he was." Gilbert Gottfried tweeted: "The French were right about Jerry Lewis."

That is to say, that he was a titan of American film, according to the French, on the level of his own attempted peer, Charlie Chaplin. I'd go further than that: If the matter under discussion were simply being "funny," Jerry Lewis, when everything within and without was in perfect working order, was as funny as any American comedian ever.

I've watched Lewis perform in movies and TV and literally howled. I've also seen him "seethe" while talking, to use Wolcott's word. And I've heard him say truly brilliant and bracingly candid things but in such a pretentious and orotund way that they were hard to take seriously.

What people have trouble forgetting is that he's just Joe Levitch of Newark, son of a Borscht Belt vaudevillian who dropped out of school in 10th grade and still couldn't pronounce the word "naivete."

Some of his films could allow the word "genius" to be thrown in their general direction, if you were generous -- 'The Nutty Professor," "The Bellboy," "The Stooges," "Cinderfella," and, in later life, as a dramatic actor, "Funny Bones," and "King of Comedy."

Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor (1963)

But I've always felt we missed out on the place where his real genius lay -- nightclub comedy where, for 10 years with Dean Martin, those who saw them perform live said they embodied a lunacy no one could adequately transfer to film, not even director Frank Tashlin.

The tragedy of great nightclub performance is that 98 percent of it was dead after its performance. It was seldom a medium people thought to preserve until it was too late. As a consequence, the long-form performing genius of Sammy Davis Jr., for instance, is almost lost forever.

Orson Welles used to claim Jerry Lewis was so funny that one could lose bladder control laughing. Let's cede him a certain amount of melodramatic overstatement -- as in Lewis' "guys from Chicago" whom he would hire to deal with Rivers. But Martin and Lewis began in the '40's, brought a spontaneous kind of lunacy to nightclub performance no one had seen before outside the Ritz and Marx Brothers. That's why their respective managers brought them together when each was flopping singly. One night Lewis -- with Borscht Belt tummling in his blood -- threw some jokes at Martin while he crooned.

Voila. Instant nightclub act. So their managers brought them together, which shot them into stature which foretold the kind the Beatles would have a few years later.

And when Martin and Lewis parted, everyone predicted confidently that Martin would fade into obscurity. Instead, he became one of the funniest and most stylish and engaging performers of his time and a movie presence more popular than his old partner ever was alone.

Publicly, the would-be Chaplin was profoundly generous about Martin after his death. He correctly called him one of the most "underrated performers who ever lived." But those years when Martin was in the forefront of entertainment and Jerry Lewis had become a troubled afterthought must have caused their own share of seething.

Maybe it's crazy to say so but with Jerry Lewis, it's probably all that "dark matter" that makes him so contemporary.

He plays an embittered jazz pianist in his posthumous film "Max Rose." No surprise there.

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