Posted by David Kalat on February 1, 2014
Why do the French love Jerry Lewis? It’s an age-old question—one that has dogged American pop culture for over 50 years. It’s inspired no end of speculation—Rae Gordon wrote a whole book on the subject, and as recently as last year such publications as The New York Times and Vanity Fair took their cracks at it. The answers dig into the history of film comedy, of comedy itself, of traditions of clowning, of differences in French and American culture, of philosophies of masculinity…
Blah blah blah. For all the effort that’s been put into answering the question, precious little has been spent in questioning the question. In other words, before we wonder why the French love Jerry Lewis, we better first figure out do the French love Jerry Lewis?
Let’s pause a moment to savor the weirdness of even having to ask this. I mean, the whole “the French think Jerry Lewis is a genius” thing is such a longstanding cliché that if you mention the name Jerry Lewis in just about any context to just about any group of people, you can be sure of getting the question back, a guaranteed call-and-response reflex. It’s the title of a book, it was the subject of a SNL skit, it’s just one of those Things Everybody Knows. And France isn’t some impenetrable other world—not like North Korea. You can say just about any crazy nonsense about what happens in North Korea and I can’t dispute it. But France is geographically not very far away, and culturally fairly deeply intertwined with America.
Mind you, my wife believed that the French were obsessed with Jerry Lewis, even though she’s been to France several times—recently, even—and has never once experienced anything Jerry Lewis-related firsthand. When I pointed this out, she noted that we’d seen a Jerry Lewis-flavored gelato in Florence. Italy. 25 years ago. And I have no idea whether that was some weird quirk of that one gelato shop. (For the record, a Google search for “Jerry Lewis flavored gelato” returned nothing)
But how could we possibly think we know something so fundamental about French culture if it isn’t true?
A recent Vanity Fair article insisted the cliché was true, but I have a quibble with their investigative methodology. The author was attending a revival screening of The Nutty Professor at a French theater and interviewed the audience, publishing their enthusiastically pro-Lewis gushing as proof of the continued French fascination for the man.
This was no randomly selected sample of the population—this was a crowd of folks who decided the best use of their summer weekend afternoon was to go to an arthouse theater to see a 50 year-old subtitled import. If they didn’t have an interest in Jerry Lewis, why would they be there at all? And this was a screening of The Nutty Professor, for Pete’s sake—not one of his lesser-known or lesser-regarded films, but a film that was one of the top moneymakers of 1963, placed on the AFI list of 100 best comedies, and ensconced in the National Film Registry. If you had that kind of excited crowd coming out for, say, a revival of Cracking Up, then maybe we’d be talking. But as it is, the whole thing is a bit like if I went to the Film Forum’s revival of Alphaville in an effort to prove whether or not Americans are in love with Jean-Luc Godard. It’s stacking the deck.
It could be argued that the idea that the French have a thing for Jerry Lewis probably started sometime around 1957, when Robert Benayoun wrote an article in Positif about Lewis’ comic artistry. Of course, at that point Lewis was indisputably one of the top comedians in the world. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has noted, the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis vehicle Living It Up (1953) outperformed Singin’ in the Rain, On the Waterfront, and The African Queen.
The Martin-Lewis films overall were outstanding box office champs. Judging by ticket sales alone, the Martin-Lewis teaming was the most successful movie comedy duo of all time. You have to come up with all kinds of weasel words and qualifiers if you want to say that Laurel and Hardy come out ahead of Martin and Lewis—and when Lewis struck out on his own, his first few films were just as popular, culminating in The Nutty Professor, whose credentials are noted above.
Lewis toured France in 1965, riding a wave of popularity driven by The Nutty Professor. He was given a rock star reception, with fans swooning and going ga-ga like he was the Beatles or something.
But… well, The Nutty Professor was a massively successful comedy, widely beloved and appreciated by posterity. It’s not notable to single out the fact that French audiences liked it, or enjoyed meeting its maker.
Nobody gets much mileage out of claiming “the French love Hitchcock.” There’s substantially more textual support for that claim, but it isn’t interesting—because the only response is “duh.” Which is where we find the meat of this myth, and what makes it interesting—the statement “the French love Jerry Lewis” is incomplete on its own. What keeps it alive is the unspoken second half: “the French love Jerry Lewis, which is nuts because Americans don’t.” Right? The idea that the French have some special fascination for Lewis is only news if it highlights some oddball tendency in those wacky French, something inscrutable. The whole point of the statement is to make an implied backhanded swipe against Lewis.
From the late 1940s until the mid-1960s, Jerry Lewis was a major force in American comedy and a top box office draw. A decade later he was box office poison. Following The Nutty Professor, Lewis’ films started to hemorrhage viewers, lose critical support, and became increasingly poorly made on a purely technical level.
This climaxed with the disaster of The Day the Clown Cried, which has remained suppressed at Lewis’ own insistence. Later films like Hardly Working and Cracking Up could be described as a “comeback,” but they didn’t come close to the kinds of box office numbers Lewis once commanded. And while these later works certainly have their defenders (for example, Jonathan Rosenbaum or Tim Lucas), even they would stop short of describing them as especially well-made.
So what we have is a clown who went from the dizzying heights of popular and critical acclaim to a period of commercial decline. This is nothing new—it’s the story of many, if not most, comedians. Comedy is a fad-driven business, and audience tastes change over time. Although the details obviously differ, the broad strokes of this career trajectory can be traced for Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, Roscoe Arbuckle, even Charlie Chaplin—fill in your own examples here if you like. There’s the same level of French enthusiasm for all of these guys (without the Cinematheque Francaise and Lobster Films we’d be missing huge chunks of their filmographies) but no comparable urban legend of “the French sure love Buster Keaton, don’t they?”
So something different happened to Jerry Lewis during his period of commercial decline, something that changed his reputation and how Americans responded to it.
It was the Telethon.
The Telethon, of course, has been a force of outstanding humanitarian good. Jerry Lewis gave generously of himself to advance a worthy cause and because of him, many lives are materially improved.
Lewis’ charity work won him a French Legion of Honor in 1984—an award that may have helped contribute to the whole “French love Jerry Lewis” myth, but which had nothing to do with him as a filmmaker or comedian and was entirely based on his humanitarian accomplishments.
Lewis’ role in the Telethon, however, was entirely built on his status and stature as a major Hollywood star, beloved entertainer of millions. There was room, theoretically, for a smaller, niche audience to gather around Lewis’ post-Nutty Professor output and celebrate it on its own terms—much as there are people like me who celebrate Buster Keaton’s MGM talkies—but that sort of cult appeal is at odds with the image of Lewis as a major star. The two are incompatible—and if one had to eat the other, it was obvious who would win. The Telethon genuinely mattered in the world, and had Lewis’ sincere support.
And this calcified a certain image of Jerry Lewis, as a somewhat tone-deaf entertainer who didn’t fully connect with own fans, as someone more interested in parading his faded glory than earning new glory.
You can see the tension in the SNL skit about the fabled French adoration of Lewis. On paper, the skit sounds wonderfully edgy—as we’ve noted, the question “Why do the French love Jerry Lewis” necessarily implies that this is somehow incongruous or inscrutable. Why would Jerry Lewis, so famously tetchy about his public image, willingly submit to appear in a skit designed around an implied insult to him? And in turn, that is exactly why the skit misfires so badly, and fails to land its joke. It isn’t about this at all—but rather proceeds from the premise that since the French do love Jerry Lewis, their obsession with his slapstick comedies would prevent them from correctly dubbing his more serious role in King of Comedy into French, since they’d assume it should be full of funny voices and pratfalls.
I wish I could show you the skit, but I can’t find a YouTube clip of it. It hails from a period in SNL’s past that has been largely forgotten, so it doesn’t crop up in reruns or video compilations. There’s a transcript here, and if anyone has a link to this video please put it up in the comments.
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