Jerry Lewis on Television

We will divide our readership into two mutually hostile camps by announcing the inauguration today of the new Jerry Lewis section of Travalanche! (Haha, yes, we make all the Jerry Lewis people sit in their own segregated section. That will offend some people, but probably not Jerry Lewis fans). I’m not sure how he fell through the cracks, except well, he’s Jerry Lewis — the guy falls down a lot. Anyway, I have written way more Jerry-related posts (8 thus far, 9 including this one) than I have about some other comedians who’ve had their own sections here for years. C’est la guerre, as the French say, and the French talk about Jerry Lewis a lot. Get ready for more — I have perhaps another half dozen Jerry related posts planned, and will also certainly be doing something special for the centennial of his birth in 2026. Funny teeth from the joke shop will almost certainly be involved. And some of us, I predict, will be laughing a lot. (See what I did there? I observed the comedy “three” law). Anyway, ’til Jerry Fest, or whatever we wind up calling it, please do peruse our Jerry Lewis section, all you misfits, weirdoes and masochists.

As I am currently working on a book about TV variety it seemed only natural to make that the topic of today’s dedicated post — Lewis’s TV variety work. This is yet another situation, I believe, where most folks younger than Baby Boomers have little clue about the scale of the comedian’s imprint on the medium. Those of us who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s saw him on tv occasionally; but people who were around in the ’50s and ’60s saw him on tv frequently. With his partner Dean Martin, he was one of the rotating co-hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour, which we wrote about here. The pair had been on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Milton Berle Show as early as 1948, and also made appearances on The Saturday Night Revue with Jack Carter, and the shows of Jack Benny, Red Skelton, and others.

After the break-up, things altered a great deal. What could Jerry Lewis do as a solo, outside of movies? It was a knotty problem. By contrast, Dean Martin had it made: he was an all around entertainer, a singer, comedian and convincing leading man (it’s interesting to contrast his predicament with that of Bud Abbott, who was left high and dry after Costello split with him). Lewis’s situation’s closest analog was that of Stan Laurel after Oliver Hardy passed away, and Laurel quit. The public had only ever known Lewis as a rather extreme fool. Was it advisable, desirable, or even possible to expand that? And the answer is, as we all know, yes he did, or at least he tried. He basically had two gears: in character and out of character. He began to let the public see the man behind the shlemiel, and so he was able to host shows as well as appear as a guest on other people’s programs. As early as 1957, the year after the team’s break-up, he began hosting his own TV variety specials, much as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and others did. There were several of these through 1962. In 1959, he starred as Jack Robin in a tv adaptation of The Jazz Singer, which also helped to establish his somewhat maudlin serious side (that show too will be among our upcoming posts). In 1962, he guest hosted The Tonight Show (during Jack Paar’s reign) and this proved he could handle this complicated job reasonably well. He was to host The Tonight Show on numerous subsequent occasions through the Carson years.

Then, in September 1963, in the wake of the smash success of The Nutty Professor and his track record in television now well established, Lewis was able to launch his own prime time talk-variety program The Jerry Lewis Show on ABC. It was a chance to prove himself as the same kind of all-around entertainer as Martin, or, for that matter, the grandaddy, Jolson, whose shoes he had recently dared to step into, or Chaplin, whose song “Smile” from The Circus he had the chutzpah (and questionable taste) to use as his theme music. There was interesting potential in what Lewis was trying. On the one hand, he could be a talk show host like Steve Allen, Paar, Carson, and later guys like Merv, Mike Douglas, or Dick Cavett (who believe it not was one of Lewis’s writers)…but he also had the ability to step out of that and be a great variety show clown like Skelton, or Gleason. It was hugely ambitious.

Unfortunately his luck was terrible. On the premiere of the show, there were tons of technical problems. Then, two months into the run, JFK was assassinated, pre-empting several shows, and interrupting any momentum Lewis may have gotten at this early stage. The Jerry Lewis Show called it quits after just 13 weeks, and the venue where it was shot, the El Capitan Theatre became the home of a new program, The Hollywood Palace, which we wrote about here.

Still one could argue (and I’m sure one did) that Lewis hadn’t really gotten a fair shake that first time out, and that he deserved another bite at the apple. This was granted him in fall 1967, when he started up a new prime time show on NBC. This time out, he was in a very different place. On the one hand, he wasn’t riding high as a box office star as he had been during the 1963 attempt. On the other hand, by now the public had seen much more of his serious (or less clownish side) in movies like Boeing Boeing (1965), Three on a Couch (1966), Way…Way Out (1966) and soon would again in Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968) and Hook, Line and Sinker (1969). This iteration of the show struggled against competition in the ratings, but managed to hang on for two years, until spring 1969.

At all events, the existence of The Jerry Lewis Show rates as “news you can use”, I think, for people my age and younger who were either not born or very small when these shows aired. Because it happens to be very important backstory for the Martin Scorsese movie The King of Comedy (1982). I knew Lewis’s movies very well at the stage, from television, and his then-recent comeback Hardly Working (1980) and also knew him from TV specials and the annual Labor Day Telethon (which we’ll return to), but had no knowledge of these talk shows. So my pals and I recognized that Jerry was very good in The King of Comedy, but what we didn’t realize was that Lewis was much closer to Jerry Langford than we knew at the time. Did it matter? I don’t know, but I do think appreciation of the film is enhanced by this knowledge. In any case, the movie gave Lewis a boost and he began to be on TV a lot yet again. Not only was he on shows like Letterman and SNL (where Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo both did hilarious impressions of him), but he also got a THIRD try at The Jerry Lewis Show as a replacement for Thicke of the Night in 1984. (It was cancelled after a single airing however).

And now the elephant in the room: the annual Labor Day Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. I’m going to do a dedicated post on that topic in a few months, so I’ll just touch on it briefly here. Lewis had done specials in support of the charity (with Dean) as early as 1952. The regular Labor Day tradition started in 1966. For many of us, tuning into it was an annual tradition. (I mean, what else do you do on Labor Day? There’s no Labor day tree, or Labor Day presents). Jerry’s involvement with the annual event lasted until 2010 when the MDA fired him, which caused a lot of controversy. To be fair, in 2010, Jerry Lewis was 84 years old and looked as though he could have used a telethon on his own behalf. Still, people were outraged. It was a bad look for the organization. There was probably a middle way, but I’m guessing our boy was not of a mind to compromise. That was not how that man rolled.

Anyway, Jerry Nuts, I hate to bum you out, but I don’t think I’m telling you anything new when I say that if Jerry Lewis’s screen character is something only some people warm up to, the personality of the REAL Jerry is an even less palatable pill to swallow. Way too hyper, way too self-involved and delighted with himself, and manic, and faux sincere (full of shit) and so forth. When you think of the guys who do it well, they know how to be generous and shine the light on the other person. That’s never, ever, ever going to be Jerry Lewis.

And if you’re wondering, as readers often do, “Why do you give him all this attention if you hate him?” the answer is, well, I don’t hate him…as a screen artist. Jerry Lewis is a complicated and huge cultural figure. Gotta be reckoned with. I love him as the French do. In pretty much the exact same way as French critics do. You have to be flying at 10,000 feet to see it, but when you do, his talent (particularly as a film director) deserves respect. It’s worth the effort if you really care about comedy.

For more on variety entertainment, including tv variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.  And please keep an eye out for Vaudeville in Your Living Room: A Century of Radio and TV Varietycoming out from Bear Manor Media this November!