Sunday, December 28, 2008

Jerry Lewis at High Noon

If you are like me, and you think that Jerry Lewis is never more fascinating than in the last ten seconds before his blows his stack, then RUN do not walk to where you can find a precious single episode of Jerry's legendary 1963 variety series.
It was two hours long and done live without any sign of a script with a distinctly nervous Jerry Lewis acting as host (and occasionally as house singer) in a Jack Paar style format before a live audience.
It is to say the least a bold improvisional experiment and a crackpot whim rolled up into one interminable and poorly blocked package.
What exactly gave Lewis the notion to do such a long show live is a complete mystery. No doubt he had a bracing faith in his own ad-lib abilities going back to his partnership with singer Dean Martin. Maybe Jerry was envious of the largely improvisioned rat-pack shows which was then packin' em' in at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.
Ah but back in the day Lewis had Martin to anchor the act and give pacing and direction to the younger comics's many flights of fancy. And if that didn't work, Dean would sing and give everyone a break from Jerry.
Wisely, Jerry didn't work alone on this show opting for a dour Phil Foster as his one air sidekick, serious TV buffs will recall Foster's star turn as Penny Marshall's father on "Laverne and Shirley". Here though, Foster is simply a glowering ethnic foil who looks like he'd dearly love to bust a chair over Jerry's head. Their on air banter has all the charm and ease of hostage negotiations in Beirut.
Moreover in one hundred and three minutes not ONE comedy sketch can be seen, not one, Jerry's signature format and it is not being used at all. Frankly the artistic decisions as they play out on air seem demented.
So of course the show was an expensive flop, already cancelled at the time of this particular broadcast a fact that Lewis shares with the audience about every ten minutes as the program trudges on and on.
A bitter patina invades the whole program despite a glittering roster of guests including soprano Patricia Munsel, Sam Cook and a pre Muhammad Ali Cassius Clay who was trying to the convince the whole world that he was both crazy and invincible in the lead up to the legendary fight with Sonny Liston.
That particular interview with Jerry is a veritable wince-fest, Lewis is in a manic state by this point in the program and inadvertently he makes Clay looks judicious and wise as he the host rants on and on about the boxer's blustery showmanship.
Ali would later read a poem prophesying neatly his victory over Liston, it is the program's only truly funny moment in a hundred and three minutes of bug eyed mishaugas.
In short a mess my friends...very much a mess.
But it is also a lonely sign post to his career, already Jerry had completed his best film "The Nutty Professor" and would begin a long and ultimately unsuccessful search for a new comic persona to supplant his tired "anthro-child on crack" act. He and the zeitgeist were rapidly parting company never to reunite, and this program is a good indication of how badly Jerry had misjudged his audience's taste and patience.
Lenny Bruce had a great routine about a schleppy goyisher comedian named Frank Dell who thought he'd reach the big time if only he could play the Palladium Theater in London. Of course he bombs but on his last night drenched in flop sweat he starts shreking "Kill the Irish" at the audience causing a riot and his own deportation from England.
It is that kind of flop sweat I got off of Jerry in this DVD, trapped on stage, no script, the audience glaring at him and all he can do snarl at Phil Foster or lecture a bemused Muhammad Ali on "showmanship" the very quality his own damn show was lacking.
I heartily wish that all the episodes of this unique TV series were available on DVD< there is much to be learned from all of them.

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