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Jerry Lewis Was Always the King of Comedy

The late comedic great made a career out of baring his soul, whether in front of or behind the camera

Jerry Lewis Getty Images

When he died Sunday at the age of 91, Jerry Lewis left behind a stark, fascinating career in comedy, as well as a lifetime of inner conflict and contradiction that his art, whether in film (as both a star and director) or in theater, often seemed to embody. This is true of his partnership with Dean Martin from 1946 to 1956, in which he played the live-wire counterpoint to Martin’s masculine cool. And it was true of his film characters, too, canonical personalities like professor Julius Kelp—the titular “nutty professor” of Lewis’s 1963 masterpiece—who, in a wry spoof of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, famously transformed into the confident hepcat Buddy Love, a man who represented all the things Professor Kelp wasn’t. That movie was, like much of Lewis’s work at the height of his career, as comical as it was sad. It ends with an emotional confession, as the jig is up, and the suave, jazzy Buddy Love gradually transforms back into buck-toothed goofball professor Kelp. “I don’t want to be something that I’m not,” he says, as his facade deteriorates before the audience’s eyes.

Today that movie, and the multiple comic personas it deftly twined into one person, still feels like the psychological rubric for so much comedy. Lewis, famously private and deliberately distant from his characters, was often playing people who, psychologically, seemed true to who he was. As a kid growing up in New Jersey, the only child to a pair of Borscht Belt entertainers who often left him behind with aunts when they traveled, Lewis was by turns lovesick, lonely, and deeply insecure. And his anarchic sense of comic invention—his ability, no, his need to cut loose and break form—always seemed like an outgrowth of those traits. The wildness of his comedy often emulated the attention-seeking neediness of a child, but with the desires, to say nothing of the problems, of a grown man. There’s a reason Lewis has persisted as a touchstone in conversations about, say, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, and a particular brand of juvenile men. Not only did Lewis, drawing from vaudeville and traditional Jewish comedy, seem to invent that form, but he remains, long after the height of his career-making films, at its apex.

Jerry Lewis Getty Images

His brilliant turns as a director, with movies like The Bellboy (1960) and The Patsy (1964), famously played up Lewis’s sputtering, loose-limbed, occasionally suave, utterly virtuosic way with his voice and his body. And they were as impressively performed as they were directed. He was an innovator, really. For example, Lewis is largely credited with inventing the video-assist system on movie sets that allow directors to immediately review what they’ve filmed. He was the inventor of a style, too, one directly suited to his presence as a performer. Lewis belongs near the top of a special class of director-comedians—alongside the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati—who used movies not only to film themselves in the act of performing comedy, but also to actively extend themselves, embodying the rich fantasies of their personas in their movies’ stunts, visual sleights of hand, rhythm, and psychological design.

Before he began directing movies, Lewis performed onscreen under the stewardship of animator-director Frank Tashlin, who in movies like the 1955 Martin and Lewis musical Artists and Models used Lewis as if he, too, were a Looney Tune. This cartoonish style carried over into Lewis’s own work as a director. Few of his movies evince this more clearly than his sophomore directorial effort, The Ladies Man (1961), in which Lewis’s gee-golly weirdness and hyperactive sensibility is set loose on a boarding home full of single young women. For him, that’s a nightmare. The movie starts with his character, Herbert H. Heebert (the H. stands for Herbert; please don’t call him Herbie), graduating from college with intentions to propose to the woman he loves, Faith, only to find her kissing another man. He vows to avoid women—yet somehow lands in a house full of them. And over the course of the movie’s hour and 35 minutes, which play out as a series of long, loose gags barely connected by a thread of a plot, we see that personality put to work.

The movie is sometimes remembered for the feat of the house itself, which, as biographer Shawn Levy describes it in King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, was “something entirely new, part resort hotel, part TV studio, part burlesque stage, part film set.” It was a metaphor for Lewis’s career to date, manifest as a playground for his id and designed such that the very architecture was a gag in itself, a key supporting player in the fantasy of Lewis’s wild personality. It’s part of what makes the movie so genius.

But what makes it resonate, today, isn’t the architecture, but the premise: Lewis, by way of Herbert H. Heebert, wanted to be loved. He was frequently prickly about that fact. But The Ladies Man created the ideal conditions for Lewis’s fraught, strange personality to run amok. All the joy of performance, the control-freak sense of form, the at times brutal sense of self-excoriation: It’s all here. Lewis was an imperfect man, and not always a likable one. But when it comes to separating the artist from the art, in Lewis’s case there’s no need. His movies, some of the best comedies America has ever seen, didn’t shy from who he was. They defined it.