Funny peculiar

The column A little bit of Las Vegas comes to Melbourne, in the hyperactively unfunny guise of Jerry Lewis. Still, it stirs a few poignant memories for Howard Jacobson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Just seen Jerry Lewis live in cabaret at The Palladium Room in Melbourne's Crown Casino. Tacky? You bet. But sometimes you need tacky.

Crown Casino is the showpiece of the new gross-out Melbourne, sleazier than Sydney, gaudier than Las Vegas. Along the Casino's river promenade fireballs belch into the night sky, a hellish forewarning of what's about to happen to your life's savings. On the night of the official opening of the casino hundreds of doves were released. Nice touch, eh? Pity no one thought that the doves would have nowhere to fly but straight into the fireballs. Life goes on. You enter the casino through acid-coloured rock-faces of electronically controlled waterfalls twitching to a new-age didgeridoo, while a cut-glass chandelier drops from the ceiling and hisses steam. Why not? Why should a casino be more tasteful than the Tate? This week Jerry Lewis, next week Shirley Bassey. These are big stars. They have come a long way. They have a right to expect an ambience that reminds them of home.

It's surprising how many fans under 50 Jerry Lewis has. I am not aware there's been a resurgence of interest in his old movies and I can't believe it's for the conviction with which he acted a hollow showbiz idol in King of Comedy or Funnybones that Melbourne has turned out in numbers to cheer him. But you go mad trying to work out why people like what they like.

I'm not sure I know why I'm here myself. Something to do with Dean Martin. I've come to see a comic I never cared for, who interested me only when he showed what he knew of a comedian's dead heart, because he is redolent of Dean Martin. He incorporates the famous divorce into his act shamelessly. Embalms it in schmaltz. Shows us clips of the famous surprise telly reunion engineered by Frank Sinatra. Tells us how much he missed him, misses him. Elsewhere I have read that Lewis described his first meeting with Dean Martin as "love at first sight". That's why I am here. Not really to see Jerry Lewis at all, but to share a passion. For I too loved Dean Martin at first sight. At first sight and first sound.

It was "That's Amore" that did it. When the moon hits the sky like a big pizza pie, or words to that effect. The song, some say, that persuaded Dean Martin he could make it on his own. 1953. It coincided with the first Italian coffee bars opening in Manchester. You bought a cappuccino on Market Street at 11pm - think of that! - then moseyed along to the Ritz with brown froth on your lip, where you smooched with skirt under a spinning ball of stars, allowed your eyes to go all sleepy, and crooned "That's Amore" into her ear. A knockout blow if the skirt happened to be from Accrington.

I must have my dates confused because I wouldn't have been let out at 11pm in 1953, never mind allowed into the Ritz. But that shows you what an effect the song had: you felt you were in the Ritz when you heard it.

We were all in love with Dean Martin, not just me. Or at least we were all in love with the image of casual, indolent masculinity he conveyed. We all wanted to be him. For my part I only gave up wanting to be Dean Martin when I became a Leavisite in 1960, that's if I ever really gave up wanting to be Dean Martin at all.

And now heeeeeeeere's Jerry, coming between us and Dino just as he did 40 years ago or more, still trying out the silly squeaky voice (though he can go deep when he means to do feeling), still problematically hyperactive, still irredeemably false. It crosses my mind that he has no sense of humour. Something of a disqualification, if you are a comedian, one would think; though not, of course, if you are a comedian in America. But my wife draws my attention to his physical skills, his presence, things he can do with his body and with musical instruments. I am grateful for that. You go mad watching people enthuse over someone who has no discernible skills at all.

His jokes are neither funny nor well-delivered. The showing of old clips feels desperate. Love me for who I was. He's hard to love. "A lot of people were hostile," he once said, trying to explain the decline in his popularity, "because I was a multifaceted, talented, wealthy, internationally famous genius."

Fancy anyone being hostile to that.

Every now and then, behind the words of love, you catch sight of an indurate cynicism, reminding you of Jerry Langford, the walking-corpse talk-show host he depicted brilliantly in Scorsese's King of Comedy, that seminal 1980s movie which found out all the fault lines in America's comprehension of the comic. They made the film but they didn't get it. Jerry Lewis himself didn't get it. "What's ludicrous about the film's ending," he said afterwards, "is that you don't glorify a madman - you don't have a fucking psychotic win." The fucking psychotic, you'll remember, is De Niro's Rupert Pupkin, a talentless mono-faceted schmuck whose conviction that he can be every bit as entertaining as Jerry Langford, given the chance, is triumphantly vindicated. You can see why Lewis might not have gone for that. He wanted the film to end with Langford being shot on stage, thereby highlighting the dangers which wealthy internationally famous geniuses face from their deranged fans.

I'm glad I've seen him in the flesh. He is a true American icon - cultural schizophrenia incarnate. A once popular goofy boy comedian, now a hardened man, admired for his portrayals of humourlessness; an object of learned disquisitions seeking meaning in the rankest sentimentality; simultaneously successful and unsuccessful (but rich, he tells us - which can only mean successful, surely! surely?); and all the while stalked by mediocrity

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