Nutty... King of comedy (aged 9)

John Walsh meets Jerry Lewis

Damn Yankees opened at the Adelphi two nights ago. Forty-two years after its first appearance on Broadway, the Faustian-baseball musical picked up the kind of rave reviews ("Indecently entertaining" - Telegraph, "The songs are a joy for ever" - Daily Mail) you'd thought were the exclusive property of Guys and Dolls. London audiences are being weirdly entranced by Fifties American vaudeville at the moment - and so is America: Damn Yankees has been on the road since February 1995, playing in 50-odd cities from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale and raking in $47million (so far). London is their 57th venue. The travelling circus of 65, including musicians, sound men, lighting crew and the 23-strong cast, are committed to taking their jolly tale of the Devil, the baseball nut and Lola the stripper all over the world. After London, they've got Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan...

In the middle of this Tin Pan Alley juggernaut, this kinetic ironclad extravaganza, this rumbling, crowd-pleasing caravanserai is Jerry Lewis, about whom the reviews were guarded. They all praised his spectacular 15-minute stand-up routine in the second half, but otherwise tended to voice the same fear: "Lewis appears to be cruising on reputation alone" (Telegraph); "the smugness of a star smoothly coasting on his legend" (Independent). And you think: what legend? What reputation? For Jerry Lewis is one of the classic incarnations of the performer who lost the plot - the screwball who went out of fashion like that in the Sixties as if coshed by fate, the comedian whom nobody found funny any more, apart from a lot of grim French intellectuals. He was the clown with the crossed eyed, gurning features, rolling tongue and spasmoid limbs, who dwelt wholly, it seemed, in the realm of slapstick, double-take and pratfall when not drooling over girls and waxing sentimental over small children. The Bell Boy, The Ladies' Man, The Nutty Professor, Which Way to the Front - he was nothing if not prolific (as actor, writer and director); but his prolificity, his exuberance, his infantilism just stopped communicating with critics, backers, audiences. He had a comeback when Martin Scorcese cast him, in The King of Comedy, as Langford, an ageing comedian with a cold heart. Lewis radiated such contempt for the film's demented, emulatory fans (played by Robert de Niro and Sandra Bernhardt), it felt as if years of neglect and bitterness were being exorcised. But when you meet him in the flesh you realise that there's a lot still there.

He's a very furious man. Chunky of torso, pouchy of cheek and curiously simian in posture, he regards you from under alarmingly hooded eyelids as if he hates you and everything you stand for. In between sentences, the lower plate of his dentures detaches itself from its moorings and wanders around his mouth. He alternates a look of fathomless disgust with an expression of bafflement, as if you are making no sense. He talks in long, growly, explanatory sentences like a man who isn't used to being interrupted.

"Yeah, it's the first time I've ever been an actor playing a part on a stage, although - of course - I've been in front of live audiences all my life. But it's totally different in theatre. I never realised that the audience hears and feels the relationship we have on stage. They don't turn to each other and say, `They're having a wonderful time up there' - but they feel it. And at the end this very proper audience, they lose their proper, and they're screaming and stamping and applauding..." He is keen to play down any notion that this is a star vehicle for his screwball self. "I will not go for a cheap joke. The integrity of this play is very important to me. If Jerry sneaks in somewhere, it's only in places where it doesn't encumber the plot." Encumber? "It's a very important word, when you're dealing with 30 other people on stage at the same time. There's moments when you feel that little nerve button and think, Oh Christ I could go for that. But I got other performers out there. We have a play to tell and music to sing. I'm the only one who knows what discipline it takes..."

We talked about vaudeville, and the extremely dead concept of the all- round "entertainer" who could sing, dance, tell jokes and perform in the exhaustingly hyperactive style of Al Jolson and Danny Kaye. "You'll probably hate this, because he's home-grown," said Lewis, "but Tony Newley is the greatest vaudevillean that ever lived. He's a great performer, a great entertainer. But he was looked down on by many of his audiences because he was so goddam cocksure of how good he was. They would have liked him to be a little more humble about it. Lewis's interest in Newley has a distinct element of self-identification about it. "I thought he had this marvellous ... esteem for himself. Jesus Christ, most people love to see someone enjoy what they do. But there's something about the home-grown that changes that concept. We have it in America. I am more appreciated in foreign countries by the critics..." Spotting that he was in danger of saying that his home audience didn't care for him, he abruptly changed tack: "...but when it comes to audiences, er, American audiences have been awfully good to me. I've been in front of them for 65 years. The Press have always asked, `How do you feel when you go to France and Germany and Italy and they carry on the way they do. I say, `They do the same thing in the United States.' It's only the critics in the US who think I should be put to sleep. The critics in Europe think what I do is genius."

They do indeed. And it's not just the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, who adopted Lewis as a great director in the late Fifties. Other directors revere him. Sometimes they offer him advice. "I was in Paris once, rehearsing for the opening night at the Olympia. I was singing `Rock-a-Bye Baby' and someone had suggested singing the second chorus in French, so I was trying it. Jean-Luc Godard had been spending the day with me. He called me over and said [adopts thick Clouseau accent]: `Are you kray-zeee? To seeng in Fraynch? You stupide bastarde, zey will keel you.' When he said that, a light went on in my head..." More often they make outrageously big statements. "Lewis should be examined and praised as a film-maker who made five or six brilliant movies," wrote Bertrand Tavernier in the Guardian last year. Many stories are told of the chronic mis-match between Lewis's more pretentious fans and Lewis's own unpretentious deflations. Such as the symposium in Paris when he was congratulated by a voluble cineaste for his visual jokes with fat ladies in The Bellboy. Not only is it a trenchant satire on Western consumerism, said the fan, it's also a swingeing attack on American matriarchy and the ethos of... "Fat women walk funny," Lewis replied shortly. "That's the point." Did he marvel at such pretentiousness? "Everybody's seen the same things the French have seen," he said. "But the French convolute it. I was sitting there one night with Francois Truffaut, in front of the Cinematheque, and he said to me, `Jerry, zer reason zat joke is so good in that feelm is that, when you were zmall, your muzzer must 'ave...' and I said stop, Francois, just stop it. My mother did shit. I just wrote a great visual joke and shot it. Where did it come from? I don't know, but I doubt it was her womb." Lewis's whole body shook, somewhere between irritation and laughter. "I've been arguing with them for 40 years," he concludes wearily. "They always need to understand more. It's their culture. They need definitions. They need to know intentions. They want to know where it comes from. It comes from simple. Simple is magic. Simple is wonderful."

Lewis himself comes from New Jersey, where he was born Joseph Levitch in 1926. His parents were entertainers on the "Borscht Belt" (named for the number of East European emigres) in the Catskill Mountains. Lewis speaks of his parents with the slightly hysterical enthusiasm of a hero- worshipping son who didn't get to know his parents well. "My Dad was incredible. I was sitting in front of the stalls every night. He was Jolson, he was Eddie Cantor, he was everyone rolled in one. The funniest man I've even seen in my life. And the handsomest. And he sang better and danced better and mimed better... He did it all." His mother was piano accompanist, arranger and musical director to her husband. They were a performing family. "One hotel would pay my Dad $25 a week, with room and board for him, his wife and son. If he could perform in another hotel after the show, he'd get another $8, $2 for my mother and $3 for the kid. It was $13 gig down the road twice a week. So at the age of five, they put me in a tux. How can you fail? A five-year-old in a tux?" Lewis's career famously began at this tender age, singing "Buddy Can You Spare a Dime" for the supper crowd, but he also remembers it as the start of his comedy career. "I don't recall singing the number, but I recall taking a bow, because my foot went off the stage and into the footlights and the bulb broke. I was scared, but it was the first laugh I ever got from an audience."

A pratfall might be written off by some as an accident. It became Jerry Lewis's life. "My mom had four sisters, and my dad had two sisters, and all of them thought they had created some kind of a nerd that needed a keeper," he recalls. "Because I had the desire to do the silliest things to make other people laugh. Whether I needed the attention, because my mom and dad were always away from me, or I was covering up the fact that I had a hole in my sock and didn't want them to see, I don't know. You can psychoanalyse the why of what you do. But I do to this day get the greatest joy out of watching someone smile or doing something as silly as you please to give them a laugh."

One of Lewis's more emetic refrains is about the child inside him. "What I do and have always done," he says, "is have a wonderful time not allowing the child in me to die. I'm nine. I'll always be nine..." Since he himself is now 71, and since he has been responsible for making several films as auteur complet - having complete control over every aspect of the production - it's hard to reconcile the control-freak in his nature with the hyperadrenalinated kid in front of the camera. Was he actually two people?

"It's a very important question," he concedes, "though it has nothing to do with schizophrenia. Let me ask you: Do you think you're sitting at this very moment with the wacko who appears on screen?" Good Lord no, I said. "Right. You're not. You're sitting with the guy who writes for him, the guy who cares for him and who must protect his best interests. I can't allow him to get any older than nine; he'd only encumber my work. When I make a film, I have to make everyone understand that we must keep him out of it and build a solid foundation so that, when we let him loose, everything will be perfect. He knows he can't fuck with the intellect of the guy who writes the stuff. He knows that I need him not to get involved in that. I need him just to come and play and get as silly as he can in what we have structured." Noticing that, by this time, I was considering making a dash for the door, he added: "Some people think you're fuckin' insane and say, `How can you do that?' But it's really very easy."

Listening to Lewis talking about his screen persona as some demented (and imprisoned) kid brother, you realise what it is about this talented and vigorous man that's so hard to love: it's his brand of sentimental bullying, that makes too many demands on human sympathy. It's of a piece with his confession about comedy: "It's the most selfless act in the eyes of the laugher, but it's the most selfish act in the eyes of the guy who's doing it." Lewis has always been a manipulator of laughter rather than a charmer, a man who'd rather belabour you with a club than tickle your fancy. One thinks how relieved the film world was when his last directorial project collapsed from lack of finance - The Day the Clown Cried, about a clown striking up a friendship with children in Auschwitz. And though his influence is still strong (Jim Carrey in Liar Liar is one natural descendant, as was Steve Martin's funny walk in All of Me; Lewis was executive producer of Eddie Murphy's remake of The Nutty Professor) it's easy to think he's in the safest possible billet between now and the new Millennium - acting a role in a play, with just a single burst of "Jerry Lewis" a night, a brilliant 15-minute "letting out" of his crazed, manipulative alter ego.

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