When I teach young students about comedy, I often reference this man. Most of them have never heard of Jerry Lewis. He was a star when I was growing up. A time when comedy was ridiculous, slapstick, funny. It took you out of the realm of reality and made you laugh for a while, even when troubles filled the world. Today we seem too focused on reality.
Joseph Levitch was born on this day in 1926, in Newark, New Jersey to Russian Jewish parents. Jerry was born to be in show biz. His parents were both entertainers. His dad was a Vaudevillian master of ceremonies while his mother played piano on a radio station and acted as her husband’s musical director. So by the time he was five, Jerry was performing with his parents on stage. He was a character even then. During his teen years he would play pranks on his neighbors by going into kitchens and stealing fried chicken or pies.
He landed his first gig in burlesque, but the act fell flat. He quit school in the tenth grade and worked as a soda jerk and theater usher. He was rejected for service in the military because of a heart murmur. In 1946 he teamed up with Dean Martin. The handsome Martin played straight man to the zany Lewis and his silly antics. They rose to national acclaim with their stand up routines, TV appearances and movies.
In 1956 the team went their separate ways. Jerry was on his own. He soon discovered he could also sing solo, when he stood in for Judy Garland,because she was ill. The song was “Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.” From then on he gained prominence as a single act – a singer, dancer, comedian and movie maker
We all know about his humanitarian efforts. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Muscular dystrophy Association. He also gained popularity in France. He was often praised by their critics for his absurdist comedy and his ability to take complete control in his movies.
Martin taught me about timing in comedy. He showed me the necessity of choreographing every move you make in a performance. Each move has a rhythm and you use the beat to create the finished product. I learned how to speak with a Jersey accent from him. I cringed every time he took a fall, because I knew what it would eventually do to his body. He was a clown, an actor, a director, writer, singer, The world was made a better place for a while through his presence in it. He also taught me to appreciate comedy as a way of releasing the cares of the day.
Lewis died at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada, on August 20, 2017, at the age of 91.] The cause was end-stage cardiac disease. Upon his death, Carl Reiner, another famous comedian said this:
“All comedians watch other comedians, and every generation of comedians going back to those who watched Jerry on the Colgate Comedy Hour were influenced by Jerry. They say that mankind goes back to the first guy…which everyone tries to copy. In comedy that guy was Jerry Lewis.”