Vile Bodies

Tears for a Clown

September 03, 2011

Multiple Pages
Tears for a Clown

Slapstick is, at best, only loosely defined as comedy.

If an unsupervised toddler in hysterics can do something to evoke laughter, more effort should be expected of a grown man. Therefore, I have never cared for the spastic antics of Jerry Lewis.

On a personal level Jerry has always cast a dim light as well.

His temper is legendary. One need not be a friend or even an acquaintance. His abusive tirades against fans or audience members who innocently incur his wrath are well-documented. In one question-and-answer session years ago, his response to one thoughtful query regarding a film was, “None of your damn business!”

While his early film career was admittedly successful, his latter pictures were often hollow retreads of his former work. There is also the astoundingly ill-conceived notion, as-yet-unreleased after nearly forty years, of a clown leading children to their deaths in a concentration camp. The film The Day the Clown Cried is reputed by the handful who have seen it to be “a disaster.”

“Jerry has literally done more with his star power than all the other personalities of modern Hollywood combined, and I want him to go out on top.”

There was the infamous split with the consummate gentleman Dean Martin. Less well-known are the suspicions of seduction and infidelity between spouses which some believe initiated the severance, and not by the party one may think.

Finally, there is the family life. Cheated-upon wives. Ignored and neglected children. At least one illegitimate child with statistically determinative genetic proof whom Jerry refuses to so much as acknowledge despite her pleas and repeated attempts to garner even the briefest of meetings.

So what is Jerry Lewis? Another tired shtick-merchant behaving manically and calling it comedy? An angry personality with a volatile temper prone to explosions with little provocation? A failed, indifferent, and even hostile father? All of the above.

And yet…

There is the telethon, held annually since 1966. Jerry was even doing MDA functions since 1952. Money raised to date: $2.45 billion.

For most of those more than forty years his telethon aired 21.5 hours during Labor Day. Jerry was 40 years old when he began the marathon version and was still planning to do it at 85.

And he never quit. Not when the donations began to depress. Not when he was assuming more work than most men half his age and his health had deteriorated severely. Not when the big names such as Angelina Jolie and Madonna quit helping millions in America so they could adopt singularly from Africa or Asia.

True, Jerry has made some off-color jokes here and there during the airings. On those I’m willing to give him some length of rope. Anyone who thinks otherwise can write their criticism of his blue humor in the “Memo” line of the check they personally make out for $2.45 billion.

Lamentably this was to be Jerry’s final year hosting the annual—his annual—telethon. But the powers that be had decided it was time for him to go.

The formerly round-the-clock “Labor Day” spectacular is now to be held but for six hours, and on the day prior to the holiday.

Worse, the cads at the telethon unceremoniously fired Jerry just over a month before his swan song. After a lifetime of work, he has been denied even the opportunity to say farewell. To his great credit, and in sharp contrast to his reputation as a loose cannon, the comedian has refrained from making any public statement regarding this cruel slap in the face.

The rumored reason for the organizers’ inexcusable act concerned statements Jerry made during an interview a few weeks earlier concerning so-called “reality television” and that most American Idol contestants were “wipeouts” after a few years, working jobs at McDonald’s. This statement is obviously true, but just as inevitable was the fury of flash-in-the-pan American Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe, a newly installed telethon cohost.

While many prominent comedians came to Jerry’s defense, it is doubtful Lewis will be permitted to appear on the telethon.

Despite my personal assessment of Jerry, I don’t welcome the news of his departure.

I have met those he has helped. I have shaken hands with many of them and looked into their eyes. Almost too long ago to recall, I played my own extraordinarily minor part on his telethon, appearing in the briefest and most insignificant capacity.

In ways that are not merely physical but mental and even spiritual, Jerry has had a profoundly palpable impact upon…millions? Tens of millions? A hundred million?

When any of us stands in whatever judgment we envision for ourselves, will our ledgers have anywhere near so many names written in our defense? Aside from immediate family members, how many lives does the ordinary person impact in such a fundamentally positive way?

Contrary to Shakespeare’s adage about evil men, the good that men do—even that performed by deeply flawed men—indeed lives on after them. And it makes me sad when one such man leaves the stage.

My sadness turns to sorrow anticipating the years to come without him, realizing that my own distant place in that cavalcade of mourners will be as one queued behind untold numbers of the children he has helped. They are those who will not merely miss him, but who will need him as well. His absence will be felt deeply and by many.

As I grow older I understand there are many, many things I do not know.

I do not know whether in the balance of existence Jerry Lewis is an evil man or a good one. I do not know whether he has had talent in the traditional sense or for doing what almost no one else could accomplish. I do not know whether any small contribution I make in this world will ultimately have any discernible effect on anyone.

What I do know is that, even if he is an impolitic, impolite, annoying bastard, Jerry has literally done more with his star power than all the other personalities of modern Hollywood combined, and I want him to go out on top. He has earned as much.

One cannot fathom the degree of restraint it must have taken this legendary ego to refrain from denouncing the organization which so offensively wronged him. Yet if there is anything Jerry has always put before himself, it is the kids. Hopefully, there is a slight possibility the deservedly horrible publicity will cause a reappraisal of his absence. Either way, in this his final year, I will be making a contribution to the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon and I strongly encourage anyone reading, if possible, to do the same.

As Jerry has said for more than 40 years, his telethon will be a success if it raises only one dollar more, even if he is not there to oversee it.


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