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An Afternoon with Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis interviewed by members of the Documentary Film Group of the University of Chicago on January 26, 1971.
Otie Wheeler
Part of the Jerry Lewis tribute A MUBI Jerrython.
Jerry Lewis was interviewed by members of the Documentary Film Group of the University of Chicago on January 26, 1971, while Mr. Lewis was performing at the Empire Room in Chicago, his first night club engagement in many years. The following, excerpted from several hours of tape, was edited by Myron Meisel. Photos by Bruce Rabe.
JERRY LEWIS: OK—What do you want?
FOCUS: In many of your films your characters assume several identities—in The Family Jewels you have different uncles; in Three on a Couch you assume several different disguises; and in The Nutty Professor you also had a dual identity. Why do you do this?
LEWIS: Well, I think it’s the most natural, simplest approach to creative writing, if you’re writing about people; and I think that most writers sorely need to understand there’s a schizo in all of us and that people are, in actual fact, double-faceted in personality—triple-faceted. I think the most brilliant writing of that nature was Mankiewicz’s Three Faces of Eve (actually written by Nunnally Johnson —ed.). I think he came closest on a serious level to depicting what people are. I have all of those various sides, and I think that we prefer to show the best side; but by doing that, I  think that we’re missing an awful lot of the values that are, in fact, there in some of the negative sides. I have always felt that way, which is apparent in all my work; but I didn’t realize until I had begun to reflect on some of it, that I had felt that way. You don’t sit down and say, well I think like this and I will write like that; you write and then you read your work, and your writing tips your whole psyche—it lets you know by what you read in editing the material, who you are and what you think. That’s why writers are so consistently tipping their hand although they’d like to live in anonymity, as it were—but the minute they write they’ve told everybody what it’s all about. I think that’s the best explanation I have for it. It certainly wasn’t by design, but the short-cut to the true center core of comedy is the human being, human behavior.
FOCUS: When you are acting and directing, do you find you have to divorce yourself?
LEWIS: Totally—totally—absolute objectivity to a sore point.
FOCUS: Would you rather do only one at a time?
LEWIS: It really makes no difference to me because it’s become practically second nature. I deal with Jerry just like anyone else would. I see him as everyone else does. I may not see him at the same time everyone else does, but he pleases me as he does others, and he destroys men when he does others.
FOCUS: But you do try to maintain a distance between yourself and the character?
LEWIS: Oh yes, absolutely. Just as I would with any other actor. I can’t allow any other actor to become another character. Just as I have to examine Jerry boy, I have to look at video which I play back immediately to look in on when he’s getting loose.
FOCUS: You keep a video…
LEWIS: I invented it. Fourteen years ago I built the first videcom that interlocked with the camera—only because I couldn’t be on both sides at the same time. I don’t use it to check performance so much as I use it to check the situations that I can’t see which are behind my head. When I first started, there was no video. I built the videcom and I used anywhere from fifteen to twenty monitors on the set; so that in any position I would be in on the stage, I would see that the camera came to the position that I had missed, and that the actors made their entrance behind me on cue. I would cut if they were wrong, but there would always be a screen for me to check. So I’d be working and performing and doing some idiotic piece of material, but I would be in fact watching. Then when the video was developed it made it easier for me. I didn’t have to use those monitors; I’d go right to the video to check it. It’s a marvelous, marvelous instrument.
FOCUS: Do you find acting in a film and also directing it slows down the shooting?
LEWIS: No, on the contrary; it doesn’t get in the way at all. It can speed it up sometimes.
FOCUS: Could you discuss what you do to control the photography in your films—when you’re giving a setup to your cinematographer—
LEWIS: I don’t give it. I make it.
FOCUS: Then you decide what will be used?
LEWIS: Totally. The cinematographer’s role is to light where I have set. And I have set the composition—that’s the left and right, and thigh and low, the march from one through three—from the very selection of the lenses and that’s infinite from a 30 to a 32. If I want to make that change I’m going to make that change. I will not use zoom lenses unless the zoom is called for. It was made specifically to do one thing, and it is a bastard lens. Magnificent instrument, but it’s also the lazy filmmaker's dream. (Laughter.) I have a class at U.S.C. who now understand what a zoom is. And I have had cinematographers who would have to use that instrument so that they don’t have to go from a deuce to a zoom and—they’re not with me long. When the dolly can’t pick up the speed, then you use the zoom. But then you wouldn’t use the zoom manually, you’d use the zoom up to its furthest electrical speed, which is still much faster than the crab—or a stage crank. But it’s not so fast that it’ll jump. Now, I directed a film for “The Bold Ones” that played a few weeks ago. It was a good film—I’m really proud of that film. (“In Dreams They Run”—Ed.) I used the zoom in that on a close shot of a child. We were holding on the child and an actor. And the actor says, “Where’s Warren, your little friend?” He replied, “Warren died.” And we slammed manually out, to cover the whole room, which put the empty bed into a deep foreground. It’ll wipe you out to see it because it was really frighteningly effective. And the use of that instrument for that one 32-frame cut—two feet. It was beautiful. And it was worth it. That instrument was my zoom. I wouldn’t know how to design that shot without the zoom. But then I never used it again for a week.
A lot of actors are imposed upon by lazy directors. Now you have many elements in the zoom. You can allegedly go from 25 mm. but that is really not the truth—they indicate that they calibrate at 25, but you really can’t get anywhere near 28, maybe 28 ½, because everything cuts in below 28. But they calibrate it at 25. I wrote a long letter to the distributors of the zoom on this: “You’ve got to tell them in Paris that they’re not getting their 25, and that they’re distorting the facts.” I got a beautiful letter from them, apologizing and saying that I was one of the few people that noticed. (Laughter.) Oh, then they said that they couldn’t guarantee re-calibrating, but they would guarantee that they wouldn’t calibrate again. (Laughter.)
But so many young directors will like to kill time—I don’t mean kill it, I mean beat it. (Laughter.) And they’ll use the center part of the zoom and just roll it to the 25 rather than the new 3 inch. And then when I challenge the filmmaker he says, yeah, but the zoom gives me up to 80, 81, 82 and even 83. And I say to him, I’m not interested in that. Put a 3 inch on, and start crabbing. I’ll give you an 83. I’ll give you a 91. But it’s just unconscionable. You cut a piece of film that’s been shot with 75 in a zoom against a pure Bausch and Lomb, you’re going to see something happen that you won’t believe—and I happen to be a perfectionist: I’m critical about my films. It’s bad enough when you grind 400-500 prints off the virgin material; you start getting green anyhow. You don't’ want to do that. I build new matrices after 350 proofs when you can really go up to about 500. But I won’t do that. It costs a little more, but I take pride. So we build a new set of matrices.
FOCUS: Did you have enough film to do it?
LEWIS: Yeah. Who else is going to have it? You gotta have it.
FOCUS: Did you find when you were shooting for television that you adjusted your shooting style for the tube?
LEWIS: No. I never changed anything that I did. I wasn’t shooting for television—I was making a film. I wouldn’t bend. The only bending I did was because I had tried for over twenty years to get a documentary made. But not by me, not by my company. Not anything that would look like—here’s Jerry Lewis, and his relation to muscular dystrophy produced it. I wanted a professional, commercial show on the air to speak to me. And the only way that I would adjust to the television medium was to bend to the schedule. I wouldn’t shoot a film in seven days. But I did, ’cause that’s the only way they work.
FOCUS: How long do you generally take?
LEWIS: Forty or fifty days’ shooting on major films, feature films. But their schedule for TV was six days. And just for the honor, yes, but I won’t do it in less than seven. As it was, it was horrendous. There was no way in which it could be made in six days. It was a 75-page script with 63 sets, four of which were exteriors, each in a different place. So after you put your marbles back together again you’d had it.
FOCUS: Sleep?
LEWIS: The last time I slept was November 4th.
LEWIS: Stanley Kramer sat in my house one night and said, “I’m so envious of your position.” And I replied, “Well, I know what you’re talking about, but that’s ridiculous.” The things that I do, of course, are terribly lowbrow. I’m not talking about reviews now. I’m talking about general consensus, that comedy is lowbrow. But you take someone like Stan Laurel, who had the greatest dignity and the most influence of any man I’ve ever know. And he was just chucked under the rug. I finally found out the reason for it: most people fear comedy. Because the truth of it is like a bone coming through the skin. Comedy is nothing more than a mirror we hold up to life. And people don’t want that.
I did an exhibition one night for my class, but they didn’t understand why I felt that way. I told them about a party that I went to in New York—the Jet Set. It was the only night I ever vomited for an hour straight. I never saw anything like it in my life. Just a breed of people that I just can’t begin to tell you about. I didn’t dislike them—I couldn't understand them. Someone would say, “Hello, and how are you,” and turn away, and walk, and you can’t say, “How are you” yet. “How are you”—and I’m about to say—I never got “fine” out. And they’re leaving and they’re shaking hands and leaving…but—I watched this one woman who had a dress on—and it looked like it was painted on her. And there was a terribly funny man there—Jonathan Winters, who’s truly a genius. Hysterical. And this woman fought the laughter back because it would in fact either split the dress—or it would have to bend. And she was getting convulsed. (Laughter.) Her face was still red. But she wasn’t going to budge in that goddamn dress. She was not about to enjoy. And that’s terribly sad. And I showed the students exactly how she stood.
You’ll notice that people really laugh at good movies; they move forward, or they hit a table. That’s natural. It’s part of being human. But certain people know that, not unlike a writer, they’ll tip their mitt by reacting, or by identifying with a specific type of humor. They don’t want to go to see something that’s acknowledged by children, because they think it’s immature.
FOCUS: What do you conceive of as being “mature”?
LEWIS: Well, I look at it this way—I have my own particular analogy for “mature” and “immature.” “Immature applies to those who run around proclaiming what men they are. And a mature male is the one who is going to proclaim very proudly there’s a lot of little boy in him. It takes a tremendous amount of maturity to throw a firecracker in a classroom. Because you know damn well that it’s indicative of irresponsibility and you’re going to have to pay rent for it. It doesn’t come from an immature mind. It comes from a mind that knows exactly what it’s doing. Because if he didn’t know what he was doing, he wouldn’t know the laugh he’s going to get from doing it. And most people cannot deal with identifying with that kind of humor, or with humor that breaks down the demeanor of the individual. Now that’s sad, because I like to laugh. And when it’s funny, I laugh.
They don’t want to see what children go to see. They're like so many critics who in the silence of the night now sneak in and discover Laurel and Hardy. Well, I don’t want to hear about how good I was when I died. I want to hear it now. And don’t do me no favors, and don’t write no obits on me, eulogies. I went to the New York Times because they’ve got me set up already. You know, the New York Times has a section of all current people. They have a whole file of pre-written obits set up.
And I said to this friend of mine on the paper, give me a copy of the obit. And it’s a frightening thing to look at, 1926 and that empty space after it. Also the space for the additional copy, in the event I live through Tuesday. And I completed it—I completed the obit, and I sent it to him and said, do me a personal favor and print that. When you’re ready… It’s so sad…
FOCUS: I’d like to ask you about a specific gag in one of your films and perhaps take it from conception to shooting. Now, I’m thinking of The Bellboy, which was your first film. Near the beginning the bellboy opens the door to a car and eight or ten people get out. (Silence) Do you recall the joke I’m talking about? (Silence) First of all, was that written into the script? And when you got to the space where you were shooting it, how did you decide where you were going to put the camera, the car, etc.?
LEWIS: Now the right frame line was cutting by one foot into the windshield of that car. We were overhead, and there was a two-inch lens on the camera. We crabbed from this position to that position. We were back about sixteen feet from the car with the deuce, which cut the bottom line to be at the handle of the drive—holding the top of the car. Did you want to know if I remembered it?… The car drove up in the first shot. You saw the total car come up the driveway. You saw no one in the car but in the front seat. The back of the car I had masked until it came to a stop. On cue we pulled the mask, and I started to crab. We did more crab until the seventh person stepped out of the car. When we crabbed we saw 8, 9, and 10. When we came to the stop of the second mark, we watched 11, 12, 13, 14, …15 and we were then in a stop position by then; we held the whole car and 16 got out and slammed the door.
FOCUS: It’s a great gag.
LEWIS: It’s not a new joke. That type of gag has been done before, but the pride that I took in it was that it was never, ever executed like that.
There was only one way to deliver the car in its entirety in the shot, to see that there weren’t people coming from what might look like half a car. It had to hold visually that end of the car so that you knew it was, in actual fact, part of where we started. And it’s tricky, but it'll make the joke work. An audience will never say, “That was funny because…” They’ll just laugh. But it is because of design, and every joke that works is because of design; you have to apply yourself to it.
I made a shot of Peter [Lawford] and Sammy [Davis] getting hit by two heavies, and I never cut. (In One More Time—Ed.) I saw the two bodies fly through the doorway—the partition to the apartment. And I had to take them in the master, and drop down on  a small little cart that they deliver tea on in London. I had to bank on that car. And I closed the two heavies right in front of the camera, shooting up on Sammy and Peter. When the heavies closed in on them, Sammy and Peter broke left and right and the two doubles that were seated on the couch stood up and as they pulled back just air opened, and we saw two bodies fly through the door. And it was beautiful. Everybody wanted to know how I could let Sammy and Peter get hit like that.
FOCUS: Do you feel that color is better for comedies?
LEWIS: Uh-huh.
FOCUS: Then you couldn’t conceive of doing a film in black-and-white.
LEWIS: I could conceive of it, but I wouldn’t do it. Color is life, isn’t it? Did you ever see a black-and-white film? No, you didn’t. You’ve never seen a black-and-white film. Now, you might have seen a black-and-white sequence that I shot in a color film.
But life is color. Look around you. And the moment you separate it from what is actual fact, you’ve got a helluva problem. I think that the emphasis that dramatic directors put on black-and-white because it’s documentary-like and brainy—that’s all garbage. You play a heavy scene on that screen and the people aren’t going to know you’re in color. But they’re sure as hell going to know you’re in black-and-white. What you’re doing is taking 23 hours of the day and for one hour you’re going to sit them through shades of gray. And I think it’s a terrifying, destructive form. And it’s wrong.
FOCUS: Do you find any problem with definition in lighting?
LEWIS: Definition? No. Not any more. With quartz lamps and high intensity bulbs you’re not going to get any problem. You’re going to get spots, because the piercing of most light that they use has a center core, and the heat of the light is really forced through taht center point; but quartz has developed in uniformity. And in a film I did, The Ladies Man, I used a 3000 quartz lamp, all recessed, in all the ceilings. For the initial light we used 6 quartz lamps to a room, and I had 30 rooms. So there were only 180 lamps. But we went through 7,000 on the production, because they burn up pretty quickly. But I had an even lighting look. And I had recessed over 66 microphones in all of those rooms, so that there were no booms and shadows and problems of that nature—and I had 3 mixers on the set that worked on a compact audiopanel. I had devised that whole scene for years and I never thought I was going to do it, but I did it. The set cost me exactly $1,085,000 to build. It had $400,000 of steel in it. It was really quite a thing to see. And I would have left it standing but I was able to get $300,000 back for the steel so we ripped it apart. (Laughter.) Which broke my heart. I said, OK, take it down, but don’t let me know when.
FOCUS: Do you ever use CinemaScope?
LEWIS: No, I will not use any of what I call the bastard processors. I think CinemaScope and Panavision were made for a rabbi and 7,000 sheep in a desert.
FOCUS: Snakes and funerals…
LEWIS: I don’t care what you shoot something funny in, it’s not going to be any funnier if it’s wider.
FOCUS: Then what about Frank Tashlin? He was one of the masters of the widescreen.
LEWIS: No, I think you’ll find that Frank’s things were funny in spite of ’Scope. Frank is the first one to admit that he didn’t know how to stage CinemaScope. He never applied himself to CinemaScope.
FOCUS: How about the beginning of The Girl Can’t Help It?
LEWIS: He only used that for CinemaScope dividers. And that was the only thing he had for it. Everything else was staged as straight, 35 standard aperture.
FOCUS: It doesn’t look like any other comedy made at the same time.
LEWIS: Billy Wilder had trouble with The Apartment because he went into Panavision. You’re trapped with air. Tons of air. And the one thing you don’t do in comedy is give people any kind of aloneness, unless you’re doing an alone kind of thing. But when you’re doing comedy you want to embrace people so that the comic values work. I don’t care if you put 300 people in that elevator. In CinemaScope, they’re still air. (Laughter.) And when you watch it on television you see the guy walk out of the frame. (Laughter.) The guy walks out of the frame and then you hear a voiceover. (Laughter.) The guy says, “I’m gonna get you” and the other guy says “I’m gonna get you” and you hear a shot and you don’t know who the hell got it. But that’s of no concern because I don’t shoot for television. It has its place. Well, I’m an old-fashioned filmmaker. I just want to see what I shot playing nice and regular. I don’t want stereophonic seats and loud noises. Just let the joke work.
FOCUS: Can you discuss your relationship with Frank Tashlin?
LEWIS: Well, he was my teacher. Greatest influence in the world. He taught me more than I could even begin to tell you, because I was well on my way at the time that I started to work with Frank. I was well on my way to learning anyhow. I was really bent on knowing everything there was to know about making films. And without even realizing it, Frank was giving me total information on all things. And I wasn’t totally aware of what I’d learned from him until three or four years ago. Great, great creator.
FOCUS: In The Nutty Professor, how much of the tension between the professor and Buddy Love derived from your teaming with Dean Martin?
LEWIS: I wasn’t portraying the role of any one person; I was portraying about six people. It’s interesting that (friends picked up first) they thought I was doing something on Dean. So ludicrous. That was very, very close to the time that we broke, at least closer than it is now; and that was kind of unfair because if that’s what I was doing, I’d say that’s what I did. But I was writing about five or six people that are like that. A small portion of Dean’s arrogance might have been there—subconscious, again, I was not aware of it. But I can name the five or six people that that character was—that just repelled me on a human level—their inability to be just… respectful to another human being. And these are all theatrical people that I have seen and that I felt desperately sorry for. I have no feelings of dislike or hate other than… they’re just terrifying what lives they must live. And it was the one time that I had trouble directing Jerry—that was the only time—when the objectivity and all of the science and everything I had expounded upon earlier really didn’t work for him. I really had trouble.
LEWIS: You know, I’d like to recut everything I’ve ever made… I’d like to reshoot everything I’ve ever made.
FOCUS: Why do you think your films are better received, critically, in France?
LEWIS: Well, everybody loves me in France, but it’s even bigger in the Netherlands, and my work has been received much more favorably in Belgium and Spain and Italy. France just has Cahiers du cinéma and Positif, and Spain doesn’t have anything. They just have a very very high regard for filmmakers. It’s that simple. And they read into film some things that are ridiculous. I did a comic scene once and they wrote that there must have been some rejection on the part of my mother and that my father was going with another chick at the time… I had no idea of this at all.
FOCUS: You mean you never heard about it? It was all over the neighborhood.
LEWIS: That’s one in a row.
Republished with the permission of Myron Meisel.


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