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Comfort Food: Jerry Lewis Eats!

An exegesis examining the close relationship between discomfort and food in Jerry Lewis' movies.
Part of the Jerry Lewis tribute A MUBI Jerrython.
Throughout his filmmaking career, Jerry Lewis would re-use food gags. A spoon too full forcefully inserted into an unprepared mouth, the exponential exhaustion faced at a meal never had, the exaggerated despair at food which is unsatisfactory: in these forms of jokes, the crux of Lewis’ relation to food is revealed. Using food consistently as a signifier of domestic comfort, Lewis would throughout his career take up food for emotional as well as comedic emphasis.
As Herbert H. Heebert in The Ladies Man (1961), Lewis plays a youth terrified of women after finding his girlfriend has cheated on him. Ending up employed and living in an all-female boarding house, Helen Wellenmellen (Helen Traubel), the house’s owner, explains to her boarders how and why they must keep Herbert employed (a notoriously difficult hotel, they hope to keep him longer than other staff), as Fay (Pat Stanley), another older woman who works there, forcefully feeds Herbert his breakfast.
Fay contrasts greatly to the girls who stay at the boarding house. Older, in sensible outfits, never participating in the carnivalesque dance-and-mime routines of the other girls, Fay is a maternal figure: caring, she guides Herbert, healing him of his fear of women.
To Herbert, Fay is woman, but non-threatening: meeting her before the other boarders, he feels safe in what Lewis presents as a lack of sexuality. Compared to the sexually aggressive, frilly-nightgowned girls whose employment offers he rejects, Fay (introduced by her sensible shoes) is a safe haven to the woman-phobic Herbert. To have Mrs. Wellenmellen use Fay to feed Herbert while distracting him is thus logical, in providing a comforting feminine caregiver in contrast to the voracious and sexually intimidating younger women he would come to live with. The mother-figure is used to initiate the breaking of Herbert’s fear of women.
As Fay feeds Herbert, the comfort of domesticity and the mother is distilled through her character. Coded visually (in costume, in age) as non-sexualized, and therefore non-threatening, she is able to feed Herbert, taking up the more explicitly maternal role as he is made to sit in a baby’s high-chair, becoming infantilized. Resisting her, Herbert states that he does not need food, nor does he need feeding. But in the scene of domestic humiliation, where Fay’s ‘mother’ is overpowering and destroying Herbert, we find Herbert’s protests to be an act as he, with as much aggression as his denial of the food, gruffly asks for “one more [spoonful] for good luck,” swallowing it up eagerly.
Lewis would frequently use these flourishes—the combination of incongruous actions—for comedic value. Behaving in one way, while meaning something completely different, was characteristic of Lewis’ work. It functions as a method of blurring boundaries: when the youthful voices of pop singers are revealed to come from three Jerry Lewises dressed as old women in The Patsy, or when Lewis’ character “speaks” over a jazz record, as though he is producing the sound of instruments from his own mouth in The Errand Boy, we see the mix of what should be, with what shouldn’t: sound does not come from its proper source. Here, we see Lewis doing the same thing: the desire for food comes from the actions which suggest a rejection of it. Food, connoting the comfort of family, the safety of the home lead by the mother, as contrasted to the evil of adult life (and adult women), is protested shallowly, while still providing the nourishment it promises. In the face of the sexual threat of young women, the mother’s meal is a tool of safety and healing.
Lewis’ gag of the meal fed to the “child” forcefully, is repeated in The Family Jewels (1965). In the scene, Donna (Donna Butterworth), a ten-year old girl who must choose an uncle to live with in order to inherit the fortune of her deceased father, is visiting her uncle Julius (Lewis) to see if he should be the one to adopt her. A photographer, Donna walks in on Julius shooting a cereal ad, and he assumes she is a model, not his potential daughter. Sitting her among his other models, he begins to feed her the cereal: large spoonfuls, spilling onto her face and dress, impeding her from explaining she is in fact not there for a photoshoot.
Still a symbol of the domestic, and the family, food becomes perverse in the hands of Julius who is unfit to care for his potential ward. Unable to be a good father, and with the mother figures replaced by young models (not dissimilar to the sexually threatening girls of The Ladies Man),the breakfast is one of disappointment: where Donna should be in the hands of a loving father figure, ready to make a caring and loving home for her, she is faced with a man incapable of dealing with children as children, rather than as miniature working adults or a simple accompaniment to his other models, and a prop for his photography. The food is there ready as a symbol of love and domestic comfort, but without proper figures to feed Donna and partake in her meal, the cereal becomes disturbing for her, where it was a stepping stone of non-sexual warmth for Herbert when given by a proper maternal figure.
Again associating the bad meal with the inadequate home and inappropriate mother, in The Nutty Professor (1963), Lewis plays Julius Kelp, and incredibly meek man who, while trying to be braver, ventures into an exploration of family history. Suspecting his nervousness is hereditary, we see a flashback of baby Kelp as he watches his domineering mother and submissive father at their dinner time. Her, overly critical, and he, overly fearful, are part of what has ruined adult Julius, making him a target of bullies—and he shows this, once again, through food. Kelp’s mother is so critical that she denies his father food before he can eat: “Idiot! Can’t you eat with your mouth closed?” she says. “Not until I can get something in it, dearest,” he responds. And when she reacts in anger, he removes his fork from the plate and thus, as the scene ends, he hasn’t taken a single bite. Destroying a moment of domestic bliss with aggression and improper gender roles—her dominant and him submissive (she is a housewife and mother who cares little for her domestic role, and subverts it by violently controlling the home, which she transforms into a realm of authoritarian fear rather than of helpful servitude to the man of the house)—the home is disturbed, leading to lasting psychological damage.
But food in Lewis’ directorial oeuvre did not always have to be attached to a feminine caregiver to signify family and comfort. In The Bellboy (1960), the titular bellboy Stanley (Lewis) takes a lunch break expecting peace, only to be disrupted by swimming hotel guests who distract him when he unknowingly sits next to a window by the pool. Expecting a break from his labor, Stanley is instead mocked and disrupted by entitled guests, who battle to end Stanley’s moment of rest, and evidently succeed since he gets increasingly agitated by them.
Earlier in the film Stanley has a similar engagement where, attempting to eat with the guests, he is anxious, spilling his food when startled by the social situation. Loud, excitable guests take up every table and agitate the silent and solitary Stanley, whose discomfort-induced clumsiness aligning him with other nervous Lewis heroes, from Herbert H. Heebert to Julius Kelp.Initially isolated visually, standing separate from the crowd of hotel patrons with the bar segregating him from them, creating a line through the frame, Stanley eventually does find a seat at a table of gangsters. Still not comfortable -- he is frightened of them -- he attempts to eat while spilling his food and enduring their aggressive behaviour. Even when the lead gangster begins to praise Stanley (“A kid who’s got class!”) it is in a negative way: hitting him on the back too hard, speaking over him before he can talk, making him choke on his meal. The distinction of the meek bellboy and the macho gangster lends itself to this discomfort, but significantly, Lewis places the scene within the patron’s dining hall, which he contrasted above with the invaded worker’s one. The entitlement of the people who expect and rely onhis labour ruins his own space of meager solace, while he cannot find peace in the locale in which he is deemed unworthy by way of class and work. The displacement Stanley feels is as much about the gangsters as it is about labour relations, where the comfort of food cannot override the discomfort of class distinction.
In the same vein is the lunch scene in The Errand Boy (1961) where Morty (Lewis) is hired to be a general worker (and, not to his knowledge, a spy) for a production company. Performing entry level jobs and manual labor, Morty finally reaches the lunch hour. The boss is strict, detailing about fifteen seconds before the bell rings that workers have “exactly thirty minutes to eat [their] lunch. Not thirty-one minutes, mind you.” As the bell rings, he cuts himself off while explaining that eating in the office helps save on time, shoving a sandwich into his mouth—a move replicated by Morty’s co-workers.
Half chewed food spilling out of mouths, faces smeared with mayonnaise, the spectacle of fast eating becomes too much for Morty. With food as comfort and respite, he seeks somewhere to indulge in the basic pleasure of eating, away from the grotesque spectacle of productive and convenient consumption. His attempts fail, as he first sits at a cafe set, which ends up exploding as part of a war film. Morty is denied the right to the comfort of food, where consumption is subjugated to the workplace and salaried hours. Though Morty longs for the meal to be a moment of ease and rest, he is alone in an industry which views it as capitalist sustenance, a too-brief break from productivity.
Again, there are similarities to Hardly Working (1981) where clown Bo (Lewis) loses his job at the circus. Attempting to find employment, and consistently being fired, Bo stays with his sister’s family. What should be pleasant meals at home are ruined by the insults and irritation of Bo’s brother-in-law, who cannot comprehend why Bo does not work, while Bo himself explains that his jobs have not been a right fit: he seeks meaningful employment, where he can “be somebody; not just anybody.” Refusing to simply enter into degrading labour, Bo wants a job which may benefit him as well as his boss. Moments of rest and domestic comfort with his loved ones are interrupted by his brother-in-law, and unrepentant yuppie banker, who possesses neither the affection of Bo’s sister, niece and nephew, nor Bo’s desire for respect and fulfilment above financial gain.
Making more explicit the ill-fated connection between food and work is a later scene where Bo, at a job interview, eats donuts. A box rests upon the boss’ desk and Bo eyes them with obvious hunger; the next second he is feigning disinterest. When finally commanded to eat one, the situation becomes awkward (mouth too full and food spilling out, Bo cannot speak; when he tries to “wash it down” he drinks too much coffee). Bo’s anxiety and the power imbalance between him and his boss lead to an uncomfortable situation, making the pleasure of food something which is converted into a state of malaise. Perhaps food and work cannot go together.
The mix of food and capitalism is pushed further in Cracking Up (1983). When Lewis’ character, Warren, cannot afford a better flight, he is forced to fly with a disreputable airline which is supposedly so cheap because the workers are not paid well. Warren immediately asks about whether dinner will be served, and is informed that there will be a “chef’s surprise;” among the other discomforts, the food ends up being slop. Without the means to pay for comfort, the pleasure of food is denied to Warren. He is subjected to the most abject conditions for his lack of funds.
But even when the means are available, the ability to exchange money for food does not guarantee a meal’s comfort, distancing it from the domestic and warm affection which Lewis associates with good eating. When Warren goes to a restaurant, a waitress with a nasal monotone lists repeated options for dinner, taking such a long time that Warren gives up, never eating. Commodified, the mealloses its humanity, becoming a series of customer choices which have little of the affection or nourishment of Herbert’s breakfast with Faye.
But in Lewis’ conception of food as comfort, there are boundaries. Critical of the way labour relations and capitalism destroy the pleasurable, and emotionally sustaining, potential of the meal, Lewis sharply depicts the cruelty of who exactly is allowed to eat. In The Bellboy, Lewis makes use of a gag where a woman loses weight by way of supposed starvation at his hotel, and as she is about to depart, looking newly slim, he sneaks a box of chocolates her way. Within minutes, she is back to her original size, the joke being in part the surrealism of instantaneous weight-gain, but also simply poking fun at a woman’s weight. Where the comfort of food provides a space of warmth, healing, and safety for Lewis other characters, for her it is a danger, rendering her unattractive, and leading her to a state where she must deny herself the food that Lewis otherwise loves to celebrate in his films.
When Lewis puts on yellow-face in Hardly Working we see a similar situation where food is no longer a comforting necessity, nor is it damaged by a capitalist system: it is again rendered as a joke. Irredeemably racist, Lewis mumbles his way through a bastardized “East Asian” (one could never pinpoint this to a real country) accent, with buck teeth and painted skin, as he works in a Japanese restaurant. Preparing food badly, the joke is not so much that he is not a good cook—that could have been done without the yellow face -- but the Japanese stereotype he takes up. But as a result, food loses the thread that connects it in his other films, becoming something different.
In both films, food becomes a part of capitalism: no longer an element of the healthy home, it is something that must be worked at, and must be worked at well. Whether this means spending money to enter a hotel where food is denied so that one may become thin, or whether this means preparing food for customers in a certain way in order to both please buyers and the boss, Lewis in these situations does not really question the issue of the ethics of food. In another film, centered on other characters, these scenes would be different. One could speculate that had Lewis played a character denied food, he would have emphasized the danger and despair of the situation (as he does when Morty cannot eat in The Errand Boy). Had a white character been unable to cook for patrons, the emphasis would have been on the the impossible relation between food and labor (like in The Bellboy), or theinability of Lewis to succeed in the general workplace, like in every other scene in Hardly Working.       
Displaced upon bodies Lewis views regularly as subhuman, food becomes less of an interpersonal necessity; the meal is no longer  a sanctuary which heals the soul, brings people together, and protects the vulnerable from the harsh climate of society. Subverting his own ideology, Lewis sees food associated with those he deems undesirable (the fat woman, the Japanese man) to be exactly what he typically fights against. It becomes an acceptable part of capitalism, something which must be bought and sold, chosen or denied, devoid of the human warmth of domestic love. With a consistent conception of food as something so essential to human well-being, Lewis disrupts his own culinary-auteurial thematics for lazy hatred.
But with these detours, Lewis’ use of food remains one of a celebration of love, and a mourning of work. In Lewis’ minor One More Time (1970) the mix of class and food also crystallizes negatively when best friends Salt (Sammy Davis Jr.) and Pepper (Peter Lawford) share a meal. When at the Pepper chateau, the two men are seated at a long table, so far from each other they cannot be squeezed within the same frame. When food is brought, the meal is so opulent and bountiful that it takes the weakened server an absurd amount of time to come to the table (a gag similar to the over-long menu options in Cracking Up, where the characters grow beards, finish packs of cigarettes, and the flower centerpiece wilts and dies before the food even arrives). The stuffy, distant atmosphere of the aristocratic dinner is uncomfortable, and un-nourishing in its restrictive rules and unnecessary ceremony. Once the two men decide to flaunt the order of the dinner table, sitting side by side to enjoy each other’s company as much as the food, the meal becomes a moment of pleasure and comfort, rather than one of posh restriction. Too concerned with the rules of polite society, the upper class is unable to let mealtime be the emotional sanctuary Lewis sees it as. But among friends, without the trappings of class, food may be the perfect moment to revel in the company of friends.

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