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Something Only He Can Give: A Few Thoughts on Jerry Lewis and Television

Jerry Lewis and television were not a perfect match, but in some ways they were able to reveal each other.
Part of the Jerry Lewis tribute A MUBI Jerrython.
Jerry Lewis's rise to stardom almost perfectly coincides with the rise of television as the dominant entertainment medium of the post-war era. 1946, the first year a somewhat consistent network schedule emerged in the U.S., with several hours of daily programming, Lewis teamed up with Dean Martin, and they almost immediately started gaining success as a nightclub comedy double act. Two years later, Martin and Lewis started appearing on television and quickly established themselves as a steady presence there, too. To skip through the patchy archive of Lewis's early television appearances on YouTube and elsewhere means encountering a comedian, who entered the limelight almost fully formed (and often much more fully formed than the medium he appeared in), but who also seemed to feel constrained by the opportunities given to him almost from the start. Lewis and television were not a perfect match, but in some ways they were able to reveal each other.
The earliest longer clip I found on YouTube is from a 1949 Texaco Star Theater episode. The version online is probably taken from the VHS “Milton Berle, the Second Time Around”, released in 1989, and it starts with an introduction by Berle, the show’s moderator and - in 1949 - the biggest star on television. Standing, in true faux grand seigneur fashion, in front of a bookshelf, he claims that Martin and Lewis made their television debut on his show. Which is not true, as they had appeared on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town one year earlier. This episode has probably not survived, but there is a half minute Martin and Lewis clip from yet another show (Welcome Aboard) on YouTube, also dating from 1948.
Despite this, it still somehow makes sense to think of the Texaco clip as a beginning - not only of Lewis's television career, but also of television comedy in general. It starts with Martin and Lewis arguing about their own act and Lewis's feelings towards their partnership. When Berle joins them, things only heat up. The whole scene is set in front of a curtain (the most important prop in Texaco Star Theater and most other early comedy variety shows), with the flat kinescope transfer and the YouTube encoding blotting out all detail. No context, no world, just three lone figures inside an otherwise almost blank, depthless screen, playing off of each other, pushing each other around. While they are technically acting out a sketch comedy miniature built around fictionalized personae, Berle, Martin and Lewis do not even try to establish anything remotely resembling a continuous illusionary space. Instead, the frequent changes, always at breakneck speed—not only of tone, but also of modes of address—are clearly part of the attraction; it is all about freewheeling communication, unhinged from any fixed sense of identity.
And yet, even in this most reduced of settings, Lewis is the one striving for bigger, more elaborate gestures. While Berle and Martin are perfectly happy with transforming themselves (although in very different ways) into pure, almost mechanical elements of televisual communication, Lewis's flexibility, his inner softness, always brings the to and fro to a temporary stop. In electrical terms, Berle is the circuit breaker, Martin the conductor, and Lewis the (constantly shape-shifting) resistance.
Only one year later, Lewis and Martin got their own television showcase as one of the rotating hosts of NBC’s sketch comedy variety show The Colgate Comedy Hour. They appeared in more than 150 episodes between 1950 and 1955. Even a cursory passage through a few of the kinescope transfers available on YouTube suggests that these might form Lewis's most important work in television, if only because, in all likelihood, no other Martin and Lewis TV appearance, let alone feature film, came closer to replicating what the Martin and Lewis nightclub act might have felt like. Some of the show’s more memorable sketches, on the other hand, clearly anticipate, in terms of scope and ambition, Lewis's later directorial work.
Here, I want to concentrate on just one genuinely televisual gesture, which appears in some of the early Colgate episodes in different variations (see two examples below), always during front-curtain acts in between sketches: While announcing the next attraction, or just while bantering with Martin, Lewis suddenly takes a few steps forward, towards the camera, destabilizing the image until the screen is almost completely filled up by his face. A close-up, which is not, as in cinema, a result of the camera closing in on the world, but rather a closing off of both world and image.
Jokes like this, which draw attention to the apparatus, were quite common in early television. In fact, The Colgate Comedy Hour is rather tame in this regard when compared with shows like Burns and Allen or the short-lived Fireball Fun-For-All. Still, Lewis's performance transforms the trope in surprising ways. There is a certain awkwardness, or rather over-eagerness in his way of approaching the camera. Normally, media-reflexive gestures like this were performed either in a cool, ironically detached manner (George Burns), or they just happened as a byproduct of the hysterical anarchy of early television (Fireball Fun-For-All, Ernie Kovacs). Lewis's attacks against the camera, on the other hand, are not throwaway, disinterested gestures acknowledging the strangeness of a new medium, but rather deliberate attempts to enhance his own expressivity. He wants to get something through, not necessarily something of himself, but in any case something only he can give. It almost feels as if he is trying to squeeze a feeling, a subjectivity, into television itself, and thereby into the living rooms of its audiences.
There are probably quite a few treasures to unearth from this period of his work, both in The Colgate Comedy Hour and in other shows, but that does not change the fact that Lewis's true ambitions lay elsewhere. The early television of the 1950s, with its hurried production schedules and built-in tendency towards cheap compromise, just was not the ideal place for a total filmmaker. For a time, it was a good, or at least tolerable place for gaudy, vulgar vaudeville-wizards like Berle or quirky, slapdash inventors like Kovacs; for those masters of comedy less interested in fully-fledged artistic designs than in staging smaller scale interventions. This resulted in creative breakdowns of a medium not yet all that sure of itself. But even they did not last long. Berle claims, when introducing his Martin and Lewis clip, that he produced “pure, clean family entertainment”, when in fact he himself was driven out, or at least marginalized, by the sitcom, a form of television comedy much more domesticated than his own, unruly show.
This points towards the one big gap in Lewis's television work. Although he appeared in dozens of comedy variety shows, game shows and talk shows throughout his career, and continued to do so even during his most troubled decade, the 1970s, he almost completely resisted the most successful genre of television comedy, the sitcom. Almost, because there is “The Billionaire”, the 17th episode of the first season of Mad About You, broadcast in February 1993.
In its best moments, Mad About You was a likeable, if minor part of the extremely successful 1990s NBC sitcom cycle, and might be best described as an effort to reconcile themes of sexual neuroses explored in much greater depth in shows like Seinfeld and Cheers with a more traditional family sitcom setting. Right from the start, though, the show exhibited a fondness for gimmicks, which was rather unnerving most of the time, but also allowed for Lewis's appearance as Freddie Statler, eccentric man of independent means, in “The Billionaire”. Lewis seems to be very content with his own gimmick status and basically treats the Mad About You set as just another variety show, presenting, over the course of the episode, a number of his favorite skits while almost completely ignoring the vague narrative he is supposed to be a part of.
Paul (Paul Reiser) and Jamie (Helen Hunt) on the other hand, the protagonists of Mad About You, do not even try to insert themselves into Lewis's act in any meaningful way. The televisual flow of the sitcom communication and the singularities of Lewis's slapstick performance (which transforms itself, in the last part of the show, into a touching confessional melodrama about Lewis's loneliness) are completely incompatible with each other. This is especially evident, in an almost sardonic way, in the last scene of the episode, after Lewis has already left the stage. Paul and Jamie are, once again, alone in their apartment. While they start making out on the sofa, Paul imitates, for Jamie’s giggling enjoyment, a Jerry voice. Based on this scene, Lewis's reluctancy in approaching the sitcom seems completely justified. No matter what ambitions he might have harboured for his comedic art, being reduced to a stimulant in the foreplay of a married couple probably was not top of the list.

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