Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Cynicism, emotion, and Zen: Deceased Harry Dean Stanton

The best character actors always have memorable faces. Harry Dean Stanton's visage was perfection it went from a lean, rough-hewn cowpoke's mask to the sunken, weathered mug that made him instantly recognizable in all of his roles since the mid-Eighties.

The details of his youth are scarce (he wanted it that way, if the documentary Partly Fiction is any indication), but set him up for a career playing “average American cynic” parts. A native of Kentucky, he served in the Navy in WWII he was a company chef in the Battle of Okinawa (!).

He returned from the war and pursued his interest in performing through college and into several stage roles. His regular work as a supporting player on TV and in the movies began in earnest in the late Fifties and never stopped until he died over a week ago at 91.

Through the Sixties and Seventies, he carved out a place as a supporting performer, usually in Westerns and crime movies. Although no one knew his name at the time despite his close friend Jack Nicholson including it in graffiti on the sets of his films his no-nonsense demeanor and his memorable face found him playing heavies (he was the thinnest heavy around) and characters who get killed off rather quickly.

His career changed for good thanks to one role that of “Travis Henderson” in Wim Wenders' Paris Texas (1984), scripted by Sam Shepard. Wenders and Shepard gave Harry Dean his very first starring role at the “tender “age of 58. As it turned out, it was one of the few he ever got, but the film itself was good and he was so excellent in the role that his name finally became as familiar as his face.

The same year saw the release of Repo Man, the brilliantly off-beat comedy where Harry Dean played the coke-sniffing veteran repo man Bud. The combination of that brusque, cynical character (who had a mean way with a bat) and the quiet, directionless Travis established HDS as a sturdy presence in the ever-fickle movie industry.

From heavies to good guys, the one common thread in his movie work is that, like his friend Jack, Harry Dean was an indubitably American presence. His characters had seen it all, done most of it, and were at a slight remove from the over-stimulated culture we live in. He was effortlessly cool and his characters often reflected his own craggy charm and fascination with both country and Mexican music. 

Good character actors are always impressive because they lend a back story to even the most briefly seen characters, through their physical presence. HDS did that in every film he appeared in.

I saw Harry Dean in concert at the long gone (and much lamented) Bottom Line here in NYC. I attended the show almost on a lark, since I wasn't aware of Harry Dean's commitment to his music and just figured it would be a suitably odd evening.

By the show's end I was struck by two things: his evident love for the songs he performed (which were nearly all country and Mexican), and the amazing readings Harry Dean threw in as “interludes” between his musical performances. He read from Shepard's The Motel Chronicles (the source for Shepard's script for Paris, Texas). I was bowled over by his readings, which were stirring and very emotional.

Sadly he didn't do any complete audio books, but he did narrate (as the “older” Hunter S. Thompson) this audio version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Jim Jarmusch plays Raoul Duke, Maury Chaykin is Dr. Gonzo, with Harry Shearer among the other voices.

As he aged, Harry Dean evolved into the ultimate “senior hipster” used in the sense of the real cool folk of the past, not the faux hipsters of the present. He smoked and drank to his dying day (seemingly) and was none of the worse for it, as he had always been a spindly, unhealthy-looking guy who was ready to indulge (quietly, ever so quietly).

One of the most interesting juxtapositions is to view two recent (read: made in the last decade) documentaries about him. The full-length feature is Sophie Huber's Partly Fiction (2012).

Huber was hard-pressed to get Harry Dean to answer any of her questions. In the film, she recruits his friends David Lynch and Kris Kristofferson to ask him questions and reminisce, but it is only through filming him singing that she seems to get at the “real” Harry Dean. He opens up while singing, and then (and only then) is she able to get him to comment on his family life and his very busy career as a performer. 

A few years earlier, though, Harry Dean was far more cooperative with an interviewer for the DVD extra “Harry Zen Stanton,” made by Peter McCarthy for the 2005 DVD release of Repo Man (which McCarthy produced). Although he didn't offer any information about his private life, he did sum up his personal beliefs, which were indeed Zen-like but also heavily cynical about the activities of the human race. They also indicated that he was very well-read for “an old cowpoke.”

“… There's no answer to that. Don't you follow what I'm trying to say? Everybody wants an answer to why I did this, why all that happened. Ultimately there's no answer to it. Everything happens the way it's going happen, nobody's in charge, it's all gonna go down Iraq war, Napoleon, serial killers, wars… you never know what's going to happen next.

“We think we're in charge. Ten seconds from now, none of us in this room know what we're going to be thinking or saying. So who the fuck is in charge?”

As he talks to McCarthy, he does at first seem like a diehard cynic. But it becomes clear that he had read up on Zen Buddhism and various sciences:

“… It's an old Eastern concept. One guy phrased it, 'To realize you're nothing is wisdom, to realize you're everything is love.' Or pure intelligence, pure awareness. Ultimately that can't be defined in words. It's beyond words, it's beyond consciousness. It's a hard sell!”

McCarthy closes out the mini-doc with Harry Dean quoting the Tao Te Ching:

“If you don't realize your source/you stumble in confusion and sorrow./ If you realize where you come from/you naturally become tolerant/disinterested or attached, kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king./ Immersed in the wonder of the Tao/you can deal with whatever life brings you, and when death comes, you are ready.' Seeing everything as a meaningful whole… one connected whole.”

Perhaps that is what ultimately made Harry Dean such a cult hero in the last three decades. He was an individual who loved music and acting (in that order, it seemed) and knew “too much” about the petty squabbles and tediously predictable behavior that makes up our daily life.

For him, a good smoke, a potent drink, and some emotional music (punctuated by incarnating different characters in different films) was all that he needed.

One of the best tributes to Harry Dean was posted to the Net for his 91st birthday. The David Lynch/Twin Peaks fansite Lynchland got HDS to give them a list of his 15 favorite songs, and so they assembled a little “mix tape” for The Man (with a little vocal intro he provided).

The choices range from his beloved Mexican music (a Vicente Fernandez tune, HDS singing a Mexican-tinged piece from Ry Cooder's soundtrack for Paris, Texas) to folk (Joni's “Big Yellow Taxi,” some Dylan) to country (his friend Kris' “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Orbison's “Blue Bayou,” Robert Earl Keen's wonderful “The Road Goes On Forever,” Steve Goodman) to timeless (Fats Waller's “Gonna Sit Write Down...” and Johnny Cash singing Danny Boy”). It's quite an assortment of treasures, found here.

Harry Dean brightened up any film he was in, including “maverick” landmarks (like Two Lane Blacktop and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and classic genre pics (Alien, Escape from NY). He is one of several terrific scene-stealers in John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (1979).

The film is slightly schizophrenic: The performances and script follow the novel very closely, but Huston decided to “rev” up certain comedy sequences by making them farcical in tone (the total opposite of O’Connor’s deadpan mode), with composer Alex North’s sporadically goofy score making those scenes feel like they’d wandered in from a Hal Needham movie. Those misguided moments aside, the film is indeed another downbeat Huston gem.

One of the most enjoyably weird projects Harry Dean starred in (yes, one more starring role!) was the 1987 “Rip Van Winkle” episode of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola (who had worked with HDS on One From the Heart) and the most striking aspect of the show were sets designed by Eiko Ishioka that “breathed.” Very, very trippy entertainment for a show aimed at kids.

Altman’s underrated Fool for Love (1985) found Harry Dean as an older man who had a special relationship to the lead characters, played by Kim Basinger and Sam Shepard (who also wrote the play the film was based on). He was married to Barbara Mandrell in his mind…. [The thumbnail for the embed is blank, but the link works.]

David Lynch had a special connection to Harry Dean, both as a personal friend and as a filmmaker. HDS worked for him several times, with his biggest part coming in the mostly forgotten HBO anthology film Hotel Room (1993). Harry Dean plays an average Joe who is humiliated by his colleague (Freddie Jones) as he tries to avail himself of a hooker (the late, great Glenne Headly).

Harry Dean’s big final role was the starring turn in the forthcoming Lucky, but most folks reading this blog (who are surely Twin Peaks fans) saw him in Twin Peaks: the Return reprising his role from Fire Walk With Me.

His character was one of the many who simply disappeared during the series, but the scenes he was in were quite memorable and added to the unspoken themes of the series, which were aging and death. (Which I discussed in this piece on the blog.)

As good as he was in so many films, I would vote for his short turn in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) as being one of his finest moments. He again does what a character actor needs to do: He appears only in a single scene, plays a character that he has imbued with a back story, and then steals away the film.

The reason he’s able to do that is because the scene he’s in is, in my opinion, the best scene in the picture, and the one that most clearly outlines what Scorsese, scripter Paul Schrader, and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis were trying to say about Jesus: that, even if he was entirely human, his believers would still cherish the concept of him being a deity.

Harry Dean’s Saul (also called Paul) is a preacher who has a gimmick: He speaks about the “resurrected Jesus.” When the real Jesus (Willem Dafoe) approaches Saul (in the dream-world in which he is able to live as a regular human being) and says that he, Saul, has made up a completely fake theology, Saul tells Jesus he is wrong and the people he preaches to *need* the story of the resurrected Jesus, whether or not it actually happened.

“I created the truth out of what people needed and what they believed,” says Saul. When he is told point-blank by Jesus that he’s recounting a fake story, he replies, “My Jesus is much more important and much more powerful” than the real person, standing in front of him.

It’s a powerful and very well-written scene. For me it is the crux of the entire film, which is about the humanity of Christ, and has some beautifully rendered moments and some segments that land with a thud (as in Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the desert).

The scene is immaculately conceived and written, and it is indeed “sold” by Harry Dean, who plays Saul with an incredible conviction, and even pride in conveying a falsehood to his followers. It’s the moment where Scorsese most fully articulated the theme of the film.

To close out, I have to end on Harry Dean singing, since that seemed to be the thing he enjoyed the most in his final years. Here is the B-side of a single he released in 1993, a Mexican-tinged tune called “Across the Borderline.”

Monday, September 11, 2017

In the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time: Notes on the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return

Twin Peaks: The Return ended not with a bang, but with a whimper – in the form of an ear-piercing scream from Sheryl Lee, the performer who has gone through more torment than any other in the work of David Lynch. The finale of the series has been hailed as a masterpiece by some and a confounding, confused mess by others. I lean toward the former opinion, but have lingering tinges of the latter in my fanboy soul.

Lynch has conducted a “war” on conventional storytelling since his earliest films. Thus the absolute joy felt by his fans when episode 8 of this season abandoned a narrative for the most part and simply focused on imagery. Given the inclusion of large amounts of dead space between the characters and the slower pace Lynch uses in his work, it was a delight to see him return to his avant-garde roots in that “very special episode.”

The rest of the series rose and fell, depending on one's reaction to the ways in which he and his coscripter Mark Frost sabotaged conventional storytelling. As was the case with Lynch's features and the Lynch-Frost two-season run of the original Twin Peaks, a plot was always present, but odd “swerves” appeared, tongue-in-cheek melodramatic cliches were thrown in, and Freudian and mystic symbolism was introduced with the result being that viewers were uncertain if the authors were respecting that symbolism or mocking its simplicity.

Lynch and Frost's main “strategy” was to introduce a surplus of characters. This seemed reasonable in the first few episodes introducing several new characters, hauling out the ones from the original series, and throwing in the many (many!) guest stars whose presence was entertaining but often distracting.

But it didn't stop after a few episodes (or “parts,” as Lynch deemed them). The scenes set in the Roadhouse introduced several 20-something characters in each show, nearly all of whom were never seen again in the series. It didn't even stop as the season wound down to its final hours. When fan-favorite Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) showed up in part 12, she was married to a character we'd never seen before and had a discussion about three people we hadn't seen or heard of. (Or had we? Online fans would desperately try to connect names from minor characters we'd already seen with these newly-mentioned nonentities.)

This particular device came to be so ridiculous that it seemed as if Lynch and Frost were doing two things: creating a dream world populated by people we'd see only once; and delivering a spoof of soaps that complicate their plotlines with hordes of mostly unnecessary characters.

This strategy even showed up in the final episode, as the most praised/disputed event occurred: Cooper took a trip through a “wormhole” into another America. Here Lynch was utilizing the device he had used in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Those films, however, have the trips to the wormhole world (read: fantasies, nightmares) occur well before the final few scenes, so viewers can attempt to situate themselves (and identify the characters in the second world that mirror those in the first).

I believe that TP: TR was one of the most cinematic things to happen to television in quite a while. It was a breath of fresh air in many regards, especially the eighth episode, which I think of as the  “Eraserhead episode.” The multiplication of red-herring characters (for lack of a better term for the many dream-residents who merited only one appearance or mention) was willfully and comically perverse of Lynch and Frost, though, and left many of us trying to “assemble” some kind of narrative for the season.

The next to last episode, part 17, solved the key dilemma of the entire series – the menace of the evil Cooper doppelgänger in a single sequence. The final part produced a classically Lynchian “swerve” with Cooper and Diane (Laura Dern) having sex and then entering another version of their world (why? Because!). In that world, of course, Cooper encounters yet another group of new characters until he winds up back with Laura Palmer (or, more accurately, her manifestation in that world).

As a final in-joke Lynch cast the real-life owner of the “Laura Palmer house” in Washington State as the woman who owns the house in this other reality. (A fact that online fans revealed in the days after the show first aired.)

To pile strangeness on strangeness, Lynch and Frost settled on yet another “swerve” that further complicated the events of the last episode. A warning from the “Fireman” character had evoked the names of “Richard and Linda.” These characters were never mentioned again until Cooper and Diane had sex, which turned *them* into these characters (for what reason? Since no fourth season is planned, it's possible we'll never know unless we want to take the names as a reference to the British folk-singing duo….).

Lynch's war on conventional narrative was never more glaringly apparent than in TP: TR. One of the primary ways in which he skewed the storyline away from the original two seasons of TP was to base the third season's plot on various events that occurred only in the prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which he wrote with Robert Engels.

As I noted in this previous blog entry, the film has its merits (and a deeply devoted cult of fans, some of whom consider it Lynch's finest film), but it jumbles the TP chronology with a lengthy first act that contradicts the way things were recounted in the original series. (A prequel that contradicts its source is rare indeed but Lynch has stomped on linearity in various ways elsewhere, so FWWM is not surprising in that way – frustrating for fans of the original series, but not surprising.) 

FWWM contains a “fissure” in time where a character from the end of the initial series Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) appears to Laura Palmer. By doing this, Lynch was creating a scene that only meant something to regular viewers of TP, thus solving the rather flimsy issue of whether anyone should ever watch this prequel before watching the original series.

To make things even more complicated, Lynch included a long scene in “The Missing Pieces,” a fascinating assemblage of outtakes from FWWM (which was a five-hour long feature to start with), showing Annie surviving the ordeal in the Black Lodge and having the owl ring stolen from her by a nurse (thus helping to set up a third season of the TP series in the series prequel!).

When TP: TR appeared, though, it was apparent that Lynch and Frost had wiped Annie from the storyline, along with the super-villain Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). The “erasure” of those two characters got rid of the reason Cooper was split in two he had entered the Black Lodge to retrieve Annie, who had been kidnapped by his ex-partner Earle.

Hundreds of thousands of words have already been spilt on the Internet about the show's finale. My take on it was that it was initially frustrating and confusing but grows on you (well, maybe not the one-shot Audrey “conclusion”…). This is especially true if you remember the unspoken theme of the season, namely growing old.

Cooper's past includes a Chinatown-like situation in which he inadvertently caused the woman he loved to be murdered. He entered the Black Lodge to prevent this from happening again (this time with Annie)  and this caused an evil doppelgänger version of him to be created. So, despite his Sherlock Holmes-like talent for deductive reasoning and his Zen-like calm, he already was revealed to be a flawed hero in the original Twin Peaks.

In TP: TR he is split in two and, when the going gets rough in Part 17, it is the mysterious young man with the green glove (a deus ex machina who finally made an impression in part 14) who defeats the evil “Mr. C,” not our cool and calm hero. Then, “whole” again, Cooper moves back in time to “liberate” Laura Palmer and, of course, screws things up even worse.

The final sequence shows Cooper as a detective who clearly has lost his touch at deduction. He has wrecked the life of the Laura Palmer living in that wormhole reality. The lingering feeling one gets is akin to Sondheim's line “...losing my timing this late in my career...”

Cooper is not only incapable of being a hero anymore, he's actually perpetuating a new horror by awakening a “past life” in that version of Laura (if that is indeed what is going on here viewers are left to make up their mind as to when/where the wormhole is situated). Lynch and Frost also complicated matters by making the alt-Laura into a shady character who is indeed capable of murder no write-ups of the final episode I've read have mentioned the dead body that Cooper sees in her home….

What we are left with is a finale that reverberates after one sees it most especially if one had already keyed into Lynch and Frost's obsession with aging. The rigors of age were indeed felt throughout the season in the faces of the cast, in the inclusion of three sick characters, in plot threads concerning the stasis of others (job-wise, romance-wise, and life-wise), and in the slower movement of the players. Lynch has always enjoyed slowing down his works and now he finally found the perfect vehicle with which to do it. (For Lynch's own words about his pacing, check out the quote from him in my last piece on Twin Peaks.)

In spite of its intentionally capricious plotting and profusion of red herrings, there are several “rewards” one got from watching all of TP: TR. Perhaps the greatest of these is the “revelation” that Lynch is indeed an emotional artist. Given his background in the avant-garde and the return in this series of the ultraviolence he fetishized in three of his four Nineties features, it has been hard to think of him as an emotional artist.

Inland Empire
But this aspect has been there, from the longing for the happy American ideal in Blue Velvet (an ideal that the film itself acknowledged was overly sentimentalized and simplistic) to the deep, dark depression and moments of exultation that punctuated Inland Empire, Lynch has continually “surprised” us with moments that are not just visually striking and blissfully eccentric, but also deeply emotional.

Cooper's obsession with Laura Palmer's death and his final, overwhelming desire to prevent it even though it was absolutely certain that it wouldn't solve anything in the long run, since her abuse had gone on for so long is the ultimate manifestation of the emotional aspect of the show. An aspect that, as always, was made even stronger (and sadder) by the beautiful, moody music of Angelo Badalamenti.

The younger Cooper operated on instinct and wound up in the Black Lodge, a fractured man; the middle-aged Cooper is completely adrift, able to physically fight and outdraw those who menace him, but not logical enough to understand the cardinal rule of much sci-fi: toying with the past inevitably alters the present.

He wasn't the only one whose age was a topic in this season: The extremely attractive, 20-something characters of the original TP are now visibly older and grayer. They are parents now, but still making the same terrible decisions in their lives. (This was perhaps the reason that Lynch and Frost let two of the “more normal” characters, Norma and Big Ed, above, have a completely happy ending.)

The middle-aged characters from the original series are now seniors with the singular best transformation in TP: TR occurring with Dr. Jacoby's rebirth as an Alex Jones/Glen Beck vlogger/entrepreneur. Another senior remained a presence even though he never appeared onscreen Sheriff Harry Truman, battling cancer and existing only in the dialogue (mostly characters wishing well to him via his brother).

So, when one sets aside the red-herring factor and the tragic ending (compounded by the trapped-in-an insane-asylum-or-limbo fate of the much-loved Audrey character), there is one sweet legacy of the series: its treatment of old age and death.

Miguel Ferrer was ailing when they shot the show, but he concealed his sickness in his character Albert Rosenfield's trademark deadpan. There was a gift for Albert, though: an image of him happily chatting up an equally caustic coroner, Constance Talbot (Jane Adams).

The character of Doc Hayward was played by another ailing performer, Warren Frost. He was reportedly afflicted by Alzheimer's when he did his sequence, but it was a joy to see the Doc, another one of the “normal” anchors of the original series, if only for one scene (but Lynch and Frost did give the character one piece of seminal info to impart, about Evil Mr. C and Audrey!).

The most moving sequences, without question, were the appearances of the Log Lady, Margaret Lanterman. The actress playing her, Catherine E. Coulson, was visibly sick with cancer, her hair fallen out and an oxygen cannula visible in every scene. Her interactions with another “normal” anchor character, Hawk (Michael Horse), were beautifully acted and extremely touching.

One got the sense that not only did Hawk care for Margaret as an ailing friend, but that Horse cared for Coulson, and that the quirky and impenetrably odd Mr. Lynch let down his “screens” and he too, was showing his love for his very sick friend. (Coulson was a key crew member on Eraserhead and a longtime friend of Lynch's.)

The gray hair, slower movement (although Harry Dean Stanton looks cool no matter how slowly he travels), and the mentions of cancer conveyed the show's message about the vagaries of aging. The sight of Coulson in very bad shape still playing her role and contributing suitably weird “warnings” was one of the sweetest (that word again) things Lynch has ever done.

Coulson's final scene, in which she acknowledges her impending death and notes her fear and uncertainty, was perhaps the most beautiful note that was struck in the 18 episodes of TP: TR. It reminded us of the sense of oddball community that characterized the original series and, in its own way, was the emotional core of the show, leading up to the ultimate failure of our aged and very uncertain hero, Agent Cooper.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Mean Jerry”: the underside of Deceased Artiste Jerry Lewis

“I live in a selfish, selfless kind of a cocoon. You cannot get by in this world, apparently, if you are a courageous, honest crusader and/or stand-up, straight-ahead man who will not take shit. I’ll sit in the corner and let you pound me if I’ve got it coming. If I don’t have it coming, you’d better know what you’re doing, because you are tangling with a goddamn son of a bitch.” — Jerry Lewis [Levy, p. 433]

I really did think Jerry Lewis would make it to 100 and appear on stage telling everyone to go fuck themselves. That would've been just like Jerry, who spent a good deal of his time being creative but also celebrated that creativity at great length and got easily angry at the people who worshipped him.

First, a word about my own feelings about the man and his comedy. I loved his stuff as a kid (as we all did) and then rediscovered him in the early Eighties, when he was making the talk-show rounds and doing desperate jokes (I mean really desperate — blacking out his teeth, making odd mouth noises, putting the drinking glass in his mouth, the “big lighter” bit, that sort of thing). 

My friends in college and I began our own little “cult” for Jerry that celebrated both his very funny years (the Fifties and early Sixties) and the desperately unfunny comic performer he had become.

So, I will declare it for the record, since even people who've seen some of the 23 episodes I've done about Jerry on the Funhouse TV show (the 24th aired this weekend) and read any of the 30 blog entries I've done about him here, think I dislike him entirely. Here it is… wait for it: I find Jerry Lewis funny! Yes, I said he was funny, actually funny and very imaginative.

The caveat to that? I am speaking of Jerry between the years of '48-'66, when he had structures for his completely anarchic, pretty much ridiculously non-narrative comedy. The films he made as part of the Martin and Lewis team are mostly awful — with the two Tashlins and a few others (The Caddy, Living It Up) being very enjoyable (if you're uncertain as to where to start with Jerry, you can't go wrong with Artists and Models). 

But their TV appearances, when not acting out a goofy sketch, are absolutely wonderful — there was something about that team that still can delight. Jerry called it “the union of a handsome man and a monkey.”

Tashlin and Jerry
From '56 to '66 the solo Jerry still has amazing moments. His work with Frank Tashlin, six solo films in all, are all wonderful, with Tashlin achieving something Jerry could never achieve himself: making the Jerry “kid” character charming. That is not to say that the films directed by Jerry aren't worth seeing — the first half-dozen (well, really, the first five) are a lot of rambunctious fun. 

The Nutty Professor is the only one that works at all in a straightforward narrative sense, but the initial films Jerry made are both very funny and wonderfully imaginative. Yes, his directorial style had many, many elements taken from Tashlin, but when he was working at the top of his form, Director Jerry made some very funny, wonderfully shot and edited, movies.

Now you know it: I am a fan of Jerry Lewis's work. That said, I should note that I coined (in the late '80s) the phrase “happy pain” (TM) to describe watching the worst of Jerry's films: the ones where he stretches jokes for endless amounts of time, didn't bother with a linear script, and basically seems like he's just either making it up on the spot or didn't properly rehearse or storyboard whatever the fuck is happening onscreen.

I also greatly enjoy Jerry's dual public persona: the perpetually nine-year-old “kid” who took great joy in making noises, dancing around, making goofy faces, and basically disrupting things in a very deliberate way; and his alter-ego, the greasy-haired sharpster who insulted anyone he encountered (even if they loved him and expressed that love — those people, especially!). A curt, rude, boorish, nasty bastard whose act had breaks where he could harass the band (meant to be funny and “ironic” but seemingly coming from a very real place) and doing humor that was unapologetically prehistoric.

There was a “man you loved to hate” vibe that emanated from Jerry. I've met many people who were diehard Jerry fans who excused all of his bad personal behavior, but I've also met many who either took that as part of the bargain (“he's a crazy comedian who is just a nasty guy offstage”) or who, like myself, took some delight in just how mean Jerry could be.

In recent years I've met a third category, people who met him and whom he was nice to — I can only assume that this is the Lou Reed Situation: if you met him at the right minute and/or he thought you were worthy of his attention, he could be a sweetheart. Otherwise, you bothered him by merely existing in his airspace. It's a fascinating archetype: the performer who *must* have an audience, who will die without an audience, but who does not want to interact with that audience (paging Bobby Zim) — if he must interact with them, he will tell them how little they mean to him, how they're wasting his time.

I saw this in person three of the four times I saw Jerry onstage. When he appeared on Broadway in Damn Yankees, there was no interaction possible — it was a set Broadway show that offered no Q&As or shtick with the audience. That said, it also included a small chunk of Jerry's nightclub act that was awkwardly shoehorned into the production.

The other three times, though — I will never forget them. In the first instance, he was doing his full act, during the “Jerry Lewis Unlimited Tour” in 1994. I saw him at Queens College and was flabbergasted at what his act really was. (I shouldn't have been, having watched him on the Telethon for so many years, but I thought surely someone had written him something new!)

Jerry showed film clips, told anecdotes, did some tap-dancing, did the “cane bit,” conducted the band, did shtick with the audience, sang (off-key, as always), and told jokes. Lots of them. Very bad, very old jokes. And often racist jokes – racist jokes of the type that little kids tell in the playground or sandbox. To wit, “How do Chinese people pick their names? They hold a silver platter and throw spoons up in the air. When they land — “'ching chong ding dong!!!' ”

Here are bits of that stage act, including a pathetic Mexican joke:

Jerry made no jokes about African-Americans or Italian-Americans (although the latter group was dying to made fun of). His Jewish jokes were always kind-hearted, Yiddish-accented, tales of the sort that Myron Cohen used to tell. But there were plenty of “Polack” jokes that afternoon. “Polack walks into a 7-11. He asks the clerk, ‘How many cups of coffee can you fit in this thermos?’ The clerk says, ‘Six.’ And so the Polack says, ‘Great. Give me two black, two with milk, and two decaf.’ ”

(Jerry would then lean over to an old lady in the front row and do a mock-explanation of the joke. “You see – they would all be mixed together in the thermos...”)

It was stunning, hearing him do this material — not because I found it offensive. (I'm the least-offended person there can be; I think that everything can be made fun of — just be funny while doing it!) It was because the jokes just plainly sucked and were eons old. 

Jerry got one up on all of us, though: he did his full Jolson medley, something he did to reflect his roots in old show-biz and to honor his only-nominally talented dad Danny Lewis, a Z-grade Jolson-inspired singer and showman. (Danny treated Jerry like crap over the years, which definitely set up Jerry's Freudian “I'll conquer the world!” view of things.)

I saw some lovely things at Queens College, but nothing as memorable as this lovely moment at Brooklyn College on the same tour. Since I put this clip up (shot by a friend's assistant), the battle has raged — is the kid doing the impression being an asshole, or is Jerry? Suffice it to say both parties are responsible for some assholery, but it’s stunning how fast Jerry whips the mic out of the kid's hand and realizes that he's going to make fun of “Telethon Jerry.” Always a no-no, unless you were Joe Piscopo or Martin Short, with whom Jerry later appeared to show his magnanimity.

The next two times I saw Jerry live he was doing his “motivational speaker” thing. This mostly consisted of him doing a very long Q&A session, punctuated by many of his adages that were either super-simplistic (“Why not be nice? Being nice is good — it's good to be nice!”) or so convoluted and oddly phrased they would make James Joyce's head spin. (Jerry's grasp of the English language was bizarre — the longer his sentences were, the less sense they made, and the more earnest he got.)

What was most surprising about these engagements was how many dick jokes Jerry made — the first of the two events was held at a temple, so that was a little odd (but everyone laughed) — and how the audience came there to be insulted by Jerry. They were waiting on line to ask him questions, knowing that he'd most likely insult them and that, for them, was like a benediction. (Friend John Mariano described the atmosphere at the temple gig as being “a combination of an Aimee Semple McPherson tent rally and Todd Browning's Freaks.”)

So many people were insulted, in such lackluster ways. For Jerry was not Rickles — he wasn't a good insult comedian, he mostly just verbally abused the person, and entire crowd cheered his abuse as if it was his whole act (which, at these events, it was). For instance, one French woman asked a question, assuming Jerry would make fun of her accent. He didn't – which seemed to disappoint her. But when she turned her back to sit down, Jerry made a gesture with his hands to indicate she had very large breasts — thus making the audience bust a gut. She seemed curious as to what he did, but she couldn't turn around in enough time to catch her much-hoped-for moment of humiliation.

So, was Jerry a forerunner of punk-rock frontmen? Yes and no. The punk guys were definitely inspired by the pro-wrestling “heel” character — they wanted to be hated and set about addressing the audience as one person, a moronic person. They praised themselves and made the crowd hate them. Don Rickles was the master of this situation, and had a bunch of lines to combat any show of dissension from the audience.

Jerry was always on the offense, but there was nothing “strategic” about his insults — unlike the wrestlers or punk rockers, Jerry just arbitrarily insulted people, and because of the audience's love of his “kid” character, they laughed at him doing it, instead of booing and hissing him (while still loving him, as crowds always do heel wrestlers – and aged punk rockers).

Jerry was aware of the interest he held for punk rockers. He talks about it here at 26:12 in an interview with David Letterman. Punk rockers learned a lot not only from Jerry Lewis the nightclub comic, but also from his character Buddy Love. A punk-turned-power-pop band named themselves after the character, and Buddy's heelish charms certainly were a model of creepy ugliness for a generation of frontmen who enjoyed insulting their audience.

Jerry was a punk performer when he started out with Dean Martin. His job was to screw up Dean's songs — something that was initially welcomed by Dean but became a major annoyance for him as their partnership continued. The duo did anarchic, crazy-ass humor that was fast and energetic. The jokes were already prehistoric (Jerry loved to cite the classic “Did you take a bath today?” “Why, is one missing?” groaner), but the pair were so charismatic that they sold them to an appreciative audience.

Dean was the straight man, an ego in a tux, while Jerry was an id springing around the stage (a Harpo without the surreal gags and musical talent). As such, he liked to freak out older performers — he reportedly told Milton Berle from the stage of a Miami nightclub, “You're an old man, Berle — you're all washed up!” [Arthur Marx, Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime (Especially Himself), Hawthorn Books, 1974, p. 276]

He also put Bing Crosby on edge, as Der Bingle was sure that crazy Jer was going to grab his toupee:

Interestingly enough, Jer never outgrew this adolescent silliness. At 1:25 here, he mocks Tony Bennett, while Bennett is unaware anything is going on (the satellite was broadcasting him to Jerry's studio, but he was not hearing or seeing Jer). This little performance by Jerry ensured that Bennett — who at this time (1992) was undergoing a renaissance and cultivating an MTV audience — never returned to the Telethon.

Jerry had his rockin' moments, in films like Tashlin's Rock-a-bye Baby and his own The Patsy. Here he is doing his thing on the Telethon, at 4:30:

At other points, Jerry's familiarity with the drug scene (thanks to his own addictions to Percodan and cocaine) led him to rockin' rants about how he wanted money for his kids so much he'd take money contributed by drug dealers.

But the story that makes Jerry sound the most like a rock/drug casualty (a Borscht Belt Keith Moon) is this beauty from the biography King of Comedy by Shawn Levy (St. Martin’s Press, 1997):

In March 1973 Jerry did a two-week engagement with another King of Mean, Milton Berle, at the Deauville Hotel in Miami. The Jewish seniors who came to see the show disliked Jerry’s “energy,” according to the Levy book. He finally flipped out in a Keith Moon/Jim Morrison-like hotel-room-smashing manner:

“Some days later, in his hotel room with this assistant, Bob Harvey, he launched into a drunken tirade. ‘Miami sucks!’ he shouted. ‘The people here know from nothing. Nothing do they know. They know ‘shit’ and they know ‘fuck,’ and anything else is out of their league. If you don’t open with ‘fuck,’ you bomb. ‘Hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock: Fuck him, let him stay there.’ Then you’re a hit.’

“He slammed a wine bottle against a wall: I christen this hotel ‘Motherfucker’! Pull out the pilings, you sons of bitches!’ And then he bruised himself setting an ashtray, a toilet bowl, and a tiled bathroom floor on fire with lighter fluid. ‘Burn! Burn, you motherfucker! Burn down the fucking hotel! Burn down the whole fucking town!’ ” [p. 383]

Was the “Mean Jerry” persona just an act, Jerry taking his angst out onstage? Sadly, no. A bunch of things have been written about his supposedly “idyllic” life with his first wife Patti and six sons, but the real story came out for good when his son Joe wrote a tell-all article for the National Enquirer in 1989.

The article isn’t retrievable online, but the gist of it was included in a piece written by Scott Marks that can be found on an evangelist's site on the Wayback Machine site. The article was written in 2010 when Joe was found dead of an overdose at age 45. His older brother Gary went public with his opinion: “Joe had problems his entire life and I blame our father. Jerry Lewis is a mean and evil person. He was never loving and caring toward me or my brothers… (My father) doesn’t really care. He’s more worried about his career and his image than his own family.”

Here is the part of Marks' article (from Jan. 10, 2010) that outlines what was in the Enquirer article:

“— The Lewis family occupied a 32-room Bel Air mansion. Joe told the Enquirer, “The house was huge and posh, but there was no love in it.”

— The Nutty Bathroom: It was Jerry’s fortress of solitude. A ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign warned passersby to steer clear. According to Joe, this was no ordinary comfort station. It came stocked with a color TV, two telephones, two revolvers, a wet bar, refrigerator, bookcase, marijuana, Quaaludes, Nembutal, coke paraphernalia and an intercom system hooked up to each bedroom so Jerry could eavesdrop.

— The Strap: A thick leather belt Jerry used to administer punishment.

— The Rubber Snake: Joe and brother Christopher were roughhousing with a toy snake. The noise bothered Jerry so much that he took the toy and proceeded to whip Christopher with it. He took the snake into his dressing room and proceeded to chop it to shreds with his pocketknife. Once finished, he threw the pieces on their bed and said, 'That will teach you stupid kids.' ”

Other quotes from the article can be found in the Levy book:
"All my life I’ve been asked what it’s like being Jerry Lewis’s kid. And all my life I told the same lie: ‘it’s great, he’s great.’ It wasn’t great. It was pure hell. There were whippings, and he was always yelling. My older brothers got chased around the house and slapped and punched. Even today we’re all afraid of him…. My dad is a mean-spirited, self-centered jerk. Thank God for my mother. She was a saint….

“… There are two sets of Jerry’s kids. Those physically crippled by a dreadful disease and those emotionally crippled by a dreadful father.” [p. 451]

Just in case this all sounds like “recovered memories” from a vengeful son, here is Jerry in the late Sixties on Joan Rivers’ daytime chat show That Show discussing how he believes in corporal punishment for children. He believes in it so much that he describes the special belt he uses to whip his boys:

One of the sources for the most “Mean Jerry” stories is the Arthur Marx biography of Martin and Lewis Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime…. However, as Nick Tosches warned in his immaculately researched Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams (1992), when reading Marx’s book, “Caveat lector.”

However, since the stories in the book are so mouth-wateringly nasty, I have to repeat at least a few, while admitting they are of dubious provenance. Firstly, in the aftermath of a failed lawsuit that found Dean and Jerry trying to retrieve millions of dollars stolen from them by their manager Abby Greshler, Jerry decided he needed to get revenge in another manner, one that didn’t involve a courtroom:

“...Jerry, lest anyone be unaware of his hatred for [manager Abby Greshler], had toilet paper printed with Abby Greshler's picture on every tissue, handed the rolls out to his friends as gifts, and decreed to his wife and children that thereafter no other kind of toilet paper would be used in the Lewis household.” [p. 126]

Marx also offers a few stories about Jerry’s fun in the office. The second story below tallies with the story that appeared years ago, I believe in Spy. That tale involved Jerry attending business meetings with a small valise. He would then “forget” the valise in the meeting room and later reclaim it. After he did this several times, it became obvious to his colleagues that he had an audio recorder in the valise and was recording what was said about him after he left the room.

“One of his tricks was to creep up behind Janie Thompson when she was talking on the phone or working at the typewriter and bind her to her desk with Scotch tape. If he were feeling particularly puckish, he might even tape her lips shut.

“… He liked to bug his office or living room at home and record intimate conversations unbeknownst to the participants. Then he'd play the tapes back to them in front of others, usually to everybody's mutual discomfort.

“Sometimes the items Jerry picked up with a tape recorder were a good deal more than just a private conversation. He went through one phase where he used to bug the Ladies' Room the women in his office used. This was good for a lot of laughs.

“Say a woman excused herself to 'powder her nose,'” as his personal secretary did one afternoon during a story conference that was attended by a number of important people at the studio. When she returned to the conference room, Jerry played back the tape on which he had recorded all her toilet sounds. When the poor woman realized what they were all listening to and laughing at, her face flushed a crimson color, and she nearly fainted from humiliation. She quit the job on the spot.” [pp. 218-19]

The Levy book includes the Jerry-as-Keith-Moon anecdote quoted above, but it also contains a fascinating chronicle of the ways in which Jerry sabotaged Alexander Cohen’s production of Hellzapoppin, which was to have been Jerry’s first appearance in a Broadway show (two decades later he redeemed himself by starring in the revival of Damn Yankees and causing no overt trouble).

I recommend you seek out Levy’s book to read the whole account, but the most eye-opening passages involve the duet that was written into the show, to be performed by Jerry and Lynn Redgrave. Redgrave never had a reputation as a diva or troublemaker, but for whatever reason Jerry loathed her and refused to work with her. The duet, for him, was out of the question, so he made it as difficult as possible to even do a rehearsal of the number:

When forced to rehearse a duet with Redgrave, “… he finally acceded, [with] amazingly ill grace, demanding that the rehearsal be held on Christmas morning and lying flat on the floor of the rehearsal space throughout the number. When he was through upstaging his costar, he stood up, announced of the number, ‘It’s cute, like the second stanza of the national anthem,’ and walked out, refusing to perform it ever again.” [p. 401]

The show never made it to Broadway because of Jerry’s sabotage, but it did play in out-of-town tryouts. One in Boston produced extremely nasty reviews, referring to “his long-since questionable talents” and “black patent leather hair.” One reviewer put it this way: “Shall we say Hellzapoppin needs work? We shall. We must.”

Jerry finally proclaimed that he would do the duet with anyone other than Redgrave. “… according to one published account, he said that all he was willing to do with his costar was ‘take out his cock and piss on her.’ ” [p. 403]

At one matinee, learning that his protégée Jill Choder — whom he had shoehorned into the production (she was an actress he had used on the Telethon in filmed sketches) — was having more of her part removed from the show, he refused to come out during the intermission. “Jerry declared he had a loaded gun in his dressing room.” [p. 403]

Courtesy of the Temple of Schlock blog.
Alexander Cohen lost 1.3 million dollars, sued Jerry for breach of contract, and finally received $39,000 in damages. It wasn’t the amount that mattered — Cohen wanted to humiliate Jerry and he did. It was the first time in Broadway history that a performer had to pay out to a producer for having killed a show.

Jerry became so renowned for his temper that he worked a temper tantrum into his nightclub act. When I saw him in 1994, he got “mad” at the band, threw a mock-tantrum, and then they all walked offstage. So Jerry had conceived of a way where he could play-act what had really been happening up to that point: He could now berate his musicians for screwing up, and they could respond, giving the audience a “bit” to laugh at, while still letting both parties (Jerry and the band) indulge in the same thing that had been going on for some time. (This got particularly strange when he did this shtick on the Telethon, where he was indeed berating the musicians, but also acting out “the bit.”)

Here he is getting cranky with his bandleader:

And telling him off once again. One YT poster has put together a montage of all the times Jerry complained to the band, in each case saying he’d worked with Lou Brown “for 35 years” (over the course of several different Telethons, held in several different years).

The compilation below contains what the poster calls “bloopers” but which could more accurately be called “outbursts.” For the highlights, go to: 6:40 to see Jerry fuck with the pianist; 13:20 to see him making a “green card” joke with a Latino crew member; 14:48 to see him do his famous pidgin Japanese (Sid Caesar he was not); 15:53 to see him telling audience members who are leaving to “Get back in your seats!!!”

In this clip he refers to his crew as “Polish dentists”:

At 2:35 in this clip, he registers a complaint with several crew members about how bad the lighting and video effects are on the show. Here he refers (joshingly, but still…) to one of his “poster children” (an adult, middle-aged woman — even senior citizens were called “my kids” by Jerry) as a “drunken broad”:


Much has been written about Jerry’s interactions with his “kids.” When they were small kids afflicted by the disease, Jerry treated them like precious relics. When they got older he would joke amiably with them. When they questioned the fact that he called them his “kids,” though? THAT really set him off. Here is an interview with Chris Wallace in which Jerry is asked about the group of former “poster children” who called themselves “Jerry Orphans.”

Jerry was able to eloquently defend his use of sympathy to solicit funds to fight MD. What was most injurious, however, was that he had a temper with small children if around them for too long a time (in one Vanity Fair he joked that one child needed a shot of Ritalin as he continued to get on his nerves) and he indeed did feel (as indicated in the interview above) that he should be a “hero” to the people afflicted with MD.

Jerry was of a generation that played loose and easy with epithets. He was never, ever to be found using the n-word, but “fag”? Well, that was another matter entirely. Here he is doing random raucous comedy (if it can be called that) with a barbershop choir. At 2:10 he’s desperate for a quick laugh, so he mouths that one singer is a “fag” and that he “does it” with another singer. Then the inevitable tongue roll Jerry really enjoyed doing:

This particular phrase came up again on the Telethon when Jerry was being chummy with a cameraman. Offhandedly he referred to the guy’s son as a fag, and — well, you can even see him briefly hesitate, as if he knows “there will have to be an apology made for that…” (He did issue an apology, shortly after.)


His feelings about women he never apologized for. One of his more notorious quotes was calling JFK “one of the great cunt men of all time... Except for me."

Jerry thought of himself as a serious playboy (his answer as to how he fell in love with his second wife while married to his first wife was something to the effect that he “didn’t feel” married…). When given a bad review by a woman writer in Montreal, he said, “You can’t accept one individual’s [opinion], particularly if it’s a female, and you know, God willing — I hope for her sake, it’s not the case — but when they get a period it’s really difficult for them to function as normal human beings.” [Levy, p. 444]

Asked by another women reporter about this remark, he answered, “Not with the type of sex drive I have, honey. I have nothing against women. As a matter of fact, there’s something about them that I love, but I just can’t put my finger on it.” [ibid]

Several years later he returned to this particular thought by saying that he didn't like women as comedians. When asked if there were no funny women comedians, he eventually came up with Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett as those he liked (both were/are comic actresses, not comedians). He offered in exchange that women have one blessing that men will never have: they can make babies!

A reporter did a follow-up question on these statements at a press conference:

Jerry in fact had a deep loathing for one woman comic: Joan Rivers. The interesting thing about this exchange of insults is that he claimed they never ever met in person (not true), and she claimed they only met on Jerry's Telethon. Evidently both forgot that he had been a guest on That Show, Joan's daytime talk show, in the late Sixties (see above).

Joan responded to Jerry's remarks in an interview with the great Ron Bennington.

Jerry didn't ever want to retire. He also didn't want to fall out of the news. So he made nasty statements during interviews that he knew would gain some traction as headlines (the Net needs news all the time….):

When Jerry did that interview in which he sideways-advocated for Trump, he also was asked about the then-current Syrian refugee crisis. His answers were classic Mean Jerry, but then again the wonder here is that an interviewer is asking Jerry his opinions about a refugee crisis in the first place!

The “Mean Jerry” legacy was kept intact by the fact that his final on-camera interview was with The Hollywood Reporter on the subject of working after 90. The chat was intended as a simple, straightforward talk, intended to get a sound bite for a “package” about celebs who would never retire.

The story goes that Jerry didn't realize there was a video component to the interview and was surprised to see a video crew enter his office. So he did his best to give the interviewer nothing he can use. Of particular interest is that he bolts up out of his chair in the end (by this time he was traveling via wheelchair – certainly needed given his many different medical conditions, but was it also an “SCTV”/Guy Caballero-like symbol to garner respect?).

Anyway, here's Jerry cringeworthy last talk on the record:

And because you do have to leave 'em laughing (or at least scratching their heads), here's the joke Jerry chose to tell the most in his final years. It's a very old joke – I've heard it on an old comedy album directed at hippies, but it became a joke about “punks” soon enough, and Jerry did his best to keep it alive by telling it several dozen (hundred?) times on nearly every talk show he appeared on in the last decade or so.

Notice that Jerry took on the Myron Cohen intro shtick, in which a particularly silly joke is prefaced by a very sober intro with some “real life” details that are totally made up. Herewith, Jerry greatest wheeze:

Thanks to Steve Korn and Rich Brown for suggestions of videos used in this piece. Also, Anthony Vitamia for an amazing array of Jerry pics to adorn the piece.