Comedy Watch: An evening with Jerry Lewis
Jerry Lewis talks about prepping The King of Comedy (1981) with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro in this excerpt from an October 2000 Archive of American Television interview.
So after the introductions to the introduction were over, the introducer -- who would also be the evening's moderator -- stepped to the podium tonight at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, and promptly got a standing ovation. Because the introducer-moderator was Martin Scorsese.
Now I'm crotchety about today's routinized standing O's, where it seems you can get one just for drawing breath. In addition, I'm hardly the world's greatest Scorsese fan. Still, it's, you know, Scorsese. You can hardly not respect the career, with that body of work and the immeasurable contributions to the preservation and appreciation of the medium of film. A standing O for Marty Scorsese is a no-brainer.
Marty proceeded to introduce the guest of honor, who he acknowledged needed no introduction -- "but I'm going to introduce him anyway." And he came out and also got a standing ovation. Because he was Jerry Lewis. If you're not going to give Jerry Lewis a standing ovation, who are you going to give one?
It was another event in the Iconic Characters of Comedy series co-presented by the Comedy Hall of Fame and MoMI. I've written about the grand times I've had at the tributes to Alan Alda, Marlo Thomas, and Norman Lear -- and only regret missing the evening with Stiller and Meara which predated my MoMI-going days.
Tonight the joint was packed, and I know that in addition the museum was selling tickets for a simulcast. As a result I had to settle for a seat fairly far back in the auditorium, and though my present glasses are only six months old, I can't say I could see Jerry terribly well. But never mind, he was there, and there was no difficulty hearing him.
Partly because when Marty and Jerry took their center-stage seats, Jerry made sure that the volume level on their microphones was cranked up to a point where they could really be heard. He was good-natured about it -- he's Jerry Lewis, after all -- but he didn't let the proceedings proceed until the matter was taken care of. As a result, for the rest of the event the audience didn't have to think about the volume level. I call that professionalism.
I suppose I should mention that the short walk to those center-stage seats wasn't easy for Jerry, and it was managed with a cane. Once he was seated, he said, pointing to the cane, that that thing was because he's nearly 90. And so he is. The record books tell us he turned 89 on March 16. Yikes!
Earlier in the day I mentioned in an e-mail to a friend, explaining where I was headed tonight, that Jerry Lewis's career is my lifetime, that I remembered the devastation my young self experienced at the news that Martin and Lewis were breaking up. To me it seemed like the end of the world.
I hadn't known about the addition of Marty Scorsese to tonight's bill; that must have been recent. I bought my ticket my online the day I got the e-announcement of the event a couple of weeks ago. It was certainly an interesting choice. After all, Jerry and Marty made an important film together 30-plus years ago. In addition, if someone's going to talk to Jerry Lewis about directing comedy on film, Marty's credentials as both a ranking film director and an obsessive student of the arts of filmmaking are pretty impressive.
Marty assumed we knew that film comedy isn't his genre, telling us that he had essayed several comedies -- like Goodfellas (and one or two others of his pictures -- I don't recall which). Later Jerry told us about time he spent with Stanley Kubrick while he (Jerry) was in London at MGM studios and Kubrick was editing 2001. "How do you write a joke?" Kubrick asked him. "How do you write a joke?" Jerry repeated.
Kubrick explained that he just didn't know how it was all done, meaning joke-making, and presumably comedy-making. Jerry pointed out that the movies he was making seemed to be working out fine, he was making a living -- "What the heck's the problem?" But he also explained that he really couldn't tell him how to write a joke. By the time it came time to use a joke he had written, it was already written; he couldn't really remember what had happened at the typewriter.
Jerry spending time with directors in the editing room wasn't limited to Kubrick. From the time he began watching movies, and then acting in them, he had been keen to understand what film directors do. He even had a mentor of sorts in Charlie Chaplin, spending chunks of time at Chaplin's home having him talk him through his own films almost frame by frame, and also looking at Jerry's work on film.
As Marty had noted in his introduction, Jerry was the first director to use "video assist" in his filmmaking. I didn't know what that meant, but it turns out to mean having on-site technical capacity to see what the movie cameras were recording on film. He explained that he'd gone to Japan to talk to the Morita family of Sony, and it was to the son that he explained what he wanted, and who produced it -- in time for use, I believe he said, on The Bellboy, which was the first film he directed, in 1960.
Nowadays, of course, filmmaking technology provides "video assist" as a matter of course, but Marty remembers having it available for the first time -- in the form of a tiny two-inch viewing device -- on The King of Comedy, and that's 1980-81. More than anything, Jerry explained, he needed such technology to see his own work on-screen. After all, the films he would be directing were films in which he would be starring. While it's been quite a while since I've seen The Bellboy or The Ladies Man or The Errand Boy, I suspect that the star is on-screen a very high percentage of the time, and how was director Jerry Lewis supposed to evaluate what the actor Jerry was doing. (We learned that while directing he always thought of that "Jerry" as a different person. During filming he frequently had to have tough talks with him, asking what he thought he'd been doing in that batch of takes.)
In addition, Jerry found his video assist technology invaluable for working with other actors, who also couldn't see what the camera was recording them doing. Actors who didn't understand, or resisted, direction he was giving them were often startled to discover that what they'd actually done during a take wasn't at all what they thought they'd done.
I think it might have been interesting if Marty had talked to Jerry more about their one joint project. I did learn one thing about The King of Comedy that I sure didn't know: that Marty had Jerry direct one scene in the picture. It's the sidewalk scene, where talk-show host Jerry Langford is walking down the street and is recognized by a woman on a pay phone, who tries to get him to talk to the person she's talking to.
The scene was shot from a distance, Marty explained, so that passersby believed that what purported to be happening was actually happening, and with Jerry directing, the actress playing the woman was able to time her part so that the whole scene fit together with terrific comic timing. Apparently Marty had the good sense to realize that he had a better choice than himself to direct such a scene right there on location, acting in the scene.
The whole affair, including all the introductions, lasted just an hour, but that was enough. By the end Jerry had earned his next standing ovation.