Le Roi du Crazy

Jerry Lewis and French Humour

National humour doesn’t travel – and French humour, in particular, is for domestic consumption only. Yet when it comes to imports, the French are far from choosy, as their legendary appetite for Jerry Lewis shows.

By the 1970s, Jerry Lewis’ career as a film actor had ebbed away. At its high-water mark, just a few years before, he had been a global entertainment phenomenon.

Partnered with crooner Dean Martin, he parlayed their cabaret act into a wildfire film career, playing variations on a character variously described as “an over grown juvenile” (Leonard Maltin), a “nebbish man-child” (Variety) or, to put it bluntly, “a spaz” (Dennis Leary). Even when the partnership imploded, Lewis’s brand of “jazz screwball”, veering wildly from klutzy slapstick to tear-brimming slush, kept his solo career alive and well. The box office gross receipts of his films total about $800 million (and this was when tickets cost between 25 and 50 cents each).

Tastes changed. Comedy evolved. Beside more nuanced comics like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, Lewis seemed cornball, even crass. The man who had giant hits with The Bellboy (1960) and The Nutty Professor (1963) bombed big-time with Which Way To The Front (1970). His self-directed, produced and scripted story about a masochistic buffoon entertaining Jewish children in Auschwitz, The Day The Clown Cried (1972), was so excruciating, it never got a release. Cinematically, the world regarded him a one-off, time-expired. Finally, in 1982, he had a heart attack and was pronounced clinically dead.

Rushed to hospital for triple-bypass surgery, he was then pronounced alive again. And this is exactly what the French seem to be doing with his career. Over there, Lewis is an immortal, le Roi du Crazy – the King of Craz-eeee!

This twisted love-affair started with Lewis’ visit to France in 1965. Mobbed at Orly airport by fans, he was the toast of Paris. French critics voted The Nutty Professor the best film of the year (this was the same year that Dr. Zhivago, Thunderball and The Sound of Music came out). An art cinema put on a three-week festival of his films, and the Cinematheque Français (the French film library) held a retrospective on his “art”. 

His wild popularity amongst the French public has its roots in what the French actually think is funny. In 2003, the Economist magazine summed it up: “The French Have Jokes, But Do They Have A Sense Of Humour?”. While French society, like all societies, breaks down into the routine political, economic and other groups, France has always divided itself into two categories, “Parisen” (from Paris) and “de la province” (essentially, from anywhere except Paris). And each category has its own sense of humour.

This is more than a geographical divide; it’s two different styles of living developed in almost deliberate opposition to each other. The first is hyper-chic, intellectual and verbal; the second is earthy, passionate and emotional. It’s Charlotte Rampling vs. Gerard Depardieu, it’s Citroen vs Renault, it’s Louis Vuitton vs. Carrefour. Lewis’ talent is to tickle the funny bone of both sides.

For those “de la province”, Lewis ties in with a long French tradition of physical comedy heroes from film star Jacques Tati (who was making interminable silent films long into the 70s) to the “crying-clown” mime Marcel Marceau. They see his mugging as a jet-age version of Chaplin (Charlot in France), the little man expressing his emotions through painfully mawkish slapstick. To French film critic Jean-Pierre Coursodon, Lewis "represents the lowest degree of physical, moral and intellectual debasement that a comic actor can reach". He means it as a compliment.

Lewis appeals to “les Parisians” on another level. To put it simply, highbrow French critics (is there any other type?) believe Lewis is so bad that he must be good. Or, to translate it into their language, his sloppy, uneven film-making is actually “Godardian anti-formalism”. Jean-Luc Godard, the bottomlessly pretentious director now worshiped as the father of New Cinema and auteur of numberless botched-up films, is a major fan. "Jerry Lewis”, he concludes, “is the only American director who has made progressive films, he is much better than Chaplin and Keaton.”

For critic and film-maker Robert Benayoun, another of the leaders of the strange, intellectual cult surrounding the toothy clown, Lewis actually has supernatural powers. He describes his idol's 1965 release The Family Jewels as "audacious" because it "deliberately severs space-time”.

Since 1960, Jerry Lewis has won three Best Director Awards in France. In the 1970s, the French gave him his own two-hour, prime time chat show which featured guests like famed director Louis Malle, sitting literally at his feet. 

While his film career is pretty much at a full stop in the US, in France they’re begging him to make movies. In 1984, with the opening of one of his French movies Retenez-moi . . . ou je fais un malheur (Stop Me... Or I'll Have An Accident), he was made a commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, France's highest cultural honour (perhaps not so high since even Sylvester Stallone has one of those). Incredibly, just two months later he was awarded the Legion of Honour, France's highest any kind of honour, traditionally awarded to French generals who storm enemy bunkers, so you can understand how rare that is. 

On 15 September 1999 Jerry made his first live appearance on France’s new COMEDIE! channel. It got the same kind of audiences as the moon shot. The publicity material was headlined simply Jerry. No further explanation was necessary for Jerry's French fans.


Bonjour Monsieur Lewis (1982) is the title of a documentary about Jerry Lewis that runs for six, hours by French critic and film maker, Robert Benayoun: “The pic loses a little steam in the third and fourth hours, when focusing on his relationship with children and his smarmier edge. You also have to wade through several renditions of "You'll Never Walk Alone", while his ancient "musical typewriter" routine is so grating that you'll want to drive your shoe up his shrivelled ass. Even if you can't understand one word of the un-subtitled French narration, almost everything else is in English and, as we all know, Jerry's (alleged) talent spans language barriers. Though far from the last word on this repellent comic genius, this fabulous love letter will leave any Jerry Lewis fan drooling and limp with joy.” Review, Shock Cinema.

It’s Official: The French Are Humour-less (until 1932) Are the French humourless? Until recently, the official answer was “yes”. Before the French Revolution,. the French spoke of l’esprit (wit), or la farce (joke) or la bouffonnerie (banter) but the word “humour” had no French equivalent. Only in 1878 did the l’Académie française (the French Academy), a collection of intellectuals that decides what goes into the French language and what doesn’t, accept “humoristique” as a French word – but only if it appeared between apostrophes. A year later, author Edmond de Goncourt used “humour” without italics in his novel "Les Freres Zemganno". Not until 1932 did les academiciens finally allow “humour” in their dictionary.

The Outrage of Jerry! What other comedian could dial up Paris and immediately be put through to Jacques Chirac? Only Le Jerry. In 2003, Ralph Garman, an entertainment reporter with Los Angeles-based radio station, KROQ 106.7, made a prank call to the French president and duped him into a bizarre eight-minute conversation that covered Saddam Hussein and the war in Iraq. During the call, Chirac assured Garman: ''I recognise your voice, no doubt about that” and invited the imposter to visit him next time he was in Paris. When the joke was revealed, Lewis issued the statement: ''Jerry is outraged that this impersonation occurred, especially at this critical time in the conduct of foreign policy.”


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