Jerry Lewis: The King of Comedy has Left Us

Jerry Lewis passed away this past Sunday. For many, who only know his annual telethon toJerry Lewis raise money for Muscular Dystrophy, they have missed out on one of the true greats of film comedy. I came to know Lewis first through his variety show on television and his films with Dean Martin. They were a perfect team, like Laurel and Hardy. Their personalities played off each other in an almost musical way. But not long after I began watching Martin and Lewis films, I discovered a book at the local library called ‘The Total Filmmaker’. It’s author: Jerry Lewis.

I was a film geek starting in sixth grade. I began shooting Super-8 movies, writing screenplays, and directing the neighborhood kids to die on cue. I read every book I could get my hands on about making films or film history. Here was a book by an artist I admired in which he shared his feelings about the medium and some of his techniques.

I learned about the films Lewis made after he and Dean Martin went their separate ways – ‘The Errand Boy’, ‘The Nutty Professor’, and ‘Cinderfella’. He borrowed from the silent comedians who had only their bodies and faces with which to express themselves. And not just Americans. There was a fair bit of Jacques Tati mixed in with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

In his book, Lewis described how his love of the medium had started while shooting the Martin and Lewis films. He wrote that between setups he would wander off to talk to the guys up in the catwalks to find out what they did. He would lose track of time learning about the different types of lights. They would have to send someone out to find him to resume shooting.

There was one thing in the book that did not compute with my sixth-grade mind. Lewis described the act of ‘licking celluloid’ as if it were an intoxicant. Only later, as an adult, did I finally come to understand what Lewis meant.

Lewis claimed to have invented video playback, and many have given him credit. Being able to watch a take immediately after it was shot by recording a separate video image has become the way films are made.

Lewis’ career went through peaks and valleys. While he continued to perform live in clubs across the country, his films ceased to hold the public’s interest – in the United States, anyway. In France, Jerry Lewis was lauded as one of the great film comedians of all time.

I remember one performance from his variety show. He was in the stands watching a red-carpet reception for a film premiere. There’s no dialog. He just watches, waves, tries to get close. Then he gets a brain storm. He paints his chinos and windbreaker black. Sneakers, too. He puts on a scrap of black fabric for a tie. And he strolls down the red carpet himself.

Martin Scorsese was a fan. He cast Lewis in his film ‘The King of Comedy’. If you haven’t seen this film, you have missed one of Robert DeNiro’s greatest performances. Lewis plays a talk show host. DeNiro plays a fan named Rupert Pupkin, who kidnaps Lewis. In a strange twist on the skit from Lewis’ variety show, DeNiro (With the help of Sandra Bernard) forces Lewis to interview him on television, so he can be just like all the stars he sees on TV.

Much has been said, and there has been much speculation about, Lewis’ reason for making Muscular Dystrophy his personal cause. Regardless of the reason, he personally raised many millions of dollars for research into this debilitating neuro-muscular disease. May he rest in peace.

 

 

Live, From L.A. It’s Saturday Night!

Big BandIt is 1978.

Vince Carroll, Chris Callard, Kim Long and I enter the Roxy Theater as Steve Allen’s Big Band plays. We are late because Vince was working at Vons and couldn’t get off early. He picked us up straight from work and is wearing an ensemble that – well, he doesn’t always look like this. And it’s not just the polka dotted tie/striped shirt combo. He has decorated his shirtfront with a good-sized purple ink stain from marking prices on canned goods.

The show has already started. We get the last table in the place. An usher brings us in between numbers. I knew Steve Allen as a comedian from television’s Golden Era. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew he had written a song or two but as the band goes through their set, I recognize every song. The man is wildly prolific and a damn fine songwriter.

During a break between songs, Allen addresses the audience.

“This is the part in the show where I’m supposed to introduce someone in the audience. Last night the stage manager handed me a card with the name Dr. Sydney Weinstein. I try to keep up with what’s going on in the world but wasn’t familiar with Dr. Weinstein’s work. And, as it turned out, someone was just having a joke on him.”

The audience laughs.

“But tonight, the name on the card is one I recognize. He is a man who has helped bring live television back and I am pleased to introduce Mr. Chevy Chase!”

The spotlight comes on and I am in it. I blink and applaud as I look around. A man at the next table stands and it is, in fact, Chevy Chase. He waves and nods. The band resumes their set.

Chris and Vince are aspiring stand-up comedians. At the end of the show, Vince makes a bee-line for Chase’s table.

“Mr. Chase!” he exclaims, grabbing the comedian’s hand and pumping it furiously. “I’d just like to thank you for making me laugh!”

Chevy Chase takes in the striped shirt and polka dot tie, and the purple Rorschach stain. He pumps Vince’s hand right back, grinning.

“And I’d like to thank YOU for making ME laugh.”

Putting the Performance in the Performance Tools Workshop

It is 1997.

I am in a staff meeting of the education department at FileNet Corp. in Costa Mesa. Department Manager Barbara Hubert is presenting us with our role in the upcoming user conference at the Disneyland Hotel. We will have a conference room and my supervisor, Peg Schwink, is going to do a workshop based on our performance tools course. Barb shows us posters with pictures of hammers, screwdrivers and saws. The she holds up the canvas tool belt those supporting the workshop will wear, printed with FileNet Education.

I think ‘If you’re going to do a performance tools workshop, why not go all the way and do a riff on ‘Home Improvement’ and their show-within-a-show, ‘Tool Time’. I scan the room, searching for a likely Al, the Tool Man’s pal.

Meeting over, I walk out into the hallway where I find Dale Niksch, a slightly stout and bearded course developer waiting.

“Tim?” he says.

Dale has a little theatrical background. I’m a 20-pound ham in a 10-pound can.

We race to Barbara’s office. We tell her we have an idea to enhance the performance tools workshop. She invites us to sit down.

“Before you say anything I want you to know that I already know what you’re going to say,” she tells us.

“You do?” I ask.

“You want to do ‘Tool Time’.”

“As an introduction,” I say, looking at Dale. We are making this up as we go. “Maybe do a little humorous bit to set it up.”

“Spend whatever you need to get costumes. Do you have tools?”

We haven’t gotten that far. She offers to bring a crescent wrench.

Barb’s husband, a former firefighter, has refurbished an ancient steam-powered pumper drawn by horses. The crescent wrench is huge and weighs 50 pounds. I couldn’t have asked for a better prop.

“But how did you know what we were going to say?” I ask as we get up to leave.

“Well,” she says with a big smile. “When you interviewed here, Peg came to me afterwards and said ‘Doesn’t he look just like Tim Allen?’”

I am dumbfounded.

“You must get that a lot.”

I’ve never heard that in my life.

My Trip to South Central: Why Black Lives Matter to Me

Why Black Lives Matter to MeIt is 1976.

I am embarrassed to admit this. Mark Walker and I decide to go to a book signing by Alex Hailey, author of ‘Roots’, as a goof. It’s an excuse to ditch school. I never ditch.

Hailey is at the Sears on Crenshaw. We know Crenshaw – it’s right off the 405 freeway in Torrance. We picture some South Bay mall. We exit the 405 and the addresses are way off. We keep driving.

We leave the South Bay, cross Slauson and enter South Central. The Sears store has a line around it, black men and women laden with copies of Hailey’s book.

Did I mention that Mark and I are white? We are from a white neighborhood. The first black family moved in when I was in 6th or 7th grade. Dr. Ira Jones became president of the PTA.

A black colleague describes me as ‘the whitest white guy’ he’s ever met.

Mark and I purchase copies of ‘Roots’ in the store. Hailey sits at a table, takes his time with each person. No stamp. No sticker. He signs every single copy. We go outside and get in line.

The people around us all have plastic trash bags full of books. They average 20 copies. They are getting them signed for their children, for their husbands and wives, for their mothers and fathers, for family members and friends.

We are there all afternoon. We make it around one corner of the building. It is obvious that we are not going to get our copies signed. Then one of our teachers walks past. We aren’t the only ones who ditched school for this. She takes pity on us. Her position in line is now entering the store. She takes our copies, adding them to her own stack.

This past summer there was no ‘Roots’ for black people to embrace. They embraced Black Lives Matter. My white conservative friends point to Jason Riley’s piece in the Wall Street Journal calling it “The great lie of the summer” like they’ve discovered a secret of the Illuminati. He is perhaps the whitest black guy in the country.

He was five the summer of ‘Roots’. I wonder if his mother bought him a copy.

Black Lives Matter

The Galloping Gourmet to the Rescue!

It is 1978.Galloping Gourmet

I am invited to a dinner party – my first – hosted by my friends, Valerie Riordan and Noelle Harris. They live in a duplex in a nice neighborhood near Cal State Long Beach. I’m excited about going to a dinner party.

I knock and Val and Noelle open the door. They are stunned.

“You are an hour early,” Val tells me. They seem very stressed.

I’m embarrassed. How did I make such a mistake?

They are not happy. At first I think they are not happy with me showing up early.

Then they look at each other. Something is communicated between them silently. They both turn back to me.

“Can you make crepes?” Noelle asks.

I am somewhat taken aback by her question. Then I realize why they are so stressed.

“Yes. I think so.”

I’ve never made crepes before in my life.

“Why do you think you can do it?” Val asks. They wave me in.

 “I watched Graham Kerr do it once on the ‘The Galloping Gourmet’.”

 Val and Noelle look at each other, shrug. Back to me again.

 “The kitchen is this way.”

For anyone who grew up in the 60s – 70s, Graham Kerr was the host with the most. He cooked and drank his way through afternoon television, his catch phrase going to commercial “Now it’s time for a short slurp!”.

I loved watching him cook. I saw many, MANY episodes of the show. I don’t remember anything else. But I remember him demonstrating a technique for cooking crepes. I remember it because it was so weird. He cooked the crepes on the BOTTOM of the pan.

On the kitchen counter is a bowl of batter. Beef Stroganoff is ready to be put in the oven nestled within the as yet unmade crepes. I ask to see their pans and find one of suitable size and without a coating inside the pan. I butter the bottom of the pan and light the burner.

I burn the first two. But after that I make a steady stream of crepes. Val and Noelle take them as fast as I can make them, rolling up the beef and putting them in a large baking dish.

When the doorbell rings, the smell of cooking Stroganoff crepes greets the other dinner guests.

Doppelgängers, Identical Cousins, and Twin Peaks

In college I heard stories of another student who looked exactly like me. Everyone said it was uncanny how much we looked alike. But there were so many occasions when I would show up at a party to have someone say “He was just here!” that I had the feeling they were putting me on.

"How 'bout some eggs to go with that coffee, Agent Cooper?"

“How ’bout some eggs to go with that coffee, Agent Cooper?”

The number of times I’ve been told I look like someone else is astronomical. One day I was leaving the Orange County Court and I heard someone behind me yell “Hey, Jeff!” I didn’t turn around since that wasn’t my name and kept walking across the parking lot. I heard it again and still didn’t turn around. Then I heard feet running up behind me. I was in the courthouse parking lot. I decided I better turn around.

A guy ran up to me and stopped. “Jeff, didn’t you…hear…” He was so shocked that I wasn’t Jeff that he just turned around and walked away. It was at this time in my life I learned about the idea of doppelgängers. I wondered if the guy at school was my doppelganger.

It is 1989. David David Lynch plays with doppelgangers on ‘Twin Peaks. He didn’t invent the idea of identical cousins (Think ‘The Patty Duke Show and their funhouse mirror routines). On his show they are Laura Palmer and her cousin, Maddy.

They finally reveal Laura’s killer in a horrific scene. Laura’s father, Leland, is possessed by the killer, Bob. As he looks at his reflection in a mirror, shaggy Bob appears. Then Leland beats Maddy to death.

Frank Da Silva was cast as Bob after appearing in a scene by accident. He was arranging props on set and got caught in front of the camera when they called “Action!”. Lynch was so taken with him when he saw the footage that he created the part and cast him.

I am in the Red Carpet Club at LAX a couple of weeks after the violent episode airs. They call my flight. I grab my bags. I pull open the door. There, in front of me, is shaggy Frank/Bob. I gulp, then very deliberately step to the right. Bob steps to his left.

I step left. He steps right.

We both smile.