Commentary Magazine


Dean and Me by Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan

Dean and Me (A Love Story)
by Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan
Doubleday. 340 pp. $26.95

An article in the New York Times last year posited that civilized people no longer tell jokes. Surely there is something to this. I personally have not heard a joke worth repeating in over a decade, and the last one I remember liking—

A Jew and a Scotsman are having dinner. The waiter brings the bill, and the Scotsman says, “Here, I’ll take that.” Headline in the next day’s paper: jewish ventriloquist found murdered in alley.

—was being told by people who wanted to argue over whether or not it was anti-Semitic, as alleged in a complaint on the humor website of Stanford University, and if so, and maybe even if not, whether Stanford should close down the site. These days, if you Google “Jewish ventriloquist,” you will find that the joke is still famous not for being funny but for being off-limits in the taste department.

Has something serious happened to American humor? According to a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, the particular variant known as standup comedy has been in a “funk” for over a decade. The big guns of the past, certainly, have not been replaced. Not only are there no new Richard Pryors or Steve Martins, there are no modern counterparts of such older geniuses as Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, or Red Skelton, to cite a modest sample of what once was out there.

Jerry Seinfeld has genuine wit and certainly qualifies as a big gun, but even at his best, he is serving up ironies and incongruities and generating mere chuckles. Jackie Mason, a throwback, is an exception that proves the rule. Never again, it appears, will there be an act like Martin and Lewis, on my scorecard the all-time world champions of explosive laughter production. (I saw them live three times: twice at the Copacabana in New York, once at Chez Paree in Chicago.)

Jerry Lewis’s memoir is thus an invitation to explore a lost world—the world he and Dean Martin were on top of from 1946 to 1956. As expertly rendered by James Kaplan of the New Yorker (who did a profile of Lewis in 2000), the story is organized somewhat chronologically but with many flashbacks and thematic asides, one recurrent theme being the inescapable presence of the mob in the nightclub/casino business. In this connection, Lewis confesses—or possibly boasts—that he knew and mostly liked Bugsy Siegel in Las Vegas, the Fischetti brothers, Tony Accardo, and Sam Giancana in Chicago, and Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano in New York. His verdict: “I found the great majority of these guys to be men of their word, far less hypocritical about their businesses than most of the politicians of the day.”

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Until they started performing together, Martin and Lewis were showbiz losers. Both were high-school dropouts who had wives and children and were going nowhere. When they first met in March 1945, the former Dino Crocetti was a refugee from blue-collar Steubenville, Ohio with a nonpaying job crooning for WMCA radio in New York, which made the arrangement worthwhile by arranging for him to live rent-free at the Belmont Plaza hotel. The former Joseph Levitch, from Irvington, New Jersey, was trying to get on with a pathetic act in which he made funny faces and wore funny clothes while lip-synching to phonograph records.

But there came a time when both acts were booked into the Havana Madrid, a third-tier New York nightclub on Broadway near 50th Street, and it was 3:00 AM, with more waiters than customers in the place, and Lewis decided on an impulse to come onstage and clown around crazily while Martin was trying to sing. For a fateful two seconds, it was an open question whether Martin would react angrily or go along with the gag. Luckily, he opted to go along.

Even more luckily, he turned out to be funny—arguably funnier than Lewis. In the high-energy act that evolved, the chemistry was perfect. Martin was smooth and unflappable, Lewis maniacal and nonsensical, always playing what he called a putz. They worked without a script, and it all depended on mile-a-minute improvisation, physical and verbal, with no self-censorship about sex, race, ethnicity, or religion, and no quarter given to ringside customers or busboys trying to preserve the crockery. In a line here that Lewis may have gotten from his psychoanalyst, their act was “the explosion of the show-business id.”

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A few weeks after that night on Broadway, the two were hired as a team by the 500 Club in Atlantic City, a joint several blocks off the boardwalk with 240 seats for the entertainment and an adjacent illegal casino. Each of them was making $150 for a week’s work. On their first night, they played to a crowd of 24. On the second night, it was 200, and the crowd kept them onstage for more than two hours. On the third night, long lines were trying to get into the 500 Club, and on the afternoon of the fourth day, the management was offering $750 a week and demanding four more weeks.

Those figures grew exponentially. A couple of years later, they were making $400,000 a week on a schedule that featured four daytime shows at the Roxy Theater in New York, followed by the dinner show at the Riviera nightclub in Fort Lee, New Jersey, then back to the Roxy for the 11:20 pm show, then again to the Riviera for the 1:15 am show, with police escorts for all four crossings of the George Washington bridge. On another occasion, they received $100,000 for a single evening performance at Grossinger’s in the Catskills. You can multiply all those figures by about eight to get the current dollar equivalents.

If Dean and Me has a villain, it is Hal Wallis, the Hollywood producer, who early on signed the pair to a long-term movie contract. This led to an arresting discovery: on top of their night-club gigs, they were capable of turning out two or three movies a year that made money and required no thinking. The movies were supremely unfunny, and in Dean and Me Lewis maintains that he kept trying to do something better. But Wallis was adamant: “Fellows, look. A Martin and Lewis picture costs a half-million, and it’s guaranteed to make three million with a simple formula: Jerry’s an idiot, Dean is a straight leading man who sings a couple of songs and gets the girl. That’s it, don’t f—with it.”

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Huge chunks of Dean and Me are devoted to explaining and interpreting the Martin-Lewis breakup in 1956. It was initiated mainly by Martin, and Lewis appears to believe that it happened mainly because his partner became increasingly irritated by the reviews identifying him, Lewis, as the guiding genius of the act. Not considered in the book is the possibility that working with Jerry Lewis for more than a decade could be both exhausting and—as each became wealthier—finally unnecessary.

A great act was lost when the two men split up, but each of them had new options. The Jerry Lewis movies, dumb beyond belief as ever, remained highly profitable. Dean Martin, however, made a few quite good movies, beginning with The Young Lions (1958), a critical and financial success in which he effortlessly held his own playing alongside Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Until his death in 1995, Martin kept branching out. During the last two decades, he lived mostly in Las Vegas, joining Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and other such idealists in Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, where just fooling around was the main point.

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Similarly not addressed in Dean and Me is the current state of standup comedy. It is possible that Lewis, who will turn eighty in March, does not really know much about this subject: it is somehow hard to envisage him dropping by a comedy club to catch the action these days. I gather from friends who do go (and whose reports are confirmed by the essayist in the Wall Street Journal) that some acts are outrageously raunchy, some are constrained by political correctness, and not many rise to the level of an average 1948 borscht-belt professional.

An interesting question is whether this is related to demographics. Big-time comedians were traditionally apt to be Jewish, which seems utterly logical, given that Jews were known for exceptional verbal skills (well documented in the IQ literature) and above-average levels of hostility and/or ethnic anxiety, two rich founts of comedic material. Today, however, you can Google “Chinese comedian” and find hundreds of citations, and even the nurturing sex is out there fighting for laughs. But is anybody even trying to do what Martin and Lewis did 50 years ago?

A question within that question is whether any such act could command a sizable following today. Martin and Lewis were screamingly funny in the 50′s, but it is not entirely clear that today’s college-educated audiences would be similarly convulsed. Just as the joke is falling out of favor in everyday life, gags and one-liners and slapstick seem to be increasingly suspect in the comedy clubs.

The issue is what replaces them. One recurrently observes modern comics seeking to lift the intellectual level of their acts and occasionally still managing to be funny (as the Monty Python troupe often was), but all too frequently falling on their faces in an effort to reposition themselves as satirists. As Ogden Nash might have written, Turning satire into shtick,/Is not an easy trick.

We may just have to live with less hilarity in our lives.

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About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.




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