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Jerry Lewis: the misunderstood, mad king of comedy

"Where's Jerry Lewis when you need the man?"

This is how The Frogs' arch tribute to the king of comedy (from their 1996 record, My Daughter the Broad) begins. Later in the song from the bleakly playful Milwaukee band, Lewis's MDA telethon is both parodied, and one senses, adored, as the bizarre and beautiful institution that it is: "Winner, you're a real winner," the strange duo harmonize, soulfully.

This spring, the 85-year-old Lewis announced that, after serving for 45 years and raising $2.6-billion for muscular dystrophy research and treatment, he would not be hosting the famous telethon any more.

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"It's time for an all new Telethon era," he announced. Happily, on the Sept. 4 broadcast, he will be performing his signature tune, You'll Never Walk Alone.

Lewis is also promoting a forthcoming biography on Encore called Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis, and at a press lunch last week during the Television Critics Tour, he fired off a few insults about television in general.

He called the American Idol contestants "McDonald's wipeouts," and dismissed such shows as Biggest Loser as worthless fat-watching. On a roll, he condemned all of TV, or "television" as he fully names it, refusing to abbreviate what he considers the great "miracle" that it was: "The industry has destroyed itself," he said.

Instead of engaging him on any salient point, though, the press merely clamored for more cruel sound bites. It is, after all, Lewis's reception which makes him one of America's most complex celebrities.

When, decades ago, the French began their love affair with Lewis, praising him in Cahiers du Cinèma in the 1960s and eventually awarding him the Legion of Honour in 2006, it seemed to offer Americans a simple way of expressing their loathing of the nation's perceived cowardice during the Second World War. The French were already seen as war weaklings, and as Lewis fans, idiots.

Teased for their affections for so long, the French still do love Lewis. And when he received the Légion d'honneur, Lewis rewarded them with a comedic performance, attending the ceremony in slippers, making faces, and pretending to nap during Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres's speech. Lewis said he felt "gloriously elevated," and who could blame him.

While he has received a fair amount of acclaim in the U.S., it is largely honorary, having failed to receive any major nominations even for his most complex role in The King of Comedy (1996); and Lewis, who suffers from a daunting series of health issues, including diabetes and severe cardiac and pulmonary problems, is routinely humiliated by the American media for his appearance. As Prednisone left him horribly bloated for some time, photographs of him appeared everywhere, with transparently vicious remarks about the media's "concern" for his health.

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But if he is not well-appreciated here, his comic genius is not merely a Gallic whimsy. Those viewers unfamiliar with his style, those who might find it dated, need only look at most of Jim Carrey's work (or outright theft in Dumb and Dumber), at The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons (to a lesser, yet significant degree), at Michael Richards, Chevy Chase, and so on.

The Seinfeld crew were always straight-up in their admiration of Lewis. Hank Azaria has acknowledged his tribute (the Simpsons' Professor Frink) and Eddie Murphy's tribute is, of course, the Nutty Professor reboots.

When Lewis does work (his 2006 Law & Order SVU appearance, for example) he gets respect, but so little, one must consider his mortality and wonder how people will respond when they don't have him to kick around any more.

The documentary is exciting news, and one wonders if it might, at last, reveal footage from his 1972 locked-in-a-vault film, The Day the Clown Cried, about a down-on-his-luck German clown imprisoned in a Nazi political prisoner camp. While comedian Harry Shearer, who has seen a rough cut, compares it to seeing a black-velvet painting of Auschwitz in a Tijuana marketplace, this "Chaplinesque dark comedy" (in the words of one of the film's writers) could be brilliant.

At the very least, it is already a great artifact in the life of a truly tragicomic figure. The best comedians assault our comfort and complacency: Consider Andy Kaufman reading The Great Gatsby in its entirety as the audience squirmed and left; or Richard Pryor, in Live on the Sunset Strip, quietly tearing a heckler apart, long after he poses any threat. Lewis's physical comedy is like that: so extreme, it borders on anguish. He takes comic expression to frightening, even dangerous limits. While filming the sexy and elegant ballroom scene in Cinderfella (1960), Lewis is reputed to have suffered his third heart attack.

His darker work – what little there is – is also chilling and splendid. Scorsese deemed him a "great actor" in his brooding, vile role in King of Comedy; and also recounts laughing so hysterically during takes that he would have to stop Lewis from making jokes.

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That is Lewis in a nutshell, obscurely brilliant, too funny to withstand: a method that (inexplicably) does not mesh with our mad misunderstanding.

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