The comedy gods, no doubt, are enjoying a good laugh over Jerry Lewis' latest women-have-no-business-being-funny comments coming just two days after Carol Burnett earned headlines for capturing the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
The honor has eluded Lewis, one of Hollywood’s most successful film comedians. That's unfortunate. But it’s a bigger shame that, through nobody's fault but his own, 87-year-old Lewis risks being remembered more for his nutty remarks than for "The Nutty Professor."
For a performer whose childlike antics inspired years of laughter, Lewis is a complicated guy with more personalities than his classic Jekyll-and-Hyde comic creation. He's part manic, rubber-faced comedian, and part schmaltzy sentimentalist. But the most disturbing part of his makeup seems to be a mix of ego and hubris that threatens to swallow his legacy.
It's not a defense, but just movie history that Lewis, alongside partner Dean Martin, emerged in the 1950s as one of the biggest movie comedy superstars since Charlie Chaplin. The comparisons became more apt in the 1960s, when, like Chaplin, Lewis made his own innovative films filled with physical comedy and dashes of pathos. “The Bellboy” and “The Errand Boy,” among others, stand up well beside “The Nutty Professor.”
The Lewis touch can be seen in the likes of Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey, among many performers. Unfortunately, Lewis apparently can't see his influence on other stars, from Tracey Ullman to Kristen Wiig.
It’s worth noting that in Lewis' last major outing – Martin Scorsese's brilliant 1982 dark farce "The King of Comedy" – he played a virtual straight man, tied up much of the time, as Sandra Bernhard put on an edgy, dangerous and hilarious performance.
Lewis first weighed in on women in comedy in 1998, spurring condemnation that stretched to Twain Prize winner Tina Fey’s 2011 “Bossypants” book, in which she offered an unprintable rejoinder. His latest comments came at the Cannes Film Festival, when, The Associated Press reported, he was asked about the success of “Bridesmaids” scene-stealer Melissa McCarthy and Sarah Silverman, one of the stars of the ongoing YouTube Comedy Week.
"I can't see women doing that. It bothers me," Lewis said.
"I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator," he added.
It's too bad Lewis doesn’t realize he diminishes his own qualities with such comments. You would think, at the very least, he’d show more generosity of spirit toward fellow (and non-fellow) performers, especially after being shabbily tossed aside as host of the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon two years ago without a proper goodbye.
As Lewis’ career draws closer to a close, the man who made "Hey, lady!" a catchphrase might want to offer a gracious apology to comedy fans and comedians of all stripes. After all, there are few things sadder than watching what could be the final performance of an angry clown.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.