Appreciation: Jerry Lewis & Dick Gregory have earned their place in history
With their passing last week, the long lives and illustrious careers of Jerry Lewis and Dick Gregory must be examined and savoured. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.
Within just two days of each other – on 19 and 20 August – two comedic giants, Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis, passed away after many decades of path-breaking careers in entertainment. Gregory had been a pioneer in bringing comedy with a politically and racially barbed point to audiences – black and white – across the nation, opening the doors wide for two generations of African American comedians who would follow in his footsteps. Lewis, meanwhile, demonstrated mastery and multiple gifts and versatility across nearly every aspect of entertainment, well into his 80s – from slapstick to tragicomedy – on stage, on television and radio, in the cinema, and even on best-selling recordings. And for four decades he hosted an annual fundraising telethon for research and support for muscular dystrophy sufferers, bringing in billions of dollars for this cause.
Dick Gregory was born in St Louis, Missouri, 84 years ago. Back in the early years of his comedic career, he had performed in the venues of what was usually referred to as the “Chitlin’ Circuit” – largely segregated black nightclubs and theatres across the land. Then, in 1961, he was invited by Hugh Hefner to perform at one of his then very popular Playboy Clubs, after Hefner had seen Gregory do his set in another club, when the then-popular comic, “Professor” Irwin Corey, had to drop out of his Playboy Club dates.
Around the same time, Gregory had appeared on “The Jack Paar Show” (the precursor to the very long-running, late-evening “Tonight Show”). Gregory became the first black comic on American television who did not simply deliver his comedy and then leave the program’s set without engaging in a broadcast chat with the show host – conversations that were a regular feature of any performances by white comics. (Until that moment, Gregory had steadfastly refused to perform for Paar’s popular show unless he had been accorded that same courtesies as white comic guests.)
Earlier in his life, Gregory had begun his comic career while still in the army. Upon his return to civilian life, he moved to Chicago for the chance to break into show business for real. He was one of the earliest black comics who consciously eschewed the stereotypical, shucking and jiving, “Amos 'n Andy” style of humour, preferring a much more pointed comedic style that spoke to the real lives of people – and, most especially, to the civil rights revolution increasingly sweeping the nation.
Of that time, Gregory would recall for interviews late in life, “Blacks could sing and dance in the white night clubs, but weren't allowed to stand flat-footed and talk to white folks, which is what a comic does.” But he did. His “take no prisoners” attitude with humour helped open doors for others as well, including figures like Nipsy Russell, Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Godfrey Cambridge, among many others.
Back at the beginnings of his sustained success, Gregory would tell audiences, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.”
Or, perhaps, “Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don't serve colored people here.’ I said, ‘That’s all right. I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’ ”
And then there was this, still on the subject of restaurants: “These three white boys came up to me and said, ‘Boy, we're giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to you.’ So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, ‘Line up, boys!’ ”
And then there was a throwaway line in his routines, just as segregated public transport was coming under increasing pressure around the country from marches, sit-ins and demonstrations, saying, “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”
As the Vietnam War began to intrude on his – and the nation’s - consciousness, Gregory transformed his gift to become a vocal opponent of that war as well as to continue to campaign against racial injustice. Along the way, he espoused support for a range of conspiratorial theories about such topics as the Kennedy assassination. He adopted a vegetarian way of life, engaged in periodic fasts, and even started to market a range of food supplements. In his later years, he ended up as a motivational speaker promoting spirituality. But, sadly for his fans, there was less and less comedy.
Later in life, he was also a frequent guest on radio. He served as a co-host with Cathy Hughes on the widely listened-to WOL 1450 AM’s nationally syndicated show, The Power. He was also a guest on other talk radio shows such as Imus in the Morning and even appeared on The Alex Jones Show.
In his keynote address for Black History Month at Bryn Mawr College four years ago, he told his audience, “Once I accept injustice, I become injustice. For example, paper mills give off a terrible stench. But the people who work there don't smell it. Remember, Dr. King was assassinated when he went to work for garbage collectors. To help them as workers to enforce their rights. They couldn't smell the stench of the garbage all around them anymore. They were used to it. They would eat their lunch out of a brown bag sitting on the garbage truck. One day, a worker was sitting inside the back of the truck on top of the garbage, and got crushed to death because no one knew he was there.”
As part of his political activism, at the height of the civil rights movement, Gregory joined voter registration rallies in Selma, Alabama. Later, he ran for office on the Freedom and Peace Party ticket, eventually ending up on Richard Nixon’s infamous list of political enemies.
For a publicity effort carried out on behalf of Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket in Chicago, his image was printed on faux dollar bills, instead of George Washington’s. Astonishingly, the copies were sufficiently well printed that the change machines of the time accepted them as legal currency – at least until most had been seized by the federal government. Of this effort, Gregory had reportedly avoided being charged with counterfeiting; or, as he said, “Everyone knows a black man will never be on a U.S. bill.”
In other aspects of his political behaviour, Gregory also became increasingly active in feminist causes, marching with the elders of the movement in 1978 to demonstrate for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. He even travelled to Tehran in 1980 in an attempt to gain the release of the American Embassy hostages there, where his efforts included a hunger strike that drove his weight down to 45 kgs before returning home. In 1998, at a Martin Luther King Day celebration, he gained the plaudits and laughter of President Bill Clinton when he had quipped [in an obvious reference to Southern segregated public transportation], Clinton had made the prickly House Speaker Newt Gingrich ride “in the back of the plane,” on Air Force One during an overseas trip.
Jerry Lewis came from Newark, New Jersey where his parents were minor vaudeville performers and he had begun his entertainment career while still a small child at the “Borscht Belt” resorts of the Catskill Mountains. (Despite being just a run-of-the-mill, middling-sized city, there must have been something in Newark’s air or water over the years. Besides Lewis, a whole top tier list of major cultural and sports figures have come from there, including Whitney Houston, Shaquille O’Neal, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Philip Roth, and Paul Simon, just to name a few of the more obvious individuals.)
Throughout Lewis’ eight decades of work, he had been a comedian, actor, singer, producer, director, screenwriter, and humanitarian and his unique brand of slapstick humour in the cinema, on television and radio brought him an enormous following – both in the US and abroad. In particular, the French have always been extremely partial to Lewis’ career and work, with critics seeing him as something of a model for the career of film auteurs such as Jean Luc Godard.
As he began to make it into the big time, for a decade, between 1946 and 1956, he had teamed up with singer Dean Martin. Their night club act, over a dozen films, and stardom on the new medium of television brought them an immense audience that never really faltered, even after their partnership broke up acrimoniously. Moreover, for more than four decades, Lewis hosted the annual telethon for muscular dystrophy and he eventually became national chairman of the association combatting this disease. These annual events raised billions of dollars for research, treatment and supportive care for those with the condition.
Lewis’ real national breakthrough with his partnership with singer Dean Martin came as the two performers’ act had become substantially improvisational, rather than the carefully planned, scripted skits common to other comic performers. In this pairing, Martin was the suave, sophisticated half of the team, while Lewis mugged and engaged in zany behaviour all around Martin’s “Mr Smooth”. In this period, they made numerous guest appearances on early television shows – including an appearance on the very first show of the program that eventually became the “Ed Sullivan Show”.
Their successes then led to film contracts with the Paramount studio and a run of sixteen films directed by A list director, Hal B Wallis. Success even led to a DC Comics version of their various “adventures”. But the increasing trajectory of Lewis’ popularity and the declining share of the film time dedicated to Martin contributed to their breakup as an entertainment, a “divorce” that was national news when it happened. This split never really ended, although they did make a few joint appearances later in life, including one on the 1976 telethon that had been secretly brokered by mutual friend Frank Sinatra, and that was followed by a personal reconciliation later still. At an appearance in a Las Vegas casino in 1989, Lewis brought out a cake for Martin’s 72nd birthday, sang “Happy Birthday” to him, and then added wistfully, “Why we broke up, I'll never know.”
After the breakup Lewis was in crisis, saying afterwards, “I was unable to put one foot in front of the other with any confidence. I was completely unnerved to be alone.” Then he was asked to fill in for Judy Garland in Las Vegas because she had become ill. He came on stage, told jokes, clowned around and sang. About that evening, Lewis recalled, “When I was done, the place exploded. I walked off the stage knowing I could make it on my own.”
He then recorded a record that hit the three spot on Billboard and sold 1.5 million copies. Thereafter, he began solo nightclub and television appearances to great acclaim and a solo film career as well, including such hits as “The Sad Sack”, “Geisha Boy” and “Don’t Give Up the Ship;” followed by “Visit to a Small Planet, and “The Bellboy,” as he began to pioneer in production techniques such as the use of video cameras and multiple closed circuit monitors to review his performance immediately, rather than wait for the film rushes.
By this time he had moved onto directing and writing or co-writing his films, including the classic, “The Nutty Professor.” This film was a riff on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde” in which Lewis found – through his comedic gifts – the dark essence of the Stevenson story. (Eddie Murphy would reprise this take with his own version of that film and then in two sequels.) Almost frantically busy now, Lewis was also doing big budget television variety shows as well as guest appearances on many of the other top hit shows. Now in his forties, Lewis began to teach film directing at the University of Southern California – and his students included George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – even as his own film career was beginning to slow down.
Then, after an absence of a decade, he started to work in film again, with works that included, among others, the 1983 Martin Scorsese project, “The King of Comedy”, co-starring Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard. It was a dark film about a late night television host who is pursued by two obsessive fans.
Despite the unfavourable comments he sometimes received in America from film critics, his reputation seems unstoppable in France. His antic performances and those expressions of the absurd were paralleled by his long career as a filmmaker who held full control over many of his films. This put him in the league of people such as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and Satyajit Ray. As French film magazine critic NT Binh has written, “That Americans can’t see Jerry Lewis’s genius is bewildering.”
His decades of championing the fight against muscular dystrophy – including years of service as national chair of and spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the annual telethons - deserve much applause, even if, by the end of his engagement in that effort, he was taking growing flak for what seemed to some as milking the victimhood of children with the disease to promote the giving. The best estimate is that through his efforts he raised more than $2.6 billion in donations for this cause.
In sharp contrast to Dick Gregory, for many years, Lewis kept a very low political profile; heeding advice given him by President John Kennedy, “Don't get into anything political. Don't do that because they will usurp your energy.” In more recent years, he insisted that pride in one’s country was important and he criticized allowing Syrian refugees into America because of the possibility that some might be ISIS supporters, and he expressed some support of the candidacy of Donald Trump for president.
Despite Lewis and Gregory’s apparently widely disparate styles and the comedic content of their work, some contemporary comedians insist the two men’s work intersected and they were significant joint influences on newer comedians.
In a review of their work and lives broadcast just after their passing, National Public Radio’s Elizabeth Blair said of the two men, “Gregory had audiences in stitches while talking about serious issues like integration. Jerry Lewis was all wild silliness, and so you might not think there were comedians out there influenced by both of them.”
But in response to Blair’s point, comedian Lewis Black – a man largely known for his own biting social commentary accompanied with much restrained physicality to it – commented of the two men, “There's a craft to it that you admire and - you know, the craft of the joke.” Black went on to say that even when he, Black, was railing about the weather, “But I'm yelling about it as if it's - you know, that the universe is going to collapse because of it. That’s - kind of has to come from Jerry Lewis' type of comedy, of realizing - you think you’ve gone far. You can go further.”
Black also told Blair he drew much inspiration from Gregory as well, adding, “I realized that the environment in this country was totally out of control.” And Blair concluded her broadcast, saying, “When Lewis Black learned the news that these two giants of comedy had died, he tweeted, ‘first Dick Gregory and then Jerry Lewis, the yin and the yang of comedy. I guess after this week, even God was desperate for a laugh.’ ” DM
Photo: Jerry Lewis in 1960s – a publicity photo (Wikimeda Commons), Dick Gregory in 1964 (Herman Hiller, World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.)