Monday, February 4, 2013

Classic TV Variety Show Blogathon: The Jerry Lewis Show

The following is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Classic TV Variety Show Blogathon, which is being hosted from February 3-5 by the Classic TV Blog AssociationFor a full list of participants and the shows covered, click here.

Though the title of Martin Scorsese’s 1983 serio-comedy The King of Comedy can be open to two interpretations—either the character by Robert De Niro (aspiring standup comic Rupert Pupkin) or Jerry Lewis (as talk show host Jerry Langford)—in the 1960s, it definitely applied to the latter of these two performers.  Naysayers were certain that Lewis would not be able to continue his accomplishments in show bidness after his acrimonious split with longtime crooner-straight man Dean Martin in 1957, but the comic became even more successful (as did Dean, after bouncing back from the travesty known as Ten Thousand Bedrooms [1957]) with a string of popular box office vehicles that culminated with the film Lewis devotees consider his masterpiece, The Nutty Professor (1963).  Before Professor, Paramount inked the comedian to a fourteen picture deal in 1958 that netted him $10 million, possibly making him the highest-paid movie actor in the industry at that time.  The lucrative take for his stage appearances also added to his coffers, and in late 1962 Jerry signed on the dotted line for an ambitious ninety-minute live variety-talk show that would premiere in the fall of 1963 on ABC-TV.  Eight million dollars for forty shows—nice work if you could get it at the time.

When Jerry was still with Dean, the comedy duo wowed the nation with their frequent appearances on TV’s The Colgate Comedy Hour in the 1950s; many of the team’s fans believe that those showcases came closest to duplicating the zany wildness that was their nightclub act.  So Lewis was anxious to succeed as a solo performer in TV…but alas, it wasn’t in the cards.  The comedian, famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for maintaining strict control over his films and other performance outlets (Jerry was “King of All Media” years before Howard Stern swiped that title), also held a tight rein on a show that ended up—in the politest phrasing possible—a complete and total clusterfudge.  The associate producer of that series must have been named Murphy’s Law, because on the technical side, anything that could did go wrong on opening night…and subsequent installments could do little to save the sinking ship.

Jerry Lewis was also experiencing problems at the box office as well.  Much as the 1950s films of Bud Abbott & Lou Costello had gradually started targeting kid audiences, so did Jer’s feature output in the mid 60s—Lewis tried to jumpstart the interest of adult fans with more mature movies (Boeing Boeing, Three on a Couch, Way…Way Out), but to no avail.  What’s more, the competitive Lewis had to be rankled by the fact that his onetime partner was conquering primetime TV with the mega-successful The Dean Martin Show…so in the fall of 1967, to television sets that were not only featuring Martin but the variety shows of Ed Sullivan, the Smothers Brothers, Jackie Gleason, Lawrence Welk and Red Skelton—as well as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, The Kraft Music Hall and The Hollywood Palace—Jerry Lewis made his move.  (The fall of 1967 would also see Danny Thomas strike out with a variety hour, but usher in the success of Carol Burnett’s program that would run on small screens for over a decade.)

In an interview at the Archive of American Television, director-producer Bob Finkel takes credit for coming up with the idea that ultimately became the second primetime Jerry Lewis Show.  Finkel’s account seems plausible—he mentions having worked with Martin & Lewis during their Colgate Comedy Hour days—but it starts to go off the rails with an anecdote in which he reveals that Jerry relinquished creative control of the show to him.  (Another interview with costume designer Ret Turner disputes the “control,” saying Lewis was hands-on at all times and in every aspect of the show…which knowing what I know about the comedian is far more believable.)  Regardless of whose story you swallow, The Jerry Lewis Show premiered on September 12, 1967 in a Tuesday time slot at 8pm EST.  Though the program had a tough row to hoe in that most of its audience deserted it at the half-hour mark to watch the seventh-ranked show in the Nielsens, CBS’ The Red Skelton Hour, NBC brought it back for a second season the following year, moving it up a half-hour to 7:30.  But Lewis’ show lost its I Dream of Jeannie lead-in with that move, and found its butt kicked by the ABC series that put ten pounds of hip in a five pound bag, The Mod Squad.  Even plugs by Lewis’ old compadre Dean Martin (whose own variety hour was snuggled in the Top Ten) couldn’t save it (though in all fairness, Dino’s “Be sure to watch The Jerry Lewis Show this week…’cause I know I will!” might not have been totally sincere), and The Jerry Lewis Show vanished from the schedule.

Because it had been mostly unseen by the general public since its sayonara at the end of the 1968-69 season, Lewis fans and other curiosity seekers were excited at the news that Infinity Entertainment had plans to release a collection of thirteen programs from the show in December of 2009.  The warning signs should have been apparent: the release date for the set was pushed up a few times, and after seeing what the company did with such shows as The Real McCoys and Route 66 it shouldn’t have bode at all well…so when consumers got their hands on the set when it hit the streets they got the bad news—the shows in the collection were edited (and badly at that) twenty-three and a half minute versions of the original hour telecasts (well, including commercials) much in the truncated way that The Carol Burnett Show (as Carol Burnett and Friends) and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (Carson’s Comedy Classics) were cut to ribbons for syndication.  The shows open with bad graphics, bad synthesizer music…and that grating laugh of Jerry’s that makes you wonder why they would ever have to resort to torture—listening to that on a loop for an hour or so would break anyone’s free will.

Let me give you an example of the night-and-day difference between what’s on The Jerry Lewis Show: Collection and what you might find, say, on the Internets.  The December 5, 1967 telecast is available for viewing on YouTube, a show originally guest-starring Frank Gorshin and the McGuire Sisters.  The McGuire stuff is fairly forgettable, but Gorshin does do some hilarious impressions of celebrities like Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn, Burt Lancaster, etc.  There’s also a comedy sketch in which Jerry—in his “Sidney Portnoy” persona, a character he played often on the show—arrives as a spooky old castle as a delivery boy for a fried chicken fast-food joint and runs into both a mad scientist (Gorshin doing Karloff) and a vampire (Gorshin doing Lugosi).  It’s as lame as it sounds, but anytime you have Gorshin doing two of my favorite film personalities it can’t be all that bad.

Now, this show is included on the DVD set…but contains mostly the Lewis-Gorshin skit, which also contains some horrendous edits.  There have been multiple theories as to why these shows have not been presented in their original format.  The most plausible is that the show was cut up for a possible syndicated series, given the cheesy opening and godawful graphics.  There’s also credible speculation that the shows may not survive in their complete hour-long form; a photo gallery included with the set has two pictures with Jerry and Jack Webb…who, along with Harry Morgan, was guest star on a program that apparently no longer exists (and the caption underneath the photo says they will have to cobble together the program from existing foreign kinescopes).  A third theory posits that the ever sticky wicket of copyrights might have reared its ugly head and prevented musical numbers (including many with Jerry singing—though one could argue this is not necessarily a terrible result) from being included.  If you purchased a copy of this 2-disc set, you have my sympathy at feeling like you were rooked (my copy was a Christmas present, so there was no personal financial rooking on my part); if you look at the listing on Amazon the collection is still listed at 640 minutes, which is a complete crock.

So apparently the only way to experience what was once The Jerry Lewis Show is either through this collection or random YouTube sharings (Kliph Nesteroff at Classic Television Showbiz has a second season show up here, February 5, 1969, that features John Byner and the Osmond Brothers as guests; Byner and Jerry do a funny "Governor of California" sketch and John does his Ed Sullivan impression)—and it’s apparent that the DVD release doesn’t really give you the full sense of the show.  Much of your enjoyment of The Jerry Lewis Show will depend on your personal opinion of Lewis himself; it’s my personal belief that Lewis wasn’t quite the same after the breakup with Dean Martin but I have had several people tell me I’m insane.  The only real flaw in Lewis’ variety program is that it was so very ordinary considering the person in charge—the best way to describe it is it’s like watching one of the comedian’s MDA telethons only it’s over and done with in fifty minutes.  (Again…to many this will be a blessing and not a curse.)

Lewis put together a veteran staff of writers to pen mediocre sketches for his series—two of the more interesting names on his staff were Bill Richmond, a longtime Lewis crony who co-wrote, among other Lewis movie classics, The Nutty Professor (he also turns up in some of the sketches) from time to time, and Ed Simmons, who wrote for Martin & Lewis’ radio show back in the 1950s…with then-partner Norman Lear.   (Simmons later went to work for Carol Burnett, winning a few Emmys in the process.)  The second season saw the addition of scribes like Honeymooners veteran Syd Zelinka and the team of Gerald Gardner & Dee Caruso…and though it might be because I’m biased (Gardner & Caruso wrote many scripts for The Monkees and Get Smart) I think the writing improved a little in the second season.  (Then again, Gardner & Caruso wrote the screenplay for Jerry’s Which Way to the Front? so it could be those mushrooms kicking in.)

Whatever one’s personal opinion of the program—you can’t deny that it wasn’t big-time variety at its most prevalent.  The surviving sketches on the DVD range from abominable to amusing—some of the people Jerry worked with, particularly Nanette Fabray, seemed to be enjoying themselves (Nanette appears in sketches from two separate shows—one in which she’s a policewoman who has to deal with her kleptomaniac husband, the other in which she’s a newlywed who discovers her presumed-dead husband is anything but; both feature Lewis in his “Professor Julius Kelp” character…renamed “Professor Frobischer” for the TV version); others are trapped in sketches so bad the only real laughs come from Jerry’s ad-libs.  (Audrey Meadows appears with Jerry in a Bonnie and Clyde spoof that is so unfunny Jerry remarks “Terrible!” at one point.)  The highlights in the collection are a sequence with character great Mike Mazurki as a bone-crunching lumberjack who’s being given his marching orders by marshmallow Jerry, and a sketch in which Jerry reworks the hilarious boxing sequences from Sailor Beware, assisted by Harold J. Stone (his nemesis in The Big Mouth) and Del Moore (The Nutty Professor).

You’ll also get the opportunity to see Jerry and Don Rickles square off in a sketch (which also features Dorothy Provine) in which Rickles can’t stop his perspiration (his reaction of his attempts to make out with Dorothy—“The cobra strikes!”—is a real gut-buster, too) and both he and Lewis can’t stop the ad-libs.  Shirley Jones guests in one edited show as the wife of Oriental detective Sam Leechee (played by Lewis in his not-at-all-hilarious buck teeth) which will make you wince at the insensitivity prevalent on TV at the time.  Other guests include Lynn Redgrave (who, in light of her famous feud with Lewis during the stage production of Broadway flop Hellzapoppin’, is most interesting), Janet Leigh, Barbara Feldon, Laurence Harvey and Joey Heatherton.  (It even sounds like the lineup for a Lewis telethon.)

With the cancellation of The Jerry Lewis Show in 1969, the comedian abandoned any future attempts to become a weekly variety fixture in TV families’ homes, preferring to do a season’s worth of television with his yearly MDA telethon that began in 1966 and ended in 2010 (the show didn’t end, just his participation because they ran him off).  (Though you could make a strong argument that the telethon wasn’t quite the same when they started pre-recording parts of it; some years Jerry really went on hilarious rant rampages in the last hour due to sleep deprivation.)  Die-hard Jerry Lewis fans will love The Jerry Lewis Show (and if you’re interested in a copy of the DVD, I’ll sell you mine—I even have the collectors’ cards to go with it); others will use it as just another reason to hate the French.


Rick29 said...

Fascinating post, Ivan. I was an avid TV watcher as a kid and enjoyed Jerry's films--but I don't recall ever watching his variety show. It may be simply that I was watching something else (RED SKELTON, yes; MOD SQUAD, no). It's ironic that Dean's variety show succeeded where Jerry's failed. Although Dean eventually had some bonafide non-Jerry hit films, he was usually paired with another star (e.g., John Wayne in THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER).

Unknown said...

An awesome read Ivan. My favorite Jerry Lewis performance is, The Nutty Professor (1963). I even have it in my DVD collection.

I was one of those people who watched the show, The Mod Squad. Sorry, Jerry Lewis fans..

Todd Mason said...

Interesting...I'd forgotten about the second series had to rankle also that after the failure of the first series that THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE was spun out of its ashes for several seasons, and that Martin was one of the hosts (most famously for the the Rolling Stones' appearance).

Mitchell Hadley said...

Agreed - a terrific piece. I have vague memories of the show, having been a Jerry Lewis fan as a kid (stood in line to see "The Disorderly Orderly in the theater, etc.), so I would have watched this regardless. It seems another example of not figuring out how to use a star's strengths. (Either that or Jerry wouldn't accept any ideas from anyone else!)

To mix a reference, thanks for the memories!

rockfish said...

Love that '10 pounds of hip in a 5-pound bag' -- gold, Jerry! I too was watching something else (probably Red, but maybe a little Linc and Peggy... Sounds like Jerry may have wanted all evidence buried with Richard the third. What a great DVD set for some K-tel ish company: pairing this Lewis stinker with that earlier Gleason crapper that made his Chef of the future come across as Como-esque in coolness (no, I'm not maligning the manna that is the Honeymooners... That is the gold standard of great.

Stacia said...

Another great post! I have to read more about the first episode of Lewis' show, I never knew there were so many technical errors, I thought it just fell flat with audiences.

Still laughing at calling Boeing, Boeing "mature;" that film is up there with The Maltese Bippy in my Pantheon Of Cinematic Loathing.

Chris Vosburg said...

I thought Lewis was actually quite good in the handful of straight roles he did, with a special shout-out to a later role, that of Aging New York Garment District Kingpin Eli Sternberg in a half-dozen eps of "Wise Guy" in the late eighties.

I totally bought him as a weary but unbowed "mustache pete" of sorts who knew the business and knew what palms needed to be crossed and what legs need to be broken in a cutthroat industry.

Nice work by Lewis, and nice work by you too, Ivan.

Citizen Screen said...

WOW! Feel like I went to Jerry Lewis University. Great stuff! I've never even watched clips of Lewis' show, that I remember anyway, but would LOVE to see the ones with Gorshin and Fabray. I'm a big fan of both of those.


Joanna said...

I hate hate hate DVD releases with cuts and edits. It is so frustrating. Thanks for sharing this piece.

Frontal Lobe said...

What a great piece of writing. I haven't been a fan of Lewis' since I grew out of him in my teens. However, in my opinion, Dean Martin was the coolest of cool cats and Jerry Lewis always seemed sort of cold and conceited. I wonder if this could explain the TV success of Dino and the non-success of Lewis.