Ambitious Humor: Jerry Lewis & Dick Gregory

So, here’s a quiz involving two men: the son of frequently absent, on-the-road vaudevillians (Jerry Lewis,) and a kid raised in a single-parent household where poverty meant him and his five siblings didn’t “eat off the floor” because if “you dropped something off the table, it never reached the floor” (Dick Gregory). These two major-league comedians passed away on adjoining days this August. Now for the first quiz question: which of them felt twice as much fear as his fellow funnyman?

Let’s assume you didn’t get fooled by Jerry Lewis at the height of his success, performing in The Nutty Professor (1963). In that movie, Lewis is at once both the inept, shy Professor Julius Kelp and the swaggering nightclub lounge singer Buddy Love. Was that hit a retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or an echo of Jerry Lewis’s decade-long collaboration with Dean Martin; who can say for sure? Either way, the vote for greater anxiety should go to Dick Gregory, shown here with deep forehead wrinkles. As a stand-in for an ill comedian, Gregory got his big break taking the stage at the Playboy Club in Chicago in 1961, where he faced a convention of frozen-food executives from the South. How did Gregory win over the audience members? Maybe most of all by telling them this joke: “This white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’” Gregory’s supposed reply: “That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”

The next quiz question is, who showed the most anger of these two comedians?

It’s not even close. Described in a New York Times obituary as “A mercurial personality who could flip from naked neediness to towering rage,” Lewis wins. Indeed, nearly half the emoting evident from a range of photos spanning his career involves anger. What Lewis’s on-stage and on-screen screwball capering partially hid was raw ambition and drive. Lewis wanted to control his own destiny. When his collaboration with Martin fell apart, Lewis and his dominating hand in shaping their routine was the primary cause. That set-back hardly gave the guy pause. Soon a record by Lewis reached No. 3 on the Billboard chart and, given a contract on his own terms by Paramount, Lewis would then direct five movies in five years. With the first of those movies, The Bellboy (1960), Lewis also invented the video assist: a still commonly used device that allows directors to review their output immediately on-set.

Lewis sought to be loved through achieving show-biz success, and his anger was expressed with tightened eyelids and lips pressed firmly together. In contrast, Gregory sought to pursue justice and while his anger could appear in ways similar to Lewis’s anger, more characteristically Gregory’s anger emerged from eyes wide and alert as well as through the contemplative vertical crease between his eyebrows. Prior to his extended contract at The Playboy Club, Gregory had worked part-time sorting mail in a post office, where he tossed letters intended for Mississippi into a slot marked “overseas.” By 1962, Gregory had joined a protest in favor of black voting rights in that same Southern state, and a lifetime of social activism followed.

Gregory showed twice as much sadness as Lewis, and compared to Lewis’s many broad grins rarely ever offered more than a slight, wistful smile. He would perch on a stool on stage, hardly moving except to take a drag on his cigarette while delivering lines like, “I heard we’ve got lots of black astronauts. Saving them for the first spaceflight to the sun.” In comparison, Lewis’s forte was leavening his career-focused anger with big smiles and plenty of trust-nobody-and-nothing contempt. Lewis might well have enjoyed his success. But after having been passed among relatives as a boy, while his parents were away entertaining, Lewis had become a star who didn’t like to rely on anybody but himself. Note the tight smirk atop the right side of Lewis’s smiling publicity photo.

As to their respective legacies, Lewis is lionized in France. Why, the celebrated New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard even once declared Lewis to be greater than Charlie Chaplin. The explanation is that Lewis’s movies are seen by intellectual anti-intellectuals in Paris both as satires on American society and as Surrealistic exposes on the limits of language and reason. Here in America, however, Lewis never received a single Oscar nomination, not even for the more serious role of playing a talk-show host kidnapped by an aspiring comedian in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982).

Gregory fared no better in contests, if you count the 47,133 votes he received running for president in 1968 on the Freedom and Peace Party ticket. But Gregory had his successes, too, and plenty of sway. Gregory was part of the chorus chanting on John Lennon’s impromptu recording of “Give Peace a Chance,” and was a cross-over pioneer who reached white America before Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor got there. What Gregory didn’t care about was money, and the $2 billion that Lewis raised during the 40 years he hosted telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association separates these two men just as distinctly as does their very different emotional profiles.