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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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The Emoji Movie Is Deaf, but Not Blind

To go see The Emoji Movie when you know it’s hovering around the 5-7% level of approval on Rotten Tomatoes is a little like booking passage on The Titanic when you’re clairvoyant enough to know it’s soon going to sink. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Gene is the super-expressive emoji who headlines the plot. All in all, The Emoji Movie is as meh as Gene’s listless, indifferent parents are meant to be. When the plot kicks into high gear—Gene heading for the cloud to be reprogrammed to become a one-dimensional, single emotion like the other conforming emojis—the movie paradoxically dies. The great adventure of Gene and his two sidekicks (the emojis Hi-5 and Jailbreak) proves to be a great bore instead. Frenetic, animated action can’t hide the fact that a movie about feelings lacks any itself.

Yet the movie is selling well, so what’s going on? Beyond Sony’s marketing stunts like a flood of movie posters, billboards, and even the dispatching of actors wearing emoji costumes, why could The Emoji Movie have actually been good if not great? The script is deaf in terms of making us care that emojis really could matter in the life of a teenager like Alex, on whose phone Gene and the other cast members “live.” But the premise and promise of this movie aren’t blind to what’s happening in our society at large.

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On my phone, on which I only half-smartly leverage the tools it offers, 21 emojis are readily available to supplement any text message I send. Of those 21, 18 are variations of a smiling face.  That means 86% of my options involve positive feelings—nearly the opposite of how I and others have felt about The Emoji Movie, according to those who have declared their reactions to it on Rotten Tomatoes. Now I admit to being like others, maybe even more so. I use those emojis all the time in texting my tennis buddies, with whom I’m often a little annoyed. It’s not much fun “herding cats” as I try to align four schedules in order to play a doubles match after work or on the weekends.

In other words, emojis are helping me lie. They’re a stand-in, masking frustration, cajoling the others to fall into place and play despite a nagging injury or a busy day. Writ large, emojis provide a way not to write, not to figure out how best to express your own feelings in words. Or again, emojis serve to shade the truth. The truth is The Emoji Movie stinks. Emojis are easy to use, hence a large part of their popularity. And now The Emoji Movie has taken the easy way out. It’s not a movie so much as it is, at times, a walking, talking exercise in branding. App and game references abound, including: Spotify, the Twitter bird, Just Dance Now, Dropbox, Instagram, and Candy Crush. Did I leave out anyone? Are there any other corporate sponsors or product placements Sony sought to build into the movie’s script?

Today, the sweep of human history from the use of hieroglyphs to emojis, which began late in the 1990s, has brought us to the point where, in the new digital era, face-to-face conversations or even a phone call have obviously become withering options. I’ve joined the parade, but not without a twinge of guilt. Emojis can clearly democratize communication. Almost anyone at any age (four-year-olds, pestering their parents to see the movie?) can use an emoji.  And there are the pseudo-customized, “intimate” emojis we can use (a taco, or whatever) to “reinforce” our unique, personal identity.

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Or is it that our selfhood is becoming merely a brand association, a small planet pulled into the gravitational pull of a universe cluttered with company logos, products and services? In effect, The Emoji Movie could be “celebrating” the opportunity to further commercialize communication, if only there was enough joy on screen to justify that verb choice. A relentlessly happy-faced emoji, named Smiler, is cast as the movie’s anti-hero, the falsely-grinning enforcer who rules the city of Textopolis hidden inside the smartphone of Alex: The dumb-ass teenager struggling to send appropriate text messages to a cute girl. But what if Smiler is actually, most of all, the embodiment of fake (emotional) news to which we all lazily succumb? In the end, I found that a far more compelling, albeit worrisome, prospect than the movie on the screen in front of me.

Best Supporting Roles in Oscar Awards Snafu

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Wow, can you believe how the 89th Academy Awards show climaxed with the wrong winner for Best Picture getting announced from the stage? Warren Beatty clearly couldn’t. Three times, at least, as Beatty stood there, looking puzzled, with an opened red envelope in hand, fear stretched his mouth wider. Throw in a gulp, a skeptical smile, and what’s a guy to do? As anybody who’s ever worked a job knows, the moment disaster strikes the key is to hand off responsibility for the disaster to somebody else.

Bonnie and Clyde co-star Faye Dunaway thought Beatty was kidding around, when he was actually trying to make a get-away. “You’re impossible,” Dunaway told Beatty as many in the crowd may have had the same thought I did: is Beatty feeling his age, had a few drinks – what’s going on? “Come on,” Dunaway then added, sealing her fate. Beatty hands her the suspect envelope, and she announces “La La Land!” without even taking a serious look at the card inside the by-now infamous envelope.

“La La Land!” Dunaway declared with a big smile, reinforcing happiness’s primary downside: bliss often tends to make you sloppy with the details. The upside is that happiness symbolically involves hugging the moment that fulfillment happens, and soon the La La Land team was on stage, with a trio of producers launching into acceptance speeches.  Meanwhile, the script for the final award of the evening was being hastily revised. With a guy with a headset on suddenly stage center, conferring with others behind him, La La Land producer Fred Berger got the word.

Eyebrow arched in disbelief, Berger suddenly lapses into “We lost by the way,” shrugs, and manages a faux smile. Besides Berger, another guy in a tux isn’t as gracious. Anger permeates his face. Meanwhile, Emma Stone can be seen mouthing the words, “Oh, my God.”

Who gets the award for the best supporting role in the Academy Awards’ most shocking screw-up ever? The nominees are . . .

Faye Dunaway – for not bothering to read the card that actually had Emma Stone’s name on it.

Warren Beatty – for not comprehending the mistake himself, followed by stepping forward to needlessly explain the error, still  vaguely puzzled, still fearful, still given to sheepish grins. Fortunately, Denzel Washington directed Beatty from Washington’s front row seat to the reality that Beatty should step aside and let Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight, the actual winner, get to talk at last.

The Academy – for a history of winners being in reality the Most Popular Movie, not the Best Movie, given that cash is king in Hollywood as it is everywhere else, all artistic pretensions normally aside. And since La La Land is a tribute to the movie-making industry, who could imagine the Academy wasn’t going to reward being in love with itself?

who could imagine the Academy wasn’t going to reward being in love with itself?

Brian Cullinan – the PwC accounting firm ambassador, accorded a red-carpet entry himself, only to hand the wrong, backup envelope for Best Actress to Beatty. The explanation that Cullinan wishes didn’t make sense? His having most likely distracted himself from the task at hand by tweeting a photo of Emma Stone back stage after she won her award for Best Actress, just before disaster struck.

Jimmy Kimmel – the host for the show, for fatuously suggesting “Why can’t we just give out a whole bunch of them?” in response to La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz’s plight as winner turned loser of the evening’s most prized Oscar.

And the winner is . . . The Academy. It can’t possibly be Faye Dunaway because, after all, she was merely engaged in what psychologists call top-down mental processing, whereby existing beliefs influence, shape, and even dominant how we react to any new sensory input. In other words, people tend to see only what they expect to see: of course, the winner would have to be La La Land, in which Ryan Gosling’s character plays a white man trying to save jazz.  Wasn’t it almost inconceivable that Moonlight, directed by a black man filming a movie about a poor gay man, could win, after two years in a row in which no black person was even nominated for a major award?

Could anything be even more inconceivable for viewers at home as well as the slack-jacked, eyes wide, stunned and ultimately, mostly pleased, star-studded audience in attendance? That would be the spectacle of a white female director taking home either the Director’s prize of the one for Best Picture. A study has found that only 1.9% of the directors for the top 100 grossing films in recent years have been women.

Woops. “This is not a joke,” La La Land producer Marc Platt said on stage. “This is not a joke,” repeated producer Jordan Horowitz. Someone strongly agrees with them. Who was the one woman most prominent after the ceremony? That would be the Academy’s chief executive, Dawn Hudson. She summoned all of my other nominees – minus Kimmel – into the theatre’s green room for what was apparently an enraged talking-to, while the celebratory parties began elsewhere.