One of the perks of working at an alt-weekly — hell, it certainly ain't the pay! — is getting to interview musicians, artists and comedians you admire. But of all the interviews I've conducted, none was more thrilling than my sit-down with Jerry Lewis a couple of weeks ago, in preparation for this week's cover story, "Nutty in Nashville."
The story examines the evolution of the stage musical of Lewis' crowning achievement, the 1963 film The Nutty Professor, currently playing at TPAC under the direction of Le Jer, who is now a sprightly 86 years old. I'd like to pretend that I'm a jaded, world-weary journalist who could care less about celebrity, but I've been a huge fan since I was about 10 years old — and frankly, I was over the moon to have the opportunity.
After the jump, some of the highlights from the interview that didn't make it into the story ... interspersed with some of my favorite Jerry Lewis clips:
Scene: In your experience, which is harder to play, Julius Kelp or Buddy Love?
Lewis: I guess Buddy Love is harder because he’s an ugly character. He’s nothing like Julius, and Julius is nothing like Buddy. But Buddy has some stuff in him that all people have, so he’s easily identifiable. He can be identified with, is what I mean. And he’s lovable. Now, when the mail came in — and the picture opened in ‘63 — and the mail I got about Buddy Love was astonishing. Women loved him. People loved him. And I’m wondering what in Christ about him they loved? And I have to be very, very careful that Buddy doesn’t cross the line and get so ill-mannered and so negative that it hurts the show. So I’ve got to watch him. Let him be a little cantankerous, but not a lot. And it’s a very fine line for a director to see with an actor, and I’m watching so closely to see what his natural instinct is versus what I think he should be doing. And we have a love-in, there’s a love-in with this show. I’ve got 60 of the best kids you’ve ever seen in your life: crew, ensemble, performers. It’s just incredible.
In making movies, you often use the camera as a kind of proscenium arch in a theater. You’d frame your sight gags like a live theatrical performance. Is the technique of directing comedy for a stage similar, do you find?
Comedy is constant … and you can take it to film, theater, speaking engagements, lecturing — if you stay with the basic formula for comedy. And the basic formula is: Make your people laugh. Don’t forget that because of production. Don’t forget that because of music. Don’t forget that because of personality. Don’t forget that for any reason. And Michael is so keyed to what I’m talking about. I mean, I move my lips and he’s doing it already, and it’s wonderful.
Have you found there are any things from the movie that work particularly well onstage and have there been any things that don’t translate as well onstage?
Well, close-ups don’t translate as well onstage, so I had to move the action back. Moving it back, which was closer to the audience. And there are a half-dozen or a dozen places where I had to smooth it, if I was going to use it. I’m trying not to use everything from the film because everything didn’t work the way I wanted it to for stage, so I had to do a rewrite. It wasn’t difficult. It was easy. And Rupert is wonderful in doing a rewrite. He’s a marvelous writer. And Marvin, of course, Marvin Hamlisch, you can’t ask for better. And I got the best choreographer in the history of the world. JoAnn Hunter is as good as anyone I’ve ever seen in my life. So I’m very fortunate, I’ve got a hell of a creative team.
Do you feel that seeing what’s going on today in comedy that visual comedy is kind of a lost art?
It’s no lost art for me. It’s current and it’s vital and it’s very important to keep it alive.
Do you feel like Julius and Buddy represent different sides of you?
Well, of course, but, I mean, that’s a very interesting question. I haven’t been asked that before, but I think that my interpretation of the two people is so precious to my soul that I can’t move away from them as much as I would — because I’m very creative and I can write a new bit tomorrow at 7 in the morning and at 9 o’clock do a rewrite. I’ve been like that way all my life. You have to find — like you do, Jack — when you get what you’ve written and you’re satisfied, you look at it and you know not to fuck with it. It’s good. You’ve done what you wanted to do.
It’s the same thing with me. If you said to me, “I’ve got a hell of a good bunch of stuff here and I’m going to write and so on.” I’d say, “Don’t be greedy or it won’t write well. Don’t do so much because you never had an interview with this big schmuck. Don’t write so much that you don’t know what to cut.” And editing is a very, very intriguing and wonderful creative process. And when you stand with an editor, you say to him, “I’ve given you 65,000 feet of film, that doesn’t mean you should use it all.” And I’m torn from both sides of the creative process. I want to tell my editor, “Use every frame you’ve got.” I know that’s wrong. And I am so thrilled with watching Michael develop that there are times that I’m sitting at rehearsal and I want to fix something and I forgot because I was watching him. …
I mean, I have thought about Josh Logan and Oscar Hammerstein. I’ve thought about their rehearsal process and what did they feel for those characters. Well, when Oscar Hammerstein looked at Shirley Jones in Carousel, he knew he had a wonderful singing actress, but that was pretty simple. But with me, I’ve got interesting people that become other people and through what I give them to do — and if they acknowledge, they understand — it’ll be wonderful. And of course, they can bring me an idea. I’m very open. Tell me what you think. And I’ve taken actors ideas all my life. I won’t give them credit because they’re actors.
Well, I totally relate to what you said about the editing process, too. That’s the thing I’ve learned most, that sometimes less is more when I edit.
Well, you notice that the editing process is a pain in the ass, but it must be done because as good as the piece is that you’ve written, Jack, if you don’t go there to check it, it’s going to pop up and you’re going to see things: “I thought it was better than that.” You know, if you release the material too early and you haven’t had the chance to potschke with it. You know what potschke means? The potschke-ing is vital. You do that on paper. You sit here, like I’ve written all my life. And then you put it on its feet and you’re dead wrong, but you can only tell that when you put it on its feet. It reads well on paper. When you put it on its feet, it’s abrupt. It’s probably got a half a dozen — what’s the word I’m looking for — there’s probably a half a dozen cactus stings here and there, and you’ve got to rub them out. And you do that with good comedy or you do that with essential physical movements.
And I cannot stand to have an actor stand still. In theater, you’re charging X dollars for a ticket, show them something. You can’t stand there and do Tea House of the August Moon and you certainly can’t do Fredric March’s film, that great movie that he did, which I can’t remember. It’s different. It’s different. Rex Harrison, who was so magnificent in My Fair Lady, was very troubled with visual stuff because was not a visual man. He was very classy and very on the money and perfectly, he brought perfect material to a perfect show. …
And you have to be very, very, and I mean very careful, of a work you’ve done that was considered excellent; [it was named] one of the 100 greatest comedies of the century. I was very proud of that. Well, you don’t fuck with that. What was it that the people thought was so wonderful? And I examined piece by piece.
Did your experience in Damn Yankees help develop your ability to work with this show?
I don’t think one thing had anything to do with the other. What Damn Yankees did for me was to give me the excitement and the enthusiasm that you get from a show that’s wonderful. And you do it and you get this wonderful satisfaction of good work done, good work done. And when you have something you love so dearly and so precious to your soul, you just have to show up. And throw this out, and throw that, and all the sudden everything is coming together.