comedy

September 10, 1957 – Jerry Lewis Solos at Ben Maksik’s Town and Country Club

Jerry Lewis (Not Nutty Yet)

On September 10, 1957, singer, dancer, and comedian extraordinaire Jerry Lewis gave a powerhouse solo performance at Ben Maksik’s Town and Country Club in Brooklyn, New York.  After years of second-billing behind Dean Martin doing successful comedy nightclub acts, radio and television programs, and films, Jerry was on his own before a live audience with his unique brand of slapstick comedy.  The duo’s breakup in July of 1956 ended a relationship that had become increasingly strained by Lewis’ dominance in popularity.  Each went on to success as solo performers.  Neither would ever comment on the split or consider a reunion.

In the Paramount film released in June of 1957, The Delicate Delinquent, Jerry became a major comedy star in his first solo role playing a juvenile delinquent mistaken for a gang member.  Officer Darren McGavin put Lewis through police training – compete with amusing “mishaps” – and young Jerry finally “reformed” and redeemed himself by graduating from the academy.

Later that summer, reviewer Robert W. Dana of the New York World Telegram and Sun covered Lewis’ act at the Town and Country Club for his column, “Tips on Tables”.  Dana admitted “I haven’t always been an ardent Lewis fan.  I am now after this performance.”  He continued, “Given the keynote at the outset by Ned Harvey’s crack band, the man with the shorty  haircut never let up.  He’s Mr. Rhythm with a voice.  He’s Mr. Hoofer, with a loose-jointed grace of a true showman.  And he’s Mr. Clown, who makes each line count for a laugh.”

Lewis, the son of a vaudeville entertainer father and a radio-station-piano-playing mother, spent part of his opening night kidding around with a Spanish dancer act, poking fun at rock and roll, crooning a “Danny Boy” spoof, and giving a side-splitting portrayal of “Tokyo’s foremost singing star”.  After initially bumbling about, he “caught on” and joined in a tap dance number.  And he gave serious and skillful renditions of “Shine on Your Shoes”, his top forty hit “Rock a Bye, My Baby”, “Come Rain or Come Shine”, and closed the evening with the somewhat poignant “I’ll Go My Way By Myself”, which Dana described as “a touching, straightforward conclusion”.  Lewis deeply appreciated Dana’s column, sending him a signed note on September 12th “to express my heartfelt thanks to you for your very, very nice column.  I more than appreciate your kind words, and my only hope is that I can live up to them.”

Jerry Lewis went on to great fortune and fame all over the world.  He received numerous rewards for his film and television work.  In spite of suffering nagging health concerns through much of his adult life, he maintained a full work schedule. Until stepping down in 2011, Lewis dedicated himself to his yearly Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, raising 2.6 billion dollars over the years for research and treatment of the crippling disease.

Image Credit: Public Domain Publicity Photo

Vintage 1957 – A Comedy Revolution

 

In the 1950s, stand-up comedy went through something of a revolution. In broad outline, comedy of the 1930s most often took the form of physical slapstick in the movies – think the Marx Brothers, Abbot & Costello, etc. In the 1940s, the rising popularity of radio broadcasts ushered in less physical and more verbal comedy. Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns & Gracie Allen, and Henny Youngman all perfected the art of one-liners, story gags, and “groaners” (“I just flew in from St. Louis . . . and boy are my arms tired!” or “Take my wife . . . please!”).

Comedy in the 1950s turned topical. Journalist and author Gerald Nachman, who covered entertainment news for the New York Post, the Oakland Tribune, the New York Daily News, and the San Francisco Chronicle, shines a light on the shift in his 2009 book, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. Nachman provides detailed biographies of 26 comedians, including Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, and Steve Allen. Politics, sex, race relations, drugs, self-angst, pop media and celebrity, all were suddenly fair game for public airing, often in satirical or cynical ways.

How does comedy work? What makes us laugh?

Laughter can be cathartic. It can lighten our spirits in difficult times. The Great Depression and World War II of the 1930s and 1940s were dark times. People looked to comedy for relief from anxiety and despair.

But laughter also serves as a leveler. It can burst bubbles and open eyes, providing a wake-up call for others or for ourselves. It can be a subtle instrument or sharp weapon against complacency, pretension, self-absorption, mindless conformity, and attitudes of superiority and arrogance. It can slip in “under the radar” to powerfully say, “Take a look at yourself and your culture.”

The comedians of the 1950s – subtle or blunt – had new, sometimes uncomfortable things to say. And they were heard.

Image Credits: ABC Films; NBC Television; New York World-Telegram & Sun; Towpilot; Rollins & Joffe; Allan Warren; AP; Concord Jazz