Many film buffs believe that Buddy Love, the obnoxious, sexist, egomaniacal alter ego of "The Nutty Professor," is Jerry Lewis' sinister stab at his old partner, Dean Martin. I doubt it. If anything, Buddy Love is the darker side of Lewis himself.
"Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis," a new documentary airing Saturday on Encore, is only interested in the sweet version of Lewis, pouring on the accolades as if its hero deserves sainthood.
"If you don't get Jerry Lewis, you really don't get comedy," says Jerry Seinfeld near the start of the love fest. Alec Baldwin anoints him the Beatles of movie comedy and Woody Harrelson declares he doesn't want to hang out with anyone who doesn't appreciate Lewis' shtick.
Director/worshiper Gregg Barson ably backs up the claims with so many movie clips, concert outtakes and TV appearances that you'll wonder -- as Carol Burnett does -- why Lewis has never been granted a Kennedy Center Honor and why his only Oscar is for his humanitarian work.
Count me as a member of the fan club. I literally fell out of my seat at the Ordway when Lewis broke character in a 1995 stage production of "Damn Yankees" to do 25 minutes of vaudeville gold. It was just a year earlier that Lewis turned me into a blubbering idiot by calling me from his home in Las Vegas to tell me he liked a story of mine.
Yes, Lewis can be gracious, brilliant and hilarious. He can also be a bully.
This past summer, he turned in a bizarre performance in Los Angeles during a press conference to discuss this documentary. He labeled "American Idol" contestants as "McDonald's wipeouts," compared network executives to malt-shop waiters and insisted that using the term "TV" instead of "television" is a form of disrespect. He boasted that PBS is working on a 10-hour documentary about him, an unlikely scenario unless the director is Ken Burns.
The weirdest moment came when a reporter asked him how he felt about doing his last muscular dystrophy telethon in a couple of months. Lewis slammed into the inquisitor, braying that news of his departure from the show, which he had announced himself weeks earlier, was as bogus as the Chicago Tribune headline declaring "Dewey defeats Truman."
That brazen behavior appeared to be the last straw for the telethon organizers, who rescinded any sort of appearance from the man who had presided over the fundraiser for 44 years.
Lewis' boundless ego isn't his biggest problem.
He's made some painful anti-gay slurs over the years, and his reputation still hasn't recovered from a 1990 statement that women aren't funny and were put on this planet just to produce babies.
"The bitter train pulled up to Jerry's stop years ago," Minneapolis-bred comic (and "Daily Show" co-creator) Lizz Winstead said at the time.
Needless to say, Winstead isn't in Barson's film. Nor is anyone else to address Lewis' sexism, the fact that he hasn't been in a hit movie since 1983's "The King of Comedy" and his infamous, incomplete, never-distributed 1972 vanity film "The Day the Clown Died," in which he plays a clown who entertains Jewish kids before they go into Nazi concentration camps.
Oh, and is anyone else curious why Lewis' telethon theme song to a lot of wheelchair-bound kids is "You'll Never Walk Alone"?
Ignoring the darker complexities makes for a smoother love letter, but a true documentarian includes the bumps -- even if the subject does leave you rolling in the aisles.
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