Updated: Jul 31
It's hard to be in the funny business.
Nobody, um, takes you seriously.
The job requirements for a comedian are a constant exercise in futility:
You must always be "on," even when you're not working
Unlike musicians who can play their hit songs forever, comedians must constantly generate fresh material
All humor makes fun of someone or something, so comedy is often misinterpreted
Robin Williams seemed like he was holding up well for a while.
But not compared to Jerry Lewis, who died a while ago at the ripe old age of 91.
I grew up with Jer and while a lot of his schtick seems dated and even politically incorrect today, I learned a lot from him.
The ultimate showman, Lewis cut his teeth on comedy. Back then, all celebrities were expected to dance a little bit, sing a little bit, and generally put on a show.
Lewis broke the mold in that he became a film director. His cinematic victories place him in the comedy pantheon with pioneers such as Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and W.C. Fields.
In 2001, Newsweek published a list of the most recognizable people on the planet. Jerry Lewis was tied in fifth place with...wait for it...the pope. The following year, he was in fourth place by himself.
I recently watched The Method To the Madness of Jerry Lewis. In true "here's what else you can love about me" fashion, this bio pic's executive producer was--you guessed it--Jerry Lewis.
The movie is an homage to Lewis and includes testimonials from entertainers such as Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, Alec Baldwin, and even Steven Spielberg.
I was particularly taken by a segment that compared comedy to music and how they both use timing in very strategic ways.
As a professional speaker, I've come to appreciate the rhythm of comedy and how a laughing audience must be incorporated in real time.
Here's a video of how I apply lessons learned from the master himself.
I'm no Jerry Lewis, but the audience thinks there are quite a few belly laughs in the short clip below. Listen for the pauses and and the give-and-take between me and my unassuming straight man, who is no Dean Martin.
Funny lessons learned from the King of Comedy
We all learned from Jerry Lewis whether we want to admit it or not. Here are three life lessons from the funny man:
Lesson #1: Humor is subjective.
We know this because the French thought Lewis was the greatest thing since the invention of the whoopee cushion. France awarded him the Legion of Honour in 2006, the highest civilian award for their country. This award is the equivalent of America's Congressional Medal of Freedom, an award that is almost never given out to a guy who does pratfalls for a living.
Lesson #2: Comedy has a deeper meaning.
Jerry Lewis's crowning cinematic achievement is The Nutty Professor, an enduring, if not hokey story about a mild-mannered teacher who leads a double life as an insufferable narcissist. Shades of Breaking Bad.
At the very end of the movie, Professor Julius Kelp, conveys the moral of the story to a crowd of people, his tearful girlfriend, and the movie viewer. The scene, which you can watch here, articulates a beautiful timeless, axiom:
"You might as well like yourself. Just think about all the time
you're going to have to spend with you. And if you don't think
too much of yourself, how do you expect others to?"
Lesson #3: One can dovetail vocational work with doing good in the world.
Some of you know that I do a lot of philanthropic work for a service organization called Rotary.
It's natural to want to separate your job from philanthropy, but wonderful things happen if you can create a Venn diagram between the two.
While he was becoming one of the most successful comedians of all time, Jerry Lewis used his star power and an annual telethon to raise $2 billion dollars to fight a disease called Muscular Dystrophy. Thanks, Jer!
While researching this article, I was reminded that the one and only Jerry Lewis spoke and performed at the Rotary International Convention in Barcelona in 2002.
Life sure is funny sometimes.