Love him or hate him — or love him and hate him — it is hard to deny the colossus that is Jerry Lewis, International Clown. Even if you only know him from his echoes — Professor Frink on “The Simpsons,” Adam Sandler movies, the Beastie Boys — you are living in a world that he has partly made. Among American film comedians, he’s one of a small number who rate the term “auteur"; at the same time, he’s kids’ stuff, a thing we know from childhood and treasure like other childhood things.
Lewis made films that were excessive and strange and personal sometimes to the point of being unintelligible. But that is also what makes them compelling, even when they aren’t funny: Brilliant or bathetic from scene to scene, they demand perpetual reassessment, and their triple-taking creator is deservedly the subject of a new documentary, “Jerry Lewis: Method to the Madness,” premiering Saturday on Encore. It isn’t particularly incisive or intimate, but it has lots of good things to show you, at least a few of which, unless you are very dour, should also make you laugh.
Directed by Gregg Barson, who also made the 2004 Phyllis Diller documentary “Goodnight, We Love You,” it is fundamentally a testimonial. An estimable celebrity chorus includes Billy Crystal, who directed Lewis in “Mr. Saturday Night"; Eddie Murphy, who starred in the remake of “The Nutty Professor"; Chevy Chase, another professional pratfaller; Richard Belzer, who sports a Jerry Lewis tattoo; Carl Reiner, who directed Steve Martin’s Lewis-like “The Jerk"; and Carol Burnett, seen performing with him on the old “Garry Moore Show.” Quentin Tarantino draws a link to “Looney Tunes"; Alec Baldwin calls him the Marlon Brando of comedy; and Jerry Seinfeld is categorical: “If you don’t get Jerry Lewis you don’t really understand comedy.” To Richard Lewis, he is as basic as the Earth: “It’s like you were born and all of a sudden you’re watching Martin and Lewis.”
Though the word “genius” is used by more than one of the above, the analysis mostly comes down to variations on: “This silliness is harder and smarter than it looks.” Art deserves a little context, though. Lewis clearly learned something from former animator Frank Tashlin, for example, who directed him both with and without Dean Martin and brought a cartoon aesthetic to live-action film, and from Jacques Tati, whose “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” in its episodic plotlessness, gentle tone and hotel setting, seems a model for his own first picture, “The Bellboy.” It would be interesting to hear Lewis (or any informed person) discuss this, or any comedy other than his own.
Still, there is a lot of him to cover. He got his first professional laugh in 1931 at the age of 5; performed in burlesque and vaudeville, across the Borscht Belt and in fancy nightclubs; made Hollywood studio films and post-studio independent films; worked on television and on Broadway; wrote, directed, acted, sang and stuffed things in his ears. Barson had access to Lewis’ own stock of archival footage, which yields treasures: Lewis and Martin at breakneck speed onstage at the Copacabana, Lewis at work on the set, snatches of home movies that hint at the excitement of it all. And he filmed the comedian, now 85, in concert, in rehearsal, and on a 2009 trip to the Cannes Film Festival, where the paparazzi flashbulbs pop and the citizens take him seriously.
The impression here is of a life that went from triumph to triumph, though other accounts, including Lewis’ own, reveal deep valleys between the peaks, personal and professional. Even his difficult, epochal parting with Martin comes off as a sort of act of friendship. (Of their intense connection, he says, “I think people are frightened of a homosexual probability — they didn’t want to recognize that these were two people who loved each other,” though their widespread popularity would seem to say that this frightened no one at all.) The long, later years when work was harder to come by — and when come by was not always good — evaporate in this telling. There is no mention of Lewis’ famous unreleased Holocaust film “The Day the Clown Cried,” the flat comeback “Hardly Working” or its pretty respectable follow-up, 1983’s “Cracking Up,” the last film he directed. (It begins with a suicide attempt.)
Whatever “Method” leaves out, most of what it includes is worth a look. Even Lewis’ recent stage show — filled with the sort of weak risque jokes older audiences seem to love and featuring as lively a version of his antic younger self as he can muster — is revealing in its way, a demonstration of desire in the face of age.
Spitting fake broken teeth from his mouth, the man once known as the Monkey mutters, “What a stupid way to make a fortune.” He doesn’t mean it, I am at least half sure.