There was something very serious about the two funny men we lost this weekend. Both were well known for their outrageous comedy, but they were so much more. Masters of their craft, both were unique in their incisive use of humor. It’s pretty clear they did a good deal more than simply entertain us.
Dick Gregory appeared on the scene during the turbulent sixties when America was moving through social change and a divisive war in Southeast Asia. Gregory was one of the first black comics to address social change head on, and his style of comedy would resonate with American audiences for years to come. Unlike contemporaries such as Bill Cosby who handled white audiences with kid gloves, Dick Gregory went for the jugular and shoved the countries racial issues in our faces. He did so with his own special brand of humor and before long he was propelled into the big time. Dick Gregory was irreverent, caustic and fearless. Yet, he was always funny. Being black in sixties America was pretty serious business and Gregory never soft peddled issues such as race. Don’t believe me? One of his books was even titled, “nigger.” Every time you say the word, you’ll be marketing my book, said the irreverent comic. Dick Gregory was often compared to his white colleagues, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. The three were masters of modern satire and their humor came from the same place. Reluctant to grapple with its social problems, America chose to look the other way. Dick Gregory knew humor would hardly solve the countries social problems, but at least it would force us to confront them. Humor is a great way to get someone’s attention. As an old cartoonist, I know that to be a fact. I never saw Lenny Bruce perform, but I did have the opportunity to see Mort Sahl. I was a young man considerably naive when it came to politics. Suddenly, I was realizing humor could work on two levels. Dick Gregory knew this as well, and his unique brand of humor began to push America’s consciousness in a new direction. It would be a long, slow journey, but America was finally beginning to change. On an unexpected visit to the Walt Disney Studios last year I was able to get a few moments with Mr. Gregory. No longer the brash young man brandishing a cigarette, the white bearded Gregory looked more like “The Old Wise Man.” What should we watch for in the coming years,? I inquired of the former comedian now turned activist. I still remember his answer. “Russia,” he said. “Keep your eyes on Russia.” Ever the comedian, this time Dick Gregory was not joking.
I payed an unexpected afternoon visit to the set of his latest motion picture shooting on location in Burbank. In many ways, a film crew can be compared to an army with a General or Field Marshall in charge. On this particular day there was no doubt director, Jerry Lewis was in charge. For those of you who love or hate Jerry Lewis movies I can tell you there is no filmmaker that I respect more. Hardly “The Kid,” a character Lewis played in practically all his movies, Jerry was a serious filmmaker who was the ultimate craftsman when it came to making movies. Anybody who has made a comedy knows that humor is a serious business and not to be taken lightly. I consider my being on set great luck because I had the opportunity to watch a master at work. I first became aware of the serious filmmaker when he began teaching a class in cinema at USC. I never took a class from Mr. Lewis but I did have a friend who generously shared his notes and I was amazed how insightful they were. For those who considered Jerry Lewis a lightweight, goofy comic, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Here was a consummate movie maker who took his craft seriously. I still remember his introduction of the Video Playback System that allowed directors to immediately see what they had just photographed without waiting for dailies. Jerry Lewis was continually pushing the boundaries of cinema and sharing this knowledge with young filmmakers.
Jerry Lewis loved big band music and some of my favorite bits in a Lewis film is where Jerry is alone on screen doing schtick to the music of Les Brown or Count Basie. Clearly influenced by Chaplin and Keaton, Jerry Lewis could command the attention of the audience throughout the number. Maybe you’re not a fan, but his staging, timing and performance was always dead on and few people could command screen time like Jerry Lewis. Chances are you’re not as old as I am and not able to remember when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were huge. On occasion they would appear on NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour on Sunday evenings. I still remember the gigantic full page ads in the Los Angeles Times when Martin and Lewis were scheduled. It was a big deal. A very big deal. Of course, you’ve all heard of the famous split that sent the dynamic duo in different directions. Both continued on, each successful in their own right. And, I still remember Jerry immediately coming to the defense of his old partner, Dean Martin when anyone dared to criticize, Dino. Even apart, Martin and Lewis were very supportive of each other. Of course, Jerry Lewis could be abrasive on occasion, and I remember him tearing into reporters and interviewers should they get on his nerves. What can I say? Lewis was hardly perfect, but the man was a genius, after all. Today, I’m looking at his movies made twenty or thirty years ago and they still make me laugh. Should you not be a fan of Jerry Lewis movies, I completely understand. However, I’m not ashamed to say, Jerry Lewis was my hero and I will truly miss him.