To say that Jerry Lewis had the audience eating out of his hand Friday night January 9, 2015 at the Lincoln Theatre might sound like a typical show business cliché, but he certainly wowed the near capacity crowd and almost all of the time this reviewer.
A certain excitement built even before his entrance. Patrons, who though mostly mature, were of all ages–and no “mind you ” about it–and spoke to seatmates and across rows about what exactly Lewis might do. There were no theater programs given for An Evening with Jerry Lewis, though who needs a program to explain him.
He strode onstage at 8 pm to a standing ovation and it seemed that whatever medical difficulties Jerry Lewis has suffered in recent years were not showing. He missed no time in telling the audience that he turns eighty-nine years old in a few months and he didn’t betray it.
Not that newness or novelty is his shtick. Getting down to business, he explained the need for humor in a difficult world and that humor was best expressed in old jokes–the ones that if funny at the start of his career would be funny today. How old were these jokes? A Priest and a rabbi order drinks on a plane jokes, mother-in-law jokes, Jewish mother jokes, a few mildly smutty tales–Polish stories even, the latter not heard onstage in decades but deemed in good spirits by Lewis and so taken by the most of the crowd. In short, the hoariest of vaudeville or Borscht Belt humor in which Lewis and his fellow entertainers trained. What made all this funny was Lewis’ awareness of the material’s age and his ability to get he audience to anticipate it.
And the clips. In between his storytelling and a few a cappella songs, he wove highlights from his career on to a screen above him. You could, of course, watch his old movies on cable or even seek out the variety show appearances on You Tube, but what you’d miss.
What stood out? The comedy routines with Dean Martin that made him famous, the split with Martin that was infamous, and the 1976 reconciliation with Martin watched, said Lewis, by over 100 million viewers. (To see the body language between the two was interesting.) The annual charity telethons. A mock screen test of Milton Berle, directed and audited by Lewis, date unidentified but with Berle in skinny ties and lapels; and three generations of Lewises singing together, the son Gary becoming a singing star in his own right
The Rat Pack material with Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. looked so much better enlarged. A rarity was a slapstick sketch involving the woman he deemed the funniest female in the business, the late Totie Fields, whose name and form brought murmurs of recognition to those who remembered.
Dark sides and controversies in a career didn’t show that night; Lewis in total command of his material didn’t let it. Nor would the audience have wanted it. Jerry Lewis was only at the Lincoln for one night but the rest of his tour will be worth following.
The Jerry Lewis museum website.