To all those who hadn’t gotten themselves born yet when Jerry Lewis created mid-20th century comic anarchy with a singer named Dean Martin, all the current media coverage surrounding Lewis’ death may seem terribly overplayed.
Martin and Lewis weren’t just a crooner and his hilarious human chimp; they were a reflection of America’s hunger for great silliness in the aftermath of World War II. America adored them for making us laugh out loud, and for sharing the love they clearly had for each other.
Whenever they appeared, in nightclub or movie or, in TV’s infancy, on such shows as “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” they were a mirror image of the country’s changing comic needs. It was finally time to let loose a little.
There was the suave, big brother Dean, romancing the ladies while his younger brother, his pal Jerry, showed off his inner nine-year which all other adults kept secret from the world.
Jerry was one of us kids. He was bursting with energy and impulse exploding in all directions. But unlike real kids, no grown-ups were ordering him to keep the noise down and act his age. He was a child freed from responsibility and still allowed to hang out at night with the adults.
But as enchanting as all of this was – especially in the post-war years – there was also the religious coupling, the Italian-Catholic former Dino Paul Crocetti and the Jewish goofball formerly known as Joseph Levitch.
The Jews survived the war, and the Holocaust, wondering if the world was ready to embrace us or continue to see us as The Other. These two guys seemed to answer the question. They clearly loved each other. Never mind our religious differences, all that mattered to them, and to their audiences – and, hopefully, to America — were the shared laughs.
While Dean was the cool older brother, Jerry was the awkward sibling who couldn’t get to first base – with girls, or with bullies – but he’d always have Dean there to protect him.
The Jews needed that sense of protection after the mass killings. It was nice to see someone outside the tribe offering it.
When they broke up after their decade-long love affair, it shocked us the way we were stunned, a decade or so later, by the Beatles’ breakup. That’s how big Martin and Lewis were, and that’s how we imagined their love for each other.
Lewis went on to make more comic noise over the rest of his life, and raised breathtaking amounts of money to fight muscular dystrophy. By then, he seemed like some other fellow, a grown-up. Those of us who’d come of age watching the early clown missed that guy.
He was 91 when he died on Sunday. The cable news channels announced his death as if a head of state had passed, and the morning papers had extensive obits.
If you weren’t around for the Martin and Lewis days, you might have thought the coverage overblown. It says here that it wasn’t.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
Also see: Comedian Jerry Lewis Dies at Age 91
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