In Defence of Jerry Lewis

Martin and Lewis were the hot­test male com­edy double-act of all time — who make today’s ‘bromance’ look like brom­ide.

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By Mark Simpson (Originally appeared in Out, May 2009 — but has fallen off their website)

Forget hair whorls, gen­omes, amni­otic fluid, older broth­ers, dom­in­eer­ing moth­ers or disco. I can reveal with abso­lute, religio-scientific cer­tainty that the cause of my homo­sexu­al­ity was just two words. Jerry. Lewis.

As a kid in the 1970s I watched re-runs of his movies, espe­cially the ones from the early fifties with his on-screen boy­friend Dean Martin, with a level of breath­less excite­ment that noth­ing came close to – until I dis­covered actual bug­gery in the 1980s.

Films like Money From Home where he pins Martin to the bed wear­ing a pair of polka dot shorts camper than Christmas in West Hollywood (1953), andSailor Beware (1951), where he is pricked by sev­eral burly USN med­ics wield­ing ever-bigger needles until he squirts liquid in all dir­ec­tions and faints made me the man I am today.

Earlier this year, after a life­time of being ignored by a cross-armed Academy Awards that never gave him so much as a nom­in­a­tion when he was mak­ing movies, Lewis is finally get­ting an Oscar. But not for his cute films with Dean Martin or his solo clas­sics such as The BellboyThe Errand BoyThe Nutty Professor, and The Disorderly Orderly – in which, mem­or­ably, he hap­pily hoovers with the appli­ance plugged in up his own ass – but for his fun­drais­ing for Muscular Dystrophy. It’s a char­ity Oscar – in every sense. Lewis is 82 and has had ser­i­ous health prob­lems for some time.

The Hollywood gays though were reportedly Not Happy. They had a hoover up their ass about Lewis.  Apparently some tried to block his Oscar because this ill, old man born in 1926 almost used the word ‘fag­got’ last year after host­ing a twelve hour telethon. In effect, the gays are run­ning down the street scream­ing Maaaaaaa!!

Likewise, because he isn’t him­self gay, and because his early nerdy, ‘retarded’ sissy per­sona has been deemed ‘exploit­at­ive’, Lewis has been almost com­pletely spurned by gay stud­ies, when really he should have his own depart­ment. If noth­ing else, Lewis Studies would be a damn sight more fun than Queer Studies (as long as they didn’t include the Telethons).

Certainly his films should be set texts.

But it was his anarchic early 1950s TV shows with Martin when a twenty-something Lewis was at his queerest and gid­di­est. Their heads so close together in those tiny 50s cath­ode ray tubes, gaz­ing into each other’s eyes, rub­bing noses, occa­sion­ally steal­ing kisses from one another or lick­ing each other’s necks to shrieks of scan­dal­ized pleas­ure from the audi­ence. They were a prime-time study in same-sex love. And were adored for it – lit­er­ally chased down the street by crowds of scream­ing young women and not a few men (espe­cially pop­u­lar with sail­ors and sol­diers they were the Forces sweethearts).

This half-century old double act from the homo-hating 50s is much more alive, much more flir­ta­tious, than today’s sup­posedly lib­eral and lib­er­ated ‘bromantic’ com­edy, which goes  out of its way to purge the pos­sib­il­ity of any­thing phys­ical. Next to Dean and Jerry’s sim­mer­ing screen-love, bromance just looks like brom­ide.

Whatever the nature of his off-screen sexu­al­ity, Lewis’ com­edy part­ner­ship with Martin, the most suc­cess­ful of all time, along with most of their best gags, was based around the matter-of-fact, unspoken assump­tion that they were a couple.

Their very first TV show opens with our boys arriv­ing at a posh ball full of Waspy straight couples being announced: ‘Mr & Mrs Charles Cordney!’, ‘Mr and Mrs Walter Christiandom!’.  And then: ‘Mr Martin and Mr Lewis!’.  The dago and the jew. Setting the tone for their series, Lewis promptly trashes the place with his nervey-nerdy slapstick.

The Martin and Lewis part­ner­ship was queer punk rock before even rock and roll had been inven­ted, trash­ing nor­mal­ity right in the liv­ing rooms of 1950s America, cour­tesy of Colgate. No won­der they’ve been almost forgotten.

They should never have exis­ted.  True, the expli­cit­ness of their pair­ing depended on the offi­cial ‘inno­cence’ of the times, and the nos­tal­gia for buddy­dom in post-war America, allow­ing the audi­ence to enjoy the out­rageous queer­ness of what was going on without hav­ing to think too much about it. Literally laugh­ing it off.

But offi­cial inno­cence is a mis­chiev­ous comedian’s gift-horse. A skit depict­ing (fic­tion­ally) how Martin and Lewis (or ‘Ethel’ and ‘Shirley’ as they called one another) met cli­maxes with them being trapped in the closet together – pushed together mouth to mouth, crotch to crotch, by Martin’s vast, vain col­lec­tion of pad­ded jack­ets. In another skit our boys end up shar­ing a bed with Burt Lancaster play­ing an escaped hom­icidal maniac: Jerry: ‘Boy, Dean, these one night stands are moider!’

Moider was exactly what they got away with.  In a skit set in prison, Jerry’s bunk col­lapses on Martin below. ‘What are you doing?’ asks Martin. ‘I felt loinesome,’ replies Lewis.

Lewis’ on-screen queer­ness may have been just a phase – but what a phase! It was so unruly, so indefin­able, so crazy, so tick­lish, so exhil­ar­at­ing that gays – and prob­ably most people today – don’t know what to do with it.  Or where to put it.  It’s a bit scary, frankly.

But that – in addi­tion to still being piss your pants funny – is pre­cisely what is so great about it. And why I still think clas­sic Lewis is as much fun as sodomy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An exploi­sion of D&J kisses in this cheeky and charm­ing clip painstak­ing com­piled by a YouTube fan.


The noise made by the audi­ence when Dean falls on top of Jerry in the bath wouldn’t be heard again until Elvis shook his pelvis.

 

Jerry joins the Navy, gets some big pricks, and then sprays everywhere.

 

Dean and Jerry join the Army as para­troop­ers. Watch Dean’s eyes dur­ing the blanket scene.

‘I was loinesome.’

 

A slightly fic­tion­lised account of how our boys met, com­plete with closet clinch climax.

 

Never been kissed… Yeah, right.


Special thanks to Elise Moore and Hannah for shar­ing their pash­ern­ate love of Dean & Jerry — and remind­ing me of mine.