One of the longest, most influential and most controversial showbiz careers in history has come to an end with the death Sunday of comedian Jerry Lewis at 91. To fans, he was a comic genius; while his detractors never ceased slamming him. But Jerry took that in stride, even admitting that when he was funny, he was hilarious, but when he wasn’t, he was “the worst there is.” After pouring his heart and soul into helping children with neuromuscular diseases and raising an estimated $2 billion for the MDA over the years with his telethon, he was still hounded for not being PC enough with some of his jokes and comments. You’d think that devoting your life to raising $2 billion for sick children might earn you a little slack from the PC brigades, but if so, then you don’t know them very well.
While many critics claimed to find Jerry’s wacky antics tiresome and “outdated,” his comic style still lives on today in countless disciples, from Martin Short and Jim Carrey to Eddie Murphy’s “Nutty Professor” movies to “The Simpsons” to just about any current movie involving physical comedy. He also contributed a number of innovations behind the scenes, such as being the first director to videotape takes while filming so they could be reviewed immediately, an idea that revolutionized the industry in the pre-digital camera days. His book, “The Total Filmmaker,” became the go-to textbook for film students. He could also be a fine dramatic actor when given the chance, as in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” And I defy even his snootiest critics to watch his hilarious live TV shows with Dean Martin and his early classics like “The Bellboy” without laughing. If they can, check to see if they haven’t died, too.
It’s disheartening to see some of our current “everything is political” media outlets using the occasion of his death to regurgitate the attacks on his conservative political views or non-PC jokes or opinions. Where I come from, you’re taught that when someone dies, you show respect by keeping your mouth shut about your petty differences and paying respect to the person’s life. Jerry Lewis may have rankled a lot of people over 91 years, but he also raised more money for charity than possibly anyone else in history and did it while creating some comedy classics that continue to inspire young comics and lift people’s spirits more than 60 years later. How many of his critics will ever accomplish a fraction as much?
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