How Jerry Lewis Helped Andy Kaufman Become a Star

Jerry Lewis started his career with what was (at the time) an unusual act.  He would set up a record player on stage and lip sync to records.  The act depended on physical comedy with Jerry making faces and over-exaggerated movements.  He started doing that act as a teenager in the early forties and was struggling to create a successful comedy act in small clubs.  Here’s a clip of him doing that on television in 1951 on the Colgate Comedy Hour.

Dean Martin, meanwhile, was appearing at similar small clubs singing and wasn’t doing much better than Jerry.  The two teamed up and did a poor job their first night together, but the second night they came up with an idea for an act: Dean would sing on stage and Jerry would bumble around in the audience, pretending to be an incompetent waiter.  Well, maybe pretending.  The audience ate it up, and in no time at all, they were ad-libbing and improvising and singing and playing in large clubs.  And movies.  And on television.  They attracted crowds outside their hotel the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again until Elvis or the Beatles came to town.  And then they couldn’t stand each other’s company and the duo split and didn’t even speak to each other for over 20 years.

Dean went on to surprise everybody by having a brilliant career in movies and tv and more than a few hit records.  Jerry surprised nobody by having a career in movies but turned out to be what many (especially the French) considered a brilliant director.

What many don’t realize is how their record career started.  We’ll get back to that.

Andy Kaufman was not in any way a traditional comedian.  He was doing performance art before the term was even created.  It is difficult, even now, to get people to agree on when he was acting, when he was serious, and when he was simply out of control.  His appearances on Fridays, his wrestling career, and his apparent injuries on the Letterman all provide evidence for arguing any side of the debate over his intentions at any time.  One thing is clear, however: his breakthrough came on Saturday Night Live.  It was there most of us first saw him set up a record player, put on the Mighty Mouse song, and lip sync to “Here I come to save the day!”  Yes, his initial act was swiped from Jerry Lewis!  Feel free to argue about whether Andy researched Jerry’s act before he did it himself.

I grew up on Long Island in the mid-fifties, and we at the time we had an advantage most of the rest of the country envied: our television antennas could pick up channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9,11, and 13 while most towns had only 2 or 3 or maybe 4 channels.  In 1956 one of the non-network channels broadcast a local telethon where Jerry Lewis did his best to raise money to fight muscular dystrophy.

There was a large number of local television channels in the 1950s in New York.  Combine that with the small number of network programs and it meant that a lot of movies and early television show reruns were on all the time.  I was probably familiar with many of the early Martin and Lewis movies as a result and recognized Jerry Lewis immediately.

After watching him whine for hours, my best friend Jimmy and I went around the neighborhood and collected about $12 by going door to door and asking people for money to help Jerry.  The show was broadcast only in New York, and it didn’t raise a massive amount of money, but it did raise enough that the next year they did it again.  That time I got a special cup and a letter in the mail from Jerry asking for our help again.  Jimmy and I and my younger brother Jon went around the neighborhood collecting money again early Sunday morning, and two memories stand out:

  • After a half hour or so we forgot what we were collecting the money for.  We racked our brains and walked up and down the sidewalk until we finally remembered.
  • When we were about finished with the blocks around us, we came to a house where a woman got very angry with us!  It turned out that she had been at church while we were busy collecting money.  She had also gotten a letter from Jerry and had planned to go around the neighborhood after lunch.  We had spoiled her day and cost Jerry money by collecting money first.  After that, we just went home.

In those early years, the telethons featured a lot of old vaudeville performers most viewers barely recognized, but as time went on a lot of current acts showed up as well.

One act, in particular, stands out.  At least once an hour the tot board that recorded the total money pledged and collected would be updated, and Jerry usually announced the new number as it was shown.  Chubby Checker had a major dance hit with the Twist, and quite often an announcer would remind the audience that Chubby would be there to sing later.  When a new total failed to get the cheers Jerry wanted, he reannounced the total not as a zillion dollars, but as a zillion Chubby Checkers.  The crowd screamed.

In 1966 the telethons became an annual national broadcast, and Jerry went on to raise billions of dollars to help fund treatments for muscular dystrophy.  And then the organization decided it didn’t need Jerry anymore.  The telethons don’t seem to be around now.

I’ve been to countless movies through the years and I’ve often had to wait in long lines to get into to some of the hot new movies.  I can remember any number of times where I had to wander around nearly full theaters looking for a place to sit.  I can only identify one time where my mother dropped my brothers and me at a movie theater and we didn’t get in: Jerry Lewis in Visitor to a Small Planet in 1960.  Getting in touch with my mother and convincing her to drive back for us was a challenge in pre-cell phone days.

Dean and Jerry even got their own comic book from DC comics, The Adventures of Dean Martin And Jerry Lewis from 1952 to 1957.  After the duo broke up that comic was canceled, but The Adventures of Jerry Lewis took its place and continued until 1971.

Back in 1925, At least five different orchestras recorded the song That Certain Party.  It was a fox trot that usually started as an instrumental and then went into mild comedy lyrics.  The Ted Lewis Orchestra had the biggest hit with the record, reaching #8 in whatever passed for charts in 1926.  The song was revived and taken into the top 10 in the Summer of 1948 by Benny Strong, and also covered that year by several others at the same time.  Doris Day even did a duet version with Buddy Clark.  Dean had been singing for years but hadn’t yet recorded any successful records.  The real surprise?  His first chart single was a duet with Jerry, not a solo hit!  Their cover of That Certain Party in November 1948 was typical of their act.  Dean singing with Jerry being Jerry, and in spite of leaving out some of the comic lyrics and adding some strange mumbling from Jerry, the record managed to sneak up to number 22 on the charts for a week.

Dean went on to have several number 1 hits and a top 20 record each year for over a decade, but Jerry only got onto the record charts one more time.  Al Jolson had a number one hit with Rockabye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody in 1918, and when Jerry performed the song live in 1956 the audience response in Las Vegas was solid.  Jerry went on to record his own version of the song and managed to hit #10 on the charts shortly thereafter.  His son, Gary, had a number of hit records on his own in the sixties, and even did a parody version of Time Stands Still that sounded a lot like Jerry.

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