This is the one thing you'll read today that isn't about The Debate.
Jerry Lewis, at the age of 90, has a new film out now. He didn't write or direct this one, although he did that quite often decades ago; now he's "just an actor." And it's in an indie film about a elderly man who suspects his late wife of 65 years might have had a secret lover.
That's right. Jerry's doing his dramatic thing now.
It's not the first time by any stretch. Lewis made a film with Martin Scorsese (oh yes, he did) called KING OF COMEDY in which he held his own quite nicely and without any shtick against no less a talent than Robert De Niro.
Now, I've never been a huge Jerry Lewis fan despite his growing up in the same town as I did. The man-playing-a-child thing has never really worked for me and I always saw him as something of an embarrassment. I'm not French enough to appreciate his genius, it seems.
But his move into the "serious" is symptomatic of a larger condition, one that afflicts many if not all people who amuse others for a living. No less a personage than Groucho Marx performed Gilbert & Sullivan (granted, not exactly Oedipus Rex but still) in his later years. His brother Harpo played a mute murder witness on television in the 1950s. Charlie Chaplin played a serial killer. Neil Simon wrote plays about seriously dysfunctional families, addiction and mental illness. Carol Burnett, Dick Van Dyke and Lucille Ball all had the urge to play alcoholics and homeless people. Albert Brooks has lately taken to specializing in tough guys in the classier action films. If Mel Brooks (no relation to Albert, in that "Brooks" isn't either's real name) decides to play King Lear sometime soon, you'll know why.
It's about respect.
You see, those of us who decide to be funny professionally--and I count myself on the low end of those, since I do not actually perform comedy or write it for others to perform--get tired of the backhanded compliments. (My favorite is "effortless." HA!) We chafe at being relegated to the kiddie section, thought of as "cute" and "charming" and--in our eyes--not appreciated for the hard work and, dare I say it, talent we bring to the table.
Please don't take this too far. I'm not complaining about being seen as the "humorous" author. It's what I set out to be. And the idea of "effortless" comedy is the way it's supposed to be. If you see the joke coming or the effort behind it, you won't laugh. But if you notice the number of funny mysteries given Edgar Awards or comedies given Oscars, you'll notice they're very few and extremely far between.
Respect comes in a lot of varying forms. Mel Brooks himself was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Obama just last Thursday. He had to wait until he hit 90 to get it, but it was a very big honor and Mel accepted it with aplomb, kneeling at the president's feet in a joke about how heavy the medal hung around his neck must have felt. The press then speculated on whether Mr. Brooks had tried to pull the president's pants off.
So lately, with far too much writing time on my hands, I've been trying to decide what my next opus might be and wondering if, after all these years of being cute and amusing, I might want to tackle something that would get some R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Ms. Franklin put it. (It bothers my daughter that she also insists she is "taking care of TCB," as that means Aretha is "taking care of taking care of business." The redundancy annoys Eve. We raised that girl right.)
Am I at that crossroads in my career? Do I crave the respect of the literary world more than a few cheap laughs in a tawdry (I've been waiting for years to use the word "tawdry") mystery novel? Is it time to dig deep into my psyche and pull out some dark, potentially depressing insight in an effort to be seen as "important" by critics?
My role in the literary world, minor though it is, is the right one for me. I get more joy out of a reader sending an email about a joke in my book than I would out of the National Book Award, which I have a zero percent chance of ever getting no matter what I write (you can ask Nate Silver, and he'll say, "Who?"). I think the world needs more silly people, not fewer. I've read the "important" books. Largely, they are boring. Yeah, I know. I'm a Philistine.
So whatever it is I decide to tackle next (that is not a football reference, as I do not follow football--my sports year ends Sunday), you can count on one thing: It will try to make you laugh. Whether or not it succeeds will depend on who you are and how well I do my job. And maybe there will be some other emotions at play in the story as well, but it will definitely not be completely serious. I don't do that, and I have no intention of starting now.
Who am I, anyway? Jerry Lewis?