Part of the Jerry Lewis tribute A MUBI Jerrython. This article originally appeared in La Furia Umana’s Jerry Lewis dossier. It is republished with the kind permission of the author.
On September 18th, 1955, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin hosted the Colgate Comedy Hour for the 27th time. It would be six months before they began shooting Hollywood or Bust, after which their preposterously successful union dissolved. But from 8 – 9PM on a studio set at NBC, they continued to work their alchemical comic magic, two perfectly poised bodies wreaking ingratiating destruction.
These Colgate Hours are the closest approximation we can get of their fabled live performances, which were filled with unrehearsed pranks and ebullient anarchy. At the 21 minute and 35 second mark, a sketch begins that captures my imagined vision of their stage shows - a tongue-in-cheek tour-de-force of tightly sprung tension and a series of controlled manic releases. The camera descends on a stock shot of a pool room “just off Broadway”, where Dean is trying to win his money back in a game of nine ball. Told to hurry up and shoot, he raises his right hand and twists his wrist in an implied flip of the bird. His mates quiet down, and Martin will vainly attempt to conduct silence the rest of the sketch, mainly with his hands. It’s his rhythm and control that spurs and sustains the whole 20 minute piece.
Jerry enters wearing an oversized rain slicker and hat, visually already a man-child, and fumbles with the umbrella in a bit of business by the door. Then Jerry’s alien presence stoops right beside Dean with a slack jawed stare, cowed only by a returned glance of disgust. Jerry steps back in this duet of mutual humiliation, and starts whistling. Dean calmly raises his right index finger and stops it in Jerry’s mouth, as if to staunch a spring in a dike. Dean is suave civilization, Jerry a particularly uninhibited embodiment of nature.
With Dean still trying to line up his shot, though, nature finds a way. Jerry bends over the table to eye it himself, and rainwater gathered in his peaked cap spills onto the felt. The dike has been loosed. Jerry directs the water into a corner pocket, which then blasts out of the opposite corner, spraying Dean in the face.
Jerry, his head bowed like a chastised puppy, becomes eager for instruction. Dean waves his hand left, and Jerry swivels his head in that direction, a bobble head of pure need. Hypnotized by Dean’s hand movements, he follows them wherever they point in a brilliant bit of pantomime. Maneuvered in front of a chair, Jerry robotically plops down after Dean’s quick wrist flip.
Order never lasts long in the Martin and Lewis altiverse, so Jerry wriggles out from Dean’s control by throwing over the elements for modern technology. Dean again tries to set up his Sisyphean shot, but Jerry’s order at the soda machine causes the clanking noises of a faulty Victorian-era furnace. Jerry’s bottle-opening screeches while his straw-sucking blasts as if over a loudspeaker. This is the repetition of the whistling bit, only amplified. Again Dean attempts to orchestrate silence (but not before an improv that almost makes Jerry break – passive aggressively dropping some soda in his mouth), twisting the straw into a knot and shoving it back into the bottle. Jerry, acknowledging his defeat, then repeats the earlier pantomime to himself, tracing those steps until he once again plops into the chair.
Martin & Lewis engage in a constant push-pull, but never manage to create any space between themselves, the gags inexorably bringing them closer together. Dean’s hands are sticky from the soda, so Jerry tries to help, covering them both in a penumbra of baby powder. Now they are even visually connected, with a dusting of white covering their shoulders. The jokes increasingly become more hysterical and self-reflexive, with Jerry suddenly pretending to be a standup comic (he bombs) and then a songwriter (he kills). Dean is now the one left confused and adrift, his jerky reactions to hearing Jerry’s song on the radio (“Yetta I Can’t Forget Her”) nearly as spastic as his partner’s. As their identities shift and merge, by the end of the sketch they accept their contradictory unity and sing a song, called, aptly enough, “Side By Side”.
That they broke up less than a year later changes nothing. At that moment in time, they were an inseparable, insuperable comic force, a combustible union that would explode, reassemble and repeat ad infinitum; a glorious chaos that seemed it might never end. Until, impossibly, it did.