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Unmasking the Original Nutty Professor

KING OF COMEDY: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis by Shawn Levy; St. Martin's $24.95, 528 pages


"King of Comedy" is not about Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey, but the author of this superb biography of Jerry Lewis points out that all of them borrowed (or, in some cases, stole outright) from the original Nutty Professor.

"Jerry Lewis single-handedly created a style of humor that was half-anarchy, half-excruciation," writes Levy. "Even comics who never took a pratfall in their careers owe something to the self-deprecation Jerry introduced into American show business."

Levy readily concedes that Lewis is so over-the-top and in-your-face--and has been that way for so long--he is sometimes hard to take: "America has had more of Jerry Lewis," he writes, "than it has known what to do with."

But Levy need not apologize for undertaking his ambitious (and entirely successful) biography. "King of Comedy" is a model of what a celebrity bio ought to be--smart, knowing, insightful, often funny, full of fascinating insider's stories, always respectful but never worshipful of its subject.

Yet Lewis always displayed a cagey and calculating sense of showmanship. Dean Martin and Lewis were both slightly taller than 6 feet, but Lewis arranged to have the soles of their shoes doctored--Lewis' were shaved, Martin's were built up--to create the impression that Jerry was "the Kid."

Levy dutifully explores the persistent mysteries and scandals that have attached themselves to Lewis: his break-up with Martin, his near-mythic attachment to fund-raising for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn., his famous addictions and temper tantrums and passions.

However, what makes Levy's book so compelling is Levy's sure grasp of the business of entertainment. Levy succeeds in evoking Lewis not only as a personality but also as a performer whose career illustrates the sweep of American popular culture, from burlesque and vaudeville to the fractured star-making machinery of the present.

At the beginning of their careers, Martin and Lewis were literally indentured servants of their agents and managers--Martin sold 105% percent of himself to various backers, including the comedian Lou Costello, sometimes offering 10% or 20% of his earnings to a manager who was willing to hand him $200 in ready money.

Even when the act was red-hot, it took the cool expertise of Lew Wasserman and the suits at MCA to extricate Martin and Lewis from the grip of a street-smart manager who had figured out a way to pay himself several times over while his famous clients were living on loans. But even as a young man in the first thrall of success, Lewis was already aspiring toward the real power--he was among the first movie stars to reinvent himself as a director and producer.

Levy is not afraid to criticize Lewis, to probe the unflattering realities behind his well-tended legend, to penetrate his moments of pretension and self-glorification. For example, Levy devotes a chapter to a little-known failure of good taste called "The Day the Clown Cried," an unreleased Lewis movie that tells the story of a clown who is pressed into service by the Nazis to lead children into the gas chambers.

In fact, "King of Comedy" is unauthorized precisely because Levy managed to ignite the comic's famous temper by asking some pointed questions about "The Day the Clown Cried." Lewis tore the tape out of the author's tape recorder--and all cooperation with Levy came to an abrupt end.

If "King of Comedy" is not an official bio, it is not a hit piece either, and Levy specifically repudiates the "snide laughter" that Lewis prompts in some circles. "Though it's sometimes hard to remember, if not believe, Jerry Lewis was the most profoundly creative comedian of his generation," Levy writes, "and arguably one of the two or three most influential comedians born anywhere in this century."

Levy proves himself to be an accomplished biographer, an acute observer of the entertainment industry, and an iconoclast who does not hesitate to point out the finer qualities of the icons he is intent on shattering.

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