Performer Analysis: Jerry Lewis

A few years ago, someone gave me a DVD of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in a 1950s TV show called “The Colgate Comedy Hour”.

I didn’t know much about Jerry Lewis, but having seen those shows, it’s of no surprise that so many huge US comics hold Lewis up as a legend.

What he is doing so well? I think it’s because he’s really good at mucking about!

In those Colgate shows energy pours and sparkles out of the young, skinny, wild Jerry Lewis. He leaves Dean Martin in his wake, who, for large sections of the show, is just standing there in gleeful awe!

But this is not the Jerry Lewis that most British people would recognise. Most Brits would only know Lewis as the weird character in The Nutty Professor.

There was quite a change in Jerry Lewis over the years and it’s worth looking at what happened.

Have a look at these 3 clips of him performing the same routine at different stages of his career.

I am sure you are already drawing your own conclusions!

It’s tempting to say that the change in his performance is just because he’s getting older.

But the real issue is what he’s thinking as a performer.

In the 1950’s he is just there for fun. The sketch content is almost irrelevant – not nearly as important as his connection with the audience.

In the second clip, he appears to be straining for energy, leading to a slightly awkward over-playing. And he is making less of connection with the audience.

Performers moving into their 30’s will often strain to reach the same energy levels as before. (I have done this.)

The temptation is to use gimmicks like more costume (I have done this too) – and worst of all you start shouting when you should be “speaking with energy”. (Oh the shame!)

In the last clip though, he is hardly making any meaningful connection with the audience. He seems to be trying to underplay it – or maybe he’s trying to show the audience that he is aware that this is an old routine?

Legendary clown teacher Angela de Castro says “Lack of charisma can be fatal”. And this clip shows how careful you have to be to use energy even when trying to “underplay” something.

This is probably at the heart of the difference between clowning and comedy. “Clowning” in its many forms is all about performance, connection with the audience, and the emotion journey of the character.

In the 1960’s, Lewis put himself under a lot of strain to produce, direct, act and finance his own films. It is no wonder that performance energy was difficult to muster.

This is a fascinating area, and I’d really appreciate hearing your thoughts, so please leave a comment.


Energy can carry a performance.

A performer needs to have high energy AND control.

Over reaching for energy can result in an awkward performance.

Under-selling a performance can result in a damp squib.

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