-- Jerry Lewis, interviewed by Merrill Schindler in Los Angeles Magazine, 1980. He had been asked why he inspires hostility.
Comebacks are always sweet for the person making the comeback. They’re even sweeter when no one else can see the potential for that comeback. And rest assured: at the dawn of the 1980’s, no one saw a comeback in the works for Jerry Lewis.
Lewis had spent the 1970’s devolving from an international star into a pop-culture punchline. His movie career was a memory -- 1970 saw his first and only release of the decade, WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT?, and it had been buried by Warner Brothers (it was a big hit in Europe, naturally).
He stopped making movies altogether after business wrangles kept him from finishing the legendary and unseen Holocaust-themed THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED.
A 1976 attempt to revive HELLZAPOPPIN' for the Broadway stage ended in acrimony, critical brickbats and a premature closing.
He could still command attention on variety extravaganzas and talk shows but he was no longer the living legend he once was.
The fact that Lewis was an egomaniacal workaholic and a control freak didn’t help things, either. His need to be master of all he surveyed led to lawsuits stemming from HELLZAPOPPIN's implosion and the failure of his Jerry Lewis Cinemas business venture.
Still he pressed on obsessively, fueled by endless cigarettes and a little pill called Percodan. He’d become addicted to this painkiller after a painful, spine-injuring fall in 1965 and said addiction dominated his life and temperament by the mid-1970’s. He wouldn’t kick the addiction until the end of the decade when his drug-dazzled senses kept from realizing he had a fist-sized ulcer in his stomach.
As the years went on, he spent more and more time immersing himself in his role as a celebrity spokesperson for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and hosting its annual telethon. Lewis had always resented how his “fun for everybody” version of entertainment had fallen out of favor in the cynical 1970’s and he made the telethon into his last-ditch defense for his version of showbiz, singing and schticking his heart out with every old-school entertainer he could round up. It was a rousing success but that success came with a price tag: his twilight achievement soon inspired contempt, jokes and later rumors about how much he profited from the telethons. This whisper campaign hurt him even worse than the loss of his showbiz mojo.
As the 1970’s approached their close, Lewis found himself weary, angry and in many ways defeated… but he couldn’t give up the ghost. In 1978, he began to ponder a movie comeback. The next year, he met Joseph Ford Proctor, a businessman and would-be film mogul who handed him a script entitled Hardly Working. Proctor put together a $3 million budget from a group of Florida investors, Lewis rewrote the script to fit his needs and the film began shooting in the spring of 1979. There were some hurdles to be cleared -- they ran out of money in post-production and Proctor disappeared -- but Lewis was able to put together the necessary funds with added investors and finished the film.
Unfortunately for Lewis, it would be nearly two years before HARDLY WORKING played at home. It cleaned up at the European box office during 1980 but domestic distributors couldn’t be bothered Lewis was frustrated but he also had other problems to keep himself busy -- he was forced into bankruptcy by a lawsuit, his lengthy marriage ended in divorce and his father, whom Lewis had a love/hate relationship with, died in the autumn of 1980. He lashed out in interviews like the one printed at the top of this piece, taking on the tone of a man driven mad by indifference.
Finally, there was a ray of light in the spring of 1981. 20th Century Fox begrudgingly picked up HARDLY WORKING for a theatrical run. To the shock of everyone, it shot to #1 on the box office charts, racking up an impressive $4.16 million in three days at only 700 theaters. The critics vilified the film but it didn’t matter. Jerry had proven to himself and his critics that he could still pack ‘em in at the theater.
But what about the film itself? Well, sad to say, the critics are right on this one. HARDLY WORKING is limply paced, cheap-looking and suffers from a long string of gags that fizzle out. There are a few flashes of the old comedic genius -- a killer bit involves Lewis being driven to distraction by table-dancing go-go girls while working as a bartender, a laugh-out-loud scene that is as effectively staged and edited as any of the bits from his classic works.
Unfortunately, for every scene like that you have at least three scenes like the one where Lewis impersonates a Benihana chef by putting on oversized glasses, huge buck teeth and the most cringe-inducing faux-Japanese accent since Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (interestingly, Fox used this image as a lynchpin of the film’s ad campaign).
The worst part for Lewis fans is that the star looks old and tired, with little of the effervescent energy that drove his classic films. His timing is off, both as a comedian and a director, and the erratic rhythms create an experience that is off-kilter from start to finish. Lewis would later call the script the worst thing he’d ever written and it is tempting to agree with him. However, there is one aspect to HARDLY WORKING that makes it a must-see for any serious Lewis fans: the ending. Anyone who has studied his work knows that Lewis often used his work to communicate his feelings about himself to the rest of the world. That idea truly applies to HARDLY WORKING.
First, a bit of backstory. The premise has Lewis playing an out-of-work clown who makes a bid at fitting into the 9-to-5 world by settling down and getting a regular job. After a long string of failed attempts, he finally lands a job at the Post Office and works hard to overcome his usual mishaps and learn his new trade. He also happens to fall for a nice divorcee (charmingly played by Deanna Lund from LAND OF THE GIANTS).
Unfortunately, this divorcee happens to be the daughter of his hardnosed new boss, played by Harold J. Stone (also in THE BIG MOUTH and WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT?), and said boss doesn’t like the idea of the bumbling Lewis as a son-in-law.
He puts our hero in the line of fire by having him trailed by a supervisor doing an evaluation of postal carriers… but Lewis pulls off a perfect performance of his job to everyone’s surprise and aces the evaluation.
The boss decides he’s okay, the daughter’s love is justified and Lewis is deemed a success at playing by the straight world’s rules. Happy ending, right?
Wrong. At the moment everything should seem perfectly okay, Lewis seems pensive and unhappy. The next day, he delivers the mail in full clown makeup and attire. A crowd quickly forms around him, dominated by children, and they follow him as if he were the messiah of good times.
Lewis’s boss shows up to stop him, threatening to fire him and have him brought up on charges for “making fun” of his job. Lewis has the last word when he quits and makes his final delivery, unleashing a gaggle of rabbits from his delivery van (the result of an undelivered pair of rabbits that had been allowed to multiply).
As the film ends, Lewis hitches a ride out of town with his lady love, heading back to his rightful home -- a clown college.
It’s a strange third act, particularly when it follows 60 to 70 minutes’ worth of material that plays like a tired rehash of Lewis’ vintage works (appropriately, the film opens with a greatest-hits montage drawn from those films). That said, if you look at this ending in the context of what Lewis’ career had become by this point, it is easy to see it as an impassioned plea by Lewis to the audience. After a decade of wandering in the showbiz wilderness, he seems to be telling the world that he can’t play by anyone else’s rules. He’s got to be himself -- a clown among clowns -- and that’s the only way it can be.
Lewis would continue to be a show business trooper, continuing to work on stage, t.v. and screen and turning in classic, highly acclaimed performances in the films KING OF COMEDY and FUNNY BONES. He received the French Legion of Honor in 1984 for his charity work and most recently won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In retrospect, HARDLY WORKING was a mere warmup for the next phase of Lewis’s career but it remains interesting (if not always watchable) for what it says about the man himself.
Author’s Note: the majority of the research for this article came from the excellent Lewis biography King Of Comedy by Shawn Levy. It’s easily the best book on Lewis and a must-read for any fan.