Some nerve, Jerry Lewis had, not tiptoeing through life. He’s heeded the advice of his mother, who told him at the age of eight: “Jerrela, please don't tiptoe. Tiptoe is weak. You don't live in a hospital.” His parents—performers in their own right—thrust him into the spotlight at five à la Judy Garland in A Star is Born, after her short pep talk, “This is it, kid. Sing!” But Jerry Lewis didn’t need a prod, and he didn’t tiptoe.
The clearest evidence of this arrives near the end of his 1961 movie The Errand Boy, Lewis’s self-directed and acted paragon of slapstick, released 52 years ago this Thanksgiving. The film is episodic, or, as The Errand Boy cowriter Bill Richmond calls it, “a plotless thing about the studio losing money.” Where Lewis’s bumbling Morty S. Tashman goes at Paramutual Pictures, hapless disaster follows: movies get dubbed with his voice instead of a songstress, a tractor is driven through a soundstage, background actors are almost drowned with a brobdingnagian bottle of bubbly.
In this particular boardroom scene, Morty takes a break from the arduous task of mail delivery, and, sitting at the head of a long conference table, issues orders while puffing on a fat cigar along to Count Basie Orchestra’s “Blues in Hoss’s Flat.” The big-band number slowly crescendos as Lewis gloriously pantomimes with a grapefruit mouth and grand, sweeping gestures. It's a middle finger to the corporate structure set to brassy stabs and plucked bass strings.
As Morty, Lewis knew exactly what he was doing. His dumb act is actually “in the trade, what they called a ‘dumb act,’” Richmond explains over the phone. “He took a little wind-up record player and put the record on and mimed it like he was singing.” At 15, after dropping out of school and before teaming with Dean Martin, Lewis had his “Record Act”—a vaudeville staple he cooked up that married operatic and popular songs with his own exaggerated pantomime. On stage with nothing but a phonograph and a knack for lithe, comedic movement, he paraded this act in his teenage years.
“I started as a writer,” Lewis told Michael Kernan in 1971. “I had the dumb act (mouthing songs to a record), but I made my living from writing. It was only later that somebody told me I did the clowning better than the comics I was demonstrating the material to.”
As for why he was a better clown, Abner J. “Abby” Greshler, the talent agent who poached Dean Martin and billed Martin & Lewis as fraternal freewheelers, once said, “Lewis had been a scared kid with a high squeaky voice. He was afraid to talk, to express himself, and that was why he had been crazy to do a record act. He didn’t have to speak. The record did it for him.”
That record was a Count Basie production called "Cute," written by Neil Hefti. “It was a little drum-solo record,” Richmond says. He knew rhythm. Before his putting pen to paper as a screenwriter, Richmond toured with Lewis and conductor Lou Brown as part of Lewis’s band. “He would do that and pretend he was playing the drums. In the middle of it, it had a flute solo and he’d pretend he was playing the flute.”
Watch 1960’s Cinderfella for that two-and-a-half minute woodwind exercise to flare up on screen when you least expect it. Richmond certainly wasn’t expecting it when Jerry switched on for The Errand Boy.
“Almost without my knowledge, he set up the camera and walked into the boardroom and looked around—whatever he was looking for, I don’t remember —and then all of a sudden the music starts and he did the mime you’re talking about,” Richmond recalls. “He did it obviously at the boardroom table, going around the table, miming, talking to the various members of the board of directors.”
Critics hated The Errand Boy. In the February 18, 1962 edition of The Globe and Mail, in an article titled “Latest Lewis Loony Nonsense,” film critic Frank Morriss hisses: “As a film … it is almost plotless, filled with slapstick and inane nonsense, and is devoid of wit.” Morriss ends with, “It may be that this film, to cite another of Mr. Lewis’ contentions, is for very young children and their adult escorts. If there were any children in the audience at the Downtown Theatre Wednesday morning, they were hiding from the truant officer.” The Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Nadine Subotnik went further, quipping, “He’s slipped back to the uncontrolled madness of the Martin and Lewis days with The Errand Boy … This reviewer finds slapstick and related zaniness boring after a short, short while.” The New York Times’ Howard Thompson found some light through all the plot holes, however, writing, “The first half – repeat, first half – of the new Jerry Lewis vehicle, The Errand Boy, is hilarious … If only it had kept up, we would have had the best Lewis comedy ever.”
That comedy didn’t come at a low price. When Lewis was on the road with drummer Bill Richmond and conductor Lou Brown, he never spared a cent. “Jerry always got the president’s suite or better in the best hotel in town, and Lou and I would also stay in the hotel,” Richmond says. “He did [the pantomime to ‘Cute’] and he’d done it in his act. And then he put on a basic tune called ‘Blues in Hoss’s Flat’ (also by Count Basie). That was the music heard in that mime in The Errand Boy. He did it around the suite; sometimes he’d do it around the table. He just did it, just for the fun of it. So you never figured it was going to turn out to be anything.”
The routine—which most likely hatched at Chicago’s Ambassador East and took, according to Jerry, “11 months before I could put it before the cameras"—turned out to make a lasting cultural imprint. It has spawned parodies and praise from present-day fans online, even reclaiming its comedic throne after cropping up in an episode of Family Guy:
“I have always been a huge Jerry Lewis fan, ever since I was a kid,” says Danny Smith, an executive producer of the animated series. “We were writing an episode where Peter takes control of his father-in-law’s huge business, and we were all pitching gags about what Peter would do once he realized he was finally a big-shot. Remembering The Errand Boy, I pitched the pantomime sequence to Seth [MacFarlane]. He remembered it and decided it would be cool to pay tribute to Jerry Lewis by having Peter do the entire bit on Family Guy.
“In order to do the piece, someone had to call and get [Lewis’s] permission. So I found myself on the phone with Jerry himself, and I will tell you that the man is a very tough and powerful businessman. There was a point in the call where Jerry got very animated with me, and even angrily called me ‘bubby.’ It was exhilarating to be locked in a negotiation with one of my all-time heroes, and at the height of the discussion, it occurred to me that he was yelling at me much like the same cigar-puffing executive in his famous bit from The Errand Boy.”
A YouTube search for “Jerry Lewis Errand Boy pantomime” yields about 1,240 results at the time of writing—the bulk of which are either the real thing or the Family Guy tribute. The rest are fan-made renditions of The Errand Boy’s standout scene, laymen who want to revisit the forgotten comedic tastes of Hollywood yore. One such user, Manoj Sharma, took a different route: a blind test of his love for Lewis.
In front of a screen playing the scene, Sharma syncs his movements in time with those of Morty Tashman blind, without skipping a beat. “Rather than just memorize the music, I also memorized his movements,” he says. “Since I had seen the routine countless times, I already knew the music well, but copying his gestures took 3-4 days. Once I had a general idea of the action, I would film myself with the movie playing behind me, play it back and fine tune the timing and angles, making sure, for example, that my arm was at the right height or my chair was positioned properly.”
His dedication has been viewed more than 7,000 times according to YouTube’s count. Wrestling with Lewis also proved fruitful for Danny Smith, as Family Guy’s “Business Guy” episode warmed up 7.67 million television sets. “My hope is that after seeing our bit, young people went to the Internet and looked up Jerry Lewis in the same way that they all ran to google the word ‘shipoopi’ on the morning after we had Peter sing that song from The Music Man,” Smith says. “If even one kid who’d never heard of Jerry Lewis now watches his films because of our bit, I would be a very happy man.”