Any decade gets the comedy it deserves. In the ’60s, stand-up satirists such as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl turned the nightclub stage into an op-ed page; their subjects were war, the pestilence of prejudice and the famine of the North American spirit. But for the style-as-substance ’70s a new kind of comic was needed whose attitude was less political, more absurdist—and whose only message was “oldtime show biz is dead.” By imitating failed magicians, inept impersonators and vacuous talk-show hosts, comedians such as Albert Brooks, Andy Kaufman and Martin Mull confronted their audiences with radical comic strategies, forcing them to ask themselves, “Is that supposed to be funny ?”
Steve Martin hedged his bets—and built a hugely successful career on TV and records, on the road and on the bookshelves—by appealing to the lover of goony gags inside every ’70s sophisticate. His jokes, his stories, his whole comic persona were really dumb—and pretty funny. And with North Americans taking comedians to their hearts these days as though they were waterpowered Ferraris, it was inevitable that Martin would make his move to the big screen.
So what comic is his model for the character of The Jerk? Jerry Lewis! It’s not surprising if you have read the Martin interview in January’s Playboy, in which he describes Lewis as “a real comedy genius” and Lewis’ films as “90-
per-cent masterpieces of comedy.” The Jerk is Martin’s attempt to turn Lewis’ spastic schlemiel into a wild and crazy goy. It’s a flimsily knit series of skits about Navin Johnson who realizes when he hears his first Mantovani record that he is not a black man. And it’s full of the kind of slapstick that had ’em groaning in Aristophanes’ day. Steve loses his pants. Steve knocks over some furniture. Steve steps in cow ka-ka (actually, this last gag is kind of funny). Carl Reiner, who has made his own contributions to comedy with Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and Dick Van Dyke, does little to set a mood or rhythm or even an aura of good feeling that will carry audiences over the slow spots. And throughout, there is the sense of a laid-back arrogance—that Steve’s admirers, heard squealing like Kiss groupies on his later records, will love whatever this WASPwithout-a-sting decides to commit to film.
Look, it’s no big deal. Martin’s fans will undoubtedly excuuuuse him for a lacklustre feature film debut. The rest of you are advised to catch Jerry Lewis singing You'll Never Walk Alone on his Labor Day telethon. Now that's funny.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.