BIO-DOCUMENTARY "Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Saturday 8-10:05 p.m. (repeats at midnight) on Encore

REASON TO WATCH It's JERRRR-y! But not the movies' loud "Hey, lay-dy!" Jerry -- it's the innovative behind-the- camera filmmaker Jerry. Which makes this portrait an engrossing eye-opener.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT So why do the French love Jerry Lewis? Could be his crazy clownery. Could also be they appreciate his filmmaking prowess.

You read that right. We tend to forget Lewis isn't just the sentimental host of muscular dystrophy telethons, or the exaggerated "Nutty Professor" of his '60s comedy flicks, or the goofball from his postwar nightclub act with Dean Martin. He's been around forever -- he's 85 -- and we think we know who Jerry Lewis is.

But possibly we're behind the curve. Director Gregg Barcon (who previously profiled comic Phyllis Diller) brings us up to speed here. With copious comments from Lewis himself, Barcon's lens looks behind the lens to a guy whose eye -- and ears -- proved sharp, inventive and tuned to finding fresh ways to make us laugh. Lewis was a quick study making those Martin and Lewis comedies. He grabbed the chance to write, produce and direct at age 34 ("The Bellboy"), then stretched screen comedy, by physicalizing music and, as noted here by no less than Steven Spielberg, bringing back the sight gags that energized the silent era.

Spielberg isn't the only one to testify amid clips of Lewis' most inspired moments. So do Jerry Seinfeld (calling Lewis "the essence of comedy"), Billy Crystal, Alec Baldwin, Eddie Murphy (yes, it's the LI all-stars), Carol Burnett, and Richard Belzer (praising his anarchic spirit). Directors, too: Quentin Tarantino ("a serious director who did comedy"), Carl Reiner and John Landis, who admires that Lewis "didn't play it safe" in directing his 13 feature films -- five of which Encore airs Saturday to amplify points made here.

MY SAY I'm no Jerry Lewis devotee. But "Method Behind the Madness" makes me take a second look at his work, to recognize the tempos he set, the chances he took, and the ambitious mind behind the wacky soul.

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BOTTOM LINE "Method" makes a solid case for Lewis as underappreciated auteur.

GRADE B+