For our family, as for the world, Jerry Lewis loomed large. The comic genius, who died on Sunday at 91, left a mark unlikely to be forgotten any time soon.
My mother adored him. As it happens, my mother is profoundly deaf. That’s no minor detail. To anyone deaf, a Jerry Lewis performance was extra special. It often required no words, nor any interpretation. His antic mugging, his elastic face, his convulsively loose-jointed body — all of that was instantly understandable.
My mother watched his movies and lost herself in laughter. His clowning around rendered her deafness moot. That was important to me as a little boy. My mother struggled all her life with her deafness, seeking to define herself. She needed to laugh more than anyone I knew, and Jerry Lewis made her laugh. I wanted her to be happy and he made her happy.
My father felt connected to Jerry Lewis, too, and rightly so. My father grew up in the same neighborhood as he, the Weequahic section of Newark. And they were both born in the same year, 1926, further cementing a lifelong sense of kinship. My father always took pride in what this other son of Newark, then a community predominantly Jewish, accomplished in New York City, Hollywood and then internationally.
Jerry Lewis was one of us and he had made good.
I, too, drew inspiration from the manic, zany force of nature that was Jerry Lewis. I grew up with no small need for attention, and acting silly and making people laugh, whether by making ridiculous faces or doing a pratfall, seemed to do the trick. I would do double takes in class and pretend to walk into walls in the hallways and trip over my own feet at parties. I even cooked up a Jerry Lewis impersonation, squeaky voice and all.
Thus it was that in high school I ultimately managed to achieve at least one major distinction. I was never going to be a valedictorian or star for the basketball team or forge a legend as a Casanova with girls. But that turned out to be OK because our 1970 graduating class of some 700 students elected me Class Clown (male division).
So whatever else you care to say about Jerry Lewis — and you could say a lot; he had his flaws — he deserves his due as an entertainer, as a humanitarian who raised $2.6 billion for muscular dystrophy research, and then some. He took the slapstick artistry we saw in Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and ratcheted it up to a new level of insanity and hysteria. And somehow, in his desperation to get a laugh, he managed to twang our funnybones for all time.
Bob Brody, an executive and essayist in Forest Hills, is author of the memoir “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.”