Consider a scene from The Patsy (1964). Hans Conreid's stuffy, Germanic music teacher is giving Jerry Lewis a singing lesson. Conreid's performance here is reminiscent of his role, a decade before, as the sadistic piano teacher in the Doctor Seuss film The 5000 Fingers of Dr T (Roy Rowland, 1953). He is one of the pompous male authority figures who are always ridiculed and reduced to impotence in Lewis' movies. Jerry's own character is a hotel bellboy named Stanley: evidently the same figure who appeared in Lewis' earlier film The Bellboy (1960). Lewis' persona is, as always, earnest and eager to please, but utterly incapable of doing anything right. There's an extended routine involving Conreid's collection of "priceless antiques," including vases and statues that Lewis bumblingly knocks off their pedestals, only to catch them just before they would have hit the ground and shattered. Lewis also tries to sit in a number of Conreid's antique sofas and chairs, all of which seem exceedingly uncomfortable. Despite contorting his body into various grotesque postures, Lewis always ends up either by wrecking the furniture, or by sliding down off it and onto the floor. As Lewis continues his nearly-silent shenanigans, we get frequent reaction shots of Conreid, whose face shifts alarmingly from an unctuous smile of obviously false warmth (as he recounts the wonders of music) to various frowns, grimaces, and nervous tics (expressing his displeasure at Lewis' unwitting assault upon his museum pieces).
After all this, the music lesson itself begins. In order to show how one must sing «with diaphramatic breathing... from the chest», Conreid screams so closely into Lewis' face that the sonic reverberations cause Jerry's eyebrows to stretch out and grotesquely cover his eyes. This creates a monster effect, with a look that would not be out of place in the transformation scene of The Nutty Professor (1963). But Lewis barely reacts, pausing for a second and then carefully combing his eyebrows back into place. Conreid, sitting at the piano, then sings a series of notes for Lewis to emulate -- which he does, braying off-key, and exaggerating (amplifying and caricaturing) Conreid's facial expressions and arm gestures. Conreid accompanies one note with a grandiose sweep of his arm. Imitating this gesture, Lewis knocks down the piano's lid prop, so that the lid closes over Conreid's hand. Conreid grimaces, and issues a series of screams. But Lewis continues to imitate Conreid's facial expressions and vocal tones, as if he were just being given additional notes to sing. The caricatures become more and more demented, but Lewis barely acknowledges that anything is wrong. (At one point, Lewis steps out of character, and says in a normal voice, in response to a scream, "that's a good note"; but almost immediately he returns to his hysterical vocalizations and contortions). Finally, the intense reverberations from Conreid's screaming destroy the room. We get a close-up of a decorative drinking glass shattering, followed by a deep-focus long shot of the entire room, with antiques toppling, lighting fixtures swinging as in an earthquake, furniture being shattered or overturned, and portions of the ceiling collapsing onto Conreid and Lewis.
Even so detailed a description fails to capture the full complexity of what might well be called the Jerry Lewis assemblage (using this last word, as is customary, to translate Deleuze and Guattari's agencement). How does this assemblage produce comedic effects? According to Bergson's famous formulation, comedy results from «a certain mechanical inelasticity, just where one would expect to find the wide-awake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being». But in a certain way, Lewis inverts Bergson's formula. For Lewis' persona pushes "elasticity", "adaptability," and "living pliableness" to an alarming extreme. Jerry seems to have no fixed inner essence; he is open to any and every suggestion that reaches him. Lewis' body is something like an electronic transformer: only it amplifies affects, gestures, and expressions, instead of electric currents. Lewis registers inflections and influences from the people around him -- and from the nonhuman objects in his environment as well -- and pumps them up into a bizarre hypervisibility.
Bergson writes that «to imitate any one is to bring out the element of automatism he has allowed to creep into his person». And Lewis does indeed seem to respond helplessly and automatically to all the suggestions that reach him; this is why his hapless repetitions of Conreid's tones and gestures make the latter's pomposity seem ridiculous. However, Lewis' mimetic automatisms themselves take on the liveliness and flexibility, and indeed the duration, that for Bergson rather characterize the full unfolding and expressiveness of élan vital. Bergson tells us that -- in contrast to the mechanistic reductions that provoke laughter -- life in its full vigor «presents itself to us as evolution in time and complexity in space»; living beings are characterized by «a continual change of aspect, the irreversibility of the order of phenomena». But such are precisely the characteristics of Lewis' comedy. Everything in the sequence I have described depends upon irreversible temporal processes unfolding under conditions of spatial complexity.
One important aspect of the Jerry Lewis assemblage is therefore its articulation of space and time. Lewis usually sets his destructive routines in large, carefully designed three-dimensional spaces, often shown to us in deep focus. The most famous example of this is the cut-away three-story house that serves as the main set for The Ladies Man (1961). But The Patsy's music room works in a similar way. The room is packed with kitschy clutter, including the "priceless antiques" I have already mentioned, and a large piano, as well as things like a bust of Beethoven under a sign that reads (with fake-German-accent-spelling) "Zing For Your Zupper." Yet the room is so large that, despite this clutter, there is also a great deal of emptiness. The space is well-defined, but it cannot be closed upon itself or separated from its outside. This is made evident in a gag where Lewis tries to close a pair of sliding doors, only to have them slide past each other, opening up the room again. Objects are scattered throughout this large, open volume. These objects at first seem to be entirely independent of one another; but over the course of the scene, the violence released by Lewis' body will cause them to interact, and even to interpenetrate.
The Jerry Lewis assemblage is not given to us all at once; rather, it involves a certain experience of duration. The timing has to be precisely right; as Lewis says in his book The Total Film-Maker, «two extra frames spoil a joke». Bergson identifies repetition, inversion, and reciprocal interference of series as the three crucial «methods of light comedy»; these stand in opposition to the way that life «never goes backwards and never repeats anything». But Lewis, once more, works to have things both ways. His repetitions, inversions, and interfering series are themselves only produced in the course of a complex, evolving, and irreversible process. When a vase shatters, its pieces will never spontaneously come together again. But in The Patsy, the vases do not shatter right away; Lewis catches them before they hit the ground. We need to wait until they all smash up at once, thanks to sound waves that need time to reverberate invisibly through the space, before they have built up enough to wreak their havoc. Throughout his movies, as here, Lewis makes us endure a long build-up, before he will give us the explosive moment of comedic release. In this way, the empty time of our waiting for something to happen itself becomes part of the gag. We watch some four minutes of Lewis catching vases and sliding off chairs, before the room-annihilating vocalizations are unleashed. The anticipated "punch line" is withheld for an excruciating length of time. (In some of Lewis' movies, this "punch line" can even be omitted altogether).
This brings me to three final points about the Jerry Lewis assemblage. In the first place, Jerry's own bodily gestures and actions are jerky and discontinuous: these are qualities that Bergson associates with nonliving, mechanistic repetition. And yet the result of Lewis' «painful and idiotic corporeal extremes» (as Rae Beth Gordon calls them) is to produce a thoroughly animistic universe. Everything seems more or less alive; the most inert objects, and the most mechanistic processes, seem to be driven by a strange vitality. But I call this situation animism, rather than vitalism, because the liveliness of the inorganic in Lewis' films -- and indeed the liveliness of Jerry himself -- seems more like a form of alien possession, than an intrinsic principle of expression. There is no autopoietic self-reproduction here, but something more like a process of contagion or contamination, or the uncanny vitality of the living dead. Part of Lewis' genius is to make nervous comedy out of what in other hands would otherwise register as horror.
In the second place, the animism of the Jerry Lewis assemblage can be understood as an implicit revision and extension of Bergson's theory of comedy. Bergson structures his account of laughter around an opposition between the entropy (or degredation of energy) found in mechanistic processes, and the negentropy (or complex organization) of life processes. But recent biological speculation by Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan suggests that this is not a true opposition. The negentropic, creative organizing force of living processes (and of certain nonliving ones, like weather patterns and chemical catalytic reactions) is not opposed to entropy. Rather, the complex organization of phenomena like hurricanes, living organisms, and ecosystems works to reduce energy gradients (like that of solar radiation streaming towards the earth) more powerfully, radically, and efficiently than would otherwise be possible. The limited negentropy of Bergsonian "creative evolution" thus in fact works to dissipate energy (or to generate entropy) on a larger level. And the radical difference (or indeed incompatibility) of scale between these two levels is itself (following the arguments of Gilbert Simondon and, following him, Deleuze) a necessary condition for this process. But the Jerry Lewis assemblage already works according to these principles of organization-dissipation and of incompatibilities of scale. Lewis' comedy necessarily involves durational movements of both creative organization and explosive dissipation; and it mobilizes minute causes which lead to disproportionate effects. Such processes are readily apparent in the voice lesson sequence of The Patsy.
In the third place, and finally, the animism of the Jerry Lewis assemblage has a double root. On the one hand, it is grounded in the tradition of cartooning and cinematic animation. This is something that Lewis learned (and inherited) from Frank Tashlin, the director of the best Lewis films not directed by Lewis himself. Cartoon animation gives exaggerated life to imaginary, and initially inanimate, figures; Tashlin and Lewis apply such exaggeration to living bodies themselves, creating an "unnatural" more-than-liveliness. On the other hand, this animism equally derives from the uncanny vitality that is produced by commodity fetishism. Every person in Lewis' films is reduced (as Bergson would say) to an inert and repetitive mechanism. But at the same time, every object and mechanism in Lewis' films is like Karl Marx's table, which "not only stands with its feet on the ground, but... stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will." In this way, Bergson's theorization of the duality of life and mechanism in comedy is superposed with Marx's understanding of how the duality between life and mechanism stands at the heart of everyone and everything, in a society organized by "the capitalist mode of production.” A Marxist Bergsonism, or a Bergsonian Marxism: such is the magic formula of the Jerry Lewis assemblage.
Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic.
Rae Beth Gordon, Why the French Love Jerry Lewis: From Cabaret to Early Cinema.
Jerry Lewis, The Total Film-Maker.
Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1.
Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan, Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life.
Gilbert Simondon, L’Individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information.