Improv, Jerry Lewis, Sesame Street & Woody Allen

The late 1950s & '60s were a time of shifting winds.

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The following article is adapted with permission from Reform Judaism magazine.

Improv Debuts

"I can't remember a single coherent sentence Paul Sills said. But as it often happens with talented directors... somehow he got his message across." --Alan Arkin
 
In the late '50s, after helping to create television sketch comedy, the modern humor magazine, and the stand-up routine, Jewish writers invented yet another comedic institution: contemporary improv theater. Founded in 1959 and named for an article about Chicago in The New Yorker by A. J. Liebling, Second City attracted the University of Chicago's best and brightest. Second City would, over the next decade, launch the careers of numerous Jewish celebrities, including Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, George Segal, Ed Asner, and David Steinberg.
 
In 1963, continuing in the politically aware, satirical tradition of The Realist and Second City, The Committee emerged in San Francisco as the comedy troupe for the hippie counterculture. Appearing frequently on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and in its own self-titled concert film, both in 1968, The Committee included such future Jewish comedic lights as Rob Reiner, Gary Goodrow (a Beat poet and future co-author of the first two Honey I Shrunk The Kids movies), and Carl Gottlieb (screenwriter of Jaws and The Jerk, among other films).

Fumbling & Filmmaking

"I'm nine, going on 69!" --Jerry Lewis
 
jerry lewisWhile Jewish comedians were breaking new ground in the world of improvisation, Jerry Lewis was staking out a middle ground between crowd-pleasing clown and social commentator. Film historian Leonard Maltin notes in his book The Great Movie Comedians that Lewis almost single-handedly carried the banner of film comedy throughout the '60s, as most of his colleagues migrated to television.
 
As writer, producer, and director of his own movies, Lewis wanted to make a statement about the plight of the "little guy." While his comedy had nowhere near the sting of Lenny Bruce, it was more critical of society than the antics of Sid Caesar.
 
Jerry Lewis's role as socially conscious comedian is perhaps delivered most poignantly in his directorial debut, The Bellboy (1960). Lewis's character, Stanley, a lovable loser in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin, is an absurdly overworked bellhop at a luxury hotel. However, there is something different about this "loser." With his frizzy, unkempt hair and pervasive sense of melancholy, he elicits a strong hint of the ethnic "other."
 
Lewis paints Stanley in broad slapstick strokes, but, in the final scene, the audience discovers another dimension of the bellboy. The hotel's owner, Mr. Novak, has been yelling at Stanley, who has not said a word throughout the entire picture. Taking Stanley's silence as a sign of insolence, Novak screams: "What's the matter with you? Can't you talk?"
 
Stanley ponders this question for a moment, leaving the audience spellbound: WILL HE TALK? He does, and is well-spoken: "Well, certainly I can talk. I suspect that I can talk as well as any other man, Mr. Novak." Calmed by his employee's respectful tone, Novak asks, "Well, in that case, how is it we never heard you talk before?" Stanley thinks a moment, and then it dawns on him: "Because no one ever asked me!" And with that, he resumes whistling his trademark tune and putters onto his next menial task, leaving the audience to ponder the subtext: "Because no one ever asked a lower-class Jew like me."

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Arie Kaplan

Arie Kaplan is the author of the critically-acclaimed nonfiction book From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books (JPS). He's also a comic book writer and a screenwriter. Recently, Arie wrote the story and dialogue for the upcoming House M.D. videogame. Please check out his website, www.ariekaplan.com.