Notes on "The Patsy" (Jerry Lewis, 1964)

"Let’s have an understanding as to why we are going to do this, if it’s at all feasible. Are we going to do this because we’re spoilt, and used to a comfortable, well-oiled machine? Or is it simply because we’ve been happy working as a family, and we hate the thought of breaking up?" It is Ellen, the only woman among a cabal of male culture industry workers, who thus pierces a hole into her colleagues’ vulture-like cool. What these writers, managers, handlers and producers have been discussing is how to act in the wake of their mutual employer’s sudden death, as seen in The Patsy’s unbelievable opening shot: a plane exploding against snowy mountain peaks. How are the deceased star comedian’s widowed personnel to survive this catastrophe? And should they even want to? "So what do we do now?" asks one. "We do what we’ve always done, except we do it for somebody else," retorts another, "what else can we do? I’ll probably wind up as some public relations man for some ‘up-and-coming’ rock and roll singer." – "And I’ll write jokes for a hillbilly television show," says a third, gravely, thereby voicing the movies’ contempt of their rival medium at the time of The Patsy’s making. "And I’ll produce, for somebody, and Ellen will write letters for some other somebody," yet another man interjects, shaking his head in despair: "It all seems like such a terrible waste." Their main man has just died in a Technicolor inferno, after all.

Then the Peter Lorre character steps onto the scene, Machiavellian, and instigates revolution (it was to be his last role). "I don’t know," he says, with an accent reminiscent of his Viennese upbringing, "I’ve been watching this little scene here and I can’t help myself: to me it has all the makings of a real melodrama. Great man passes on, leaves behind him his expert staff. What’s going to happen? Are they going to split up, each one goes his own little ways, looks for a new subject for his respective talent? Or are they going to stick together, and work and fight as a unit?" This is his plan: to find a patsy to replace the old master and thus keep the machine grinding. Enter Jerry Lewis, and we immediately realize things won’t go according to plan.

That accidents during the production of comedy may themselves be funny is something television comedy has always known and exploited. It’s a species of humor original and genuine to the medium of television because it requires and presupposes a split instance of observation, an observer being observed. In other words: it’s not the perfectly delivered joke we’re laughing at, but an audiovisual record of the joke’s failing. A friend of mine is working on a related subject, and I am very much looking forward to learning what he makes of this intriguing conjunction: might it turn out to be television’s (excuse for) "medium specificity"? 

A film riddled with contempt of the 'inferior' medium, The Patsy nonetheless heavily relies on this original invention of television, especially when it comes to Lewis’s notoriously 'split' performance. Looking at it this way, a genealogical line becomes visible leading straight from Jerry Lewis to Andy Kaufman and on to Tracy Jordan’s erratic V-effects of the self (as "Tracy Morgan") on Tina Fey's 30 Rock. They all rely on the idea that a performative act is being observed, and that it is the fact of this observation rather than the observed reality itself which renders the whole funny. As if to remind us of his indebtedness to the new medium, its specific possibilities and affordances, the patsy ends up on a television set where Jerry’s bit is interrupted by a reverse shot of The Tonight Show host Ed Sullivan animatedly looking on.

A similar point, I think, was made by the Austrian Film Museum in their recent (and ongoing) Lewis retrospective, which prefaces the films with snippets from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s appearances on The Colgate Comedy Hour, an NBC variety show dating from the early 1950s. Owing to this curatorial decision, traces of what might be termed a "reverse remediation" – of an older medium incorporating traits of its supposed successor/competitor – become even more apparent throughout Lewis's oeuvre, perhaps most prominently in Norman Taurog's otherwise weak Martin and Lewis vehicle The Caddy, which has the two discover their funny bones in a manner both inadvertent and accidental: Lewis is the film comedian of the (early) television age.

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