The Comedic Legacies of Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis (RIP): A Study in Contrasts

Two titans of comedy passed away this weekend, but the deaths of Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis have seemed like cultural footnotes amidst some of the most anxious, angry few days in recent U.S. history. Gregory and Lewis are stars of a bygone era, maybe two full generations behind contemporary popular relevance. And yet, in many ways, the mid-20th century world where both men got their start feels closer than ever.

Both Gregory and Lewis once wielded considerable power in the entertainment industry and in their other chosen spheres of influence—the civil rights movement and charitable giving, respectively. In nearly every other respect, the two could not have been more different.

Gregory broke into mainstream success with a new wave of black comics like Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, and like Pryor, he did so by telling painful truths about racism that many white Americans laughed about but were unwilling to honestly confront or change. You can hear an early example in the routine above, from his 1962 album Dick Gregory Talks Turkey.

Gregory got his big break in 1961 when he seized the moment in a tryout at Hugh Hefner’s Chicago Playboy Club. As he later told CBS Sunday Morning, “I pushed that white boy out of the way and ran up there…. Two hours later, they called Hefner. And Hefner came by and they went out of their mind.” That same year, he made his first national TV appearance. See it at 15:16 in the documentary Walk in My Shoes just above, which also features Malcolm X and Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) founder James Farmer.

In the playlist  below, you can hear three full Gregory comedy recordings, Living Black & White (1961), East & West (1961), and an interview album, Dick Gregory on Comedy. Throughout his career, Gregory was an uncompromising civil rights activist who was beaten and arrested in the sixties at marches and protests. He was at the 1963 March on Washington, faced down the Klan to help integrate restaurants, and fasted to protest the Vietnam War. In a review of his provocatively-titled autobiography, The New York Times described him as “a man who deeply wants a world without malice and hate and is doing something about it.”

He also did something about it in comedy. When Jack Paar’s producer called him to appear on the show, Gregory hung up on him. Then Paar himself called, and Gregory told him he wouldn’t come on unless he could sit on the couch, a privilege afforded white comics and denied their black counterparts. Paar agreed. “It was sitting on the couch,” he said, “that made my salary grow in three weeks from $250 working seven days a week to $5,000 a night.” For the next several decades, he leveraged his wealth and fame for humanitarian and civil rights causes, and even a run for mayor of Chicago in 1967 and a popular write-in presidential campaign in the 1968 election. He died at 84 a venerated elder statesman of stand-up comedy and of the Civil Rights Movement.

Jerry Lewis’s legacy is much more complicated, and serves in many ways as a “cautionary tale,” as Nick Gillespie puts it, for the hubris of celebrity. Lewis broke through in the 50s as the animated, rubbery comic foil to Dean Martin’s suave straight man in the hugely famous comedy duo of Martin & Lewis. See them above do a standup routine in 1952 on their Colgate Comedy Hour, with an introduction (and intervention) from Bob Hope. The act was a phenomenon. “Coming from literally nowhere,” writes Shawn Levy at The Guardian, “the pair rode a skyrocketing 10-year career that made them staples of American showbiz for the rest of their lives…. They met when they were just two guys scuffling for a break in Times Square, and they helped forge a new brand of popular entertainment suited to the postwar mood.”

In the same year as the broadcast further up, Lewis made his first appearance, with Martin and Jackie Gleason, on the Muscular Dystrophy Associations of America (MDAA) telethon. Just above, see them do a bit while the familiar banks of operators stand by behind them. Lewis began hosting his own MDAA telethon in 1966 and did so until 2010, raising billions for the organization, which remembers him as a “Comic genius. Cultural icon. Humanitarian.” Many disability activists feel otherwise, including many former “Jerry’s Kids,” his “pet name,” writes Gillespie, for the poster children he recruited to represent the MD community on the telethon and related advocacy materials. “The telethon was widely parodied,” and Lewis’s efforts have been seen by many activists and protestors as self-serving, perpetuating harmful, demeaning attitudes and encouraging pity for MD sufferers rather than acceptance and social equality.

As a movie star, Lewis often played an all-American doofus whose physical antics and stammering, boyish persona endeared him to audiences (see above, for example, from 1952’s Sailor Beware). As a director, he made tightly choreographed madcap comedies. He also traded in offensive stereotypes, participating in an ugly Hollywood tradition that emerged from anti-Chinese bigotry of the 19th century and anti-Japanese World War II propaganda. (Lewis was unflatteringly remembered in The Japan Times as the “king of low-brow comedy… forever squealing, grimacing and flailing his way” through various roles.) He introduced Asian caricatures into his act in the Martin & Lewis days (see below) and reprised the shtick in his critically-loathed 1980 film Hardly Working, in which, writes Paul Macovaz at Senses of Cinema, he “realizes an offensive, profoundly racist yellow-face sashimi chef.”

“I imagine that most viewers will be troubled by it,” Macovaz comments, “wrenched viscerally from their enjoyment of the Lewisian idiot and pressed squirming into the overdetermined conceptual narrative zone of American Orientalism.” Those viewers who know another of Lewis’s later-career disasters will recognize another awkward character in Hardly Working, the sad-faced clown of 1972's disastrous The Day the Clown Died, a film so ill-advised and badly executed that Lewis never allowed it to be released. (Just below, see a short documentary on the abortive effort.)  In the movie, as comedy writer Bruce Handy noted in a 1992 Spy magazine article, the comedian plays “an unhappy German circus clown… sent to a concentration camp and forced to become a sort of genocidal Pied Piper, entertaining Jewish children as he leads them to the gas chambers.” Meant to be his first “serious,” dramatic role, the largely unseen film now stands as an archetypal epitome of poor taste—an artistic failure that Mel Brooks might have dreamed up as a sick joke.

As Gillespie points out, Lewis’s last years saw him threatening to punch Lindsay Lohan and telling refugees to “stay where the hell they are.” Long past the time most people wanted to hear them, he persisted in making "racist and misogynistic jokes" and gave “the most painfully awkward interview of 2016” to the Hollywood Reporter. He became well-known for verbally abusing his audiences. The running joke that Lewis was beloved by the French, which “only made him less respectable in his home country,” may have been run into the ground. But in the latter half of his career, it sums up how much American comedians—even those like Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and Eddie Murphy, who were clearly influenced by his manic humor—were often unwilling to make too much of the debt. But looking back at his 1950s dada zaniness and at films like The Nutty Professor, it's impossible to deny his contributions to 20th century comedy and even a certain brand of absurdist 21st century humor.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Paintings of Jim Carrey: “Painting Frees Me, from the Past and Future, from Regret and Worry”

In his top-grossing comedies, actor Jim Carrey displayed an antic quality that seemed to rule over his personal life as well. While other stars used interviews as opportunities to normalise themselves to the civilians in the audience, clown prince Carrey was relentless, an uncontrollable fire hose of funny faces and voices that felt not unlike demons.

All that output was exhausting, and caused many to wonder if the man was capable of calming down long enough to receive any meaningful input.




His performances in films such as the Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind suggested that perhaps he was…

As did the revelation that he spent a lot of his childhood in his bedroom drawing - the flip side to his crazy living room performances, staged, in part, to keep an emotionally troubled family from sinking any lower. He also drew in school, aggravating teachers with unauthorised portraits.

As Carrey recalled in a 2011 interview:

After I became famous, my sixth-grade teacher sent me sketches she had confiscated. She kept them because she thought they were cute. She also knew how to harness the energy. If I was quiet, she would give me 15 minutes at the end of class to perform. Today, I’d be on Ritalin, and Ace Ventura would have never been made.

These days, the funny man seems to have turned his back on performing in favor of a more contemplative visual arts practice. His most recent acting credit is over a year old. As David Bushell’s documentary short, I Needed Color, above reveals, the quantity of Carrey’s output is still impressive, but there’s a qualitative difference where the artist is concerned.

His face and body are calm, and the crazed imperative to entertain seems to have left him. Watching him go about his work, one is reminded of cartoonist and educator Lynda Barry’s observations about the neurological connection between the ability to go down the rabbit hole of art and a child’s mental health:

I think it’s what keeps us sane. I think about how, if I’m sitting here with a kid who’s four years old and I have all these markers and I say, do you want to draw, and that kid’s too freaked out to draw, we’d be worried about that kid a little bit, wouldn’t you? We’d be worried about them emotionally. OK, on this side I have a 40-year-old, same situation, she’s too scared to draw, but we’re not worried about her. Why? Because there is a tacit understanding that something is going on when kids are playing or [drawing] that has something to do with their mental health. All of us know that if a kid is not allowed to play till he’s 21, he’s going to be a nut. He’s going to be a psychopath, actually. The brain studies they’ve done of kids in deep play show that their brains are identical to an adult’s brain that is in creative concentration. We know that play is essential for mental health. I would argue that so is drawing.

Art saves lives, right?

Carrey’s earlier success affords him the luxury of time and money to immerse himself in his new vocation without limiting himself to any one style or medium. Giant paintings, tiny sculptures, works that involve black light, squeegees, or shredded canvas stitched back together with wire are all cricket.

Given his movie star status, nasty reviews are to be expected, but approval is no longer what Carrey is seeking:

When I paint and sculpt it stops the world for me, as if all time has been suspended. My spirit is completely engaged, my heart is engaged, and I feel completely free. I think I just like creating. All of it is a portal into present, into absolute, quiet, gentle, stillness. This involvement, this presence, is freedom from concern. That’s harmony with the universe.

Those who can’t make it to Signature Galleries in Las Vegas this September 23 for a $10,000 per couple opening of Carrey’s paintings can take a gander at his work for free here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Senator Al Franken Does a Pitch Perfect Imitation of Mick Jagger (1982)

If Senator Al Franken won’t run for President in 2020, perhaps he’d temper fans’ disappointment with a repeat of his early 80’s turn as Mick Jagger, above.

The performance took place at Stockton State, a public university conveniently located in New Jersey–what the late Tom Davis, Franken’s long time Saturday Night Live writing partner and Keith Richards to his Jagger called “the Blair Witch scrub forests twenty-five miles north of Atlantic City.”

Franken’s performance is an immersive triumph, especially for those who remember his best known SNL character, the lispingly upbeat Stuart Smalley.




His Jagger is the opposite of Stuart–butch, preening, athletic … a less than sober student fan in the Stockton State crowd might have drunkenly wondered if he or she had accidentally bought tickets to the Tattoo You tour. Those lips are pretty convincing.

The costuming is dead on too, and Franken did not take the route Chris Farley would later take, lampooning the male strippers of Chippendales. He may not be Jagger-rangy, but he’s certainly fit in an outfit that leaves no room to hide.

As Davis recalled in his 2010 memoir, Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There:

As we started “Under My Thumb,” Franken came running out as Mick Jagger, wearing yellow football pants and Capezios and was so good, it was scary. Unfortunately, Franken and Davis at Stockton State never sold very well… maybe it would be re-released if one of us became president, or shot a president.

Knowing that Davis, who died five years ago, would likely never have predicted the outcome of the recent election, and that Senator Franken, outspoken as he is, is in no position to joke about the second option, we suggest truffling up a used copy, if you’d like to see more.

And for comparison’s sake, here are the originals performing to an arena-sized crowd in Arizona in 1981:

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

11,700 Free Photos from John Margolies’ Archive of Americana Architecture: Download, Use & Re-Mix

Many connoisseurs of architecture are enthralled by the modernist philosophy of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and I M Pei, who shared a belief that form follows function, or, as Wright had it, that form and function are one.

Others of us delight in gas stations shaped like teapots and restaurants shaped like fish or doughnuts. If there’s a philosophy behind these insistently playful visions, it likely has something to do with joy…and pulling in tourists.

Art historian John Margolies (1940-2016), responding to the beauty of such quirky visions, scrambled to preserve the evidence, transforming into a respected, self-taught photographer in the process. A Guggenheim Foundation grant and the financial support of architect Philip Johnson allowed him to log over four decades worth of trips on America’s blue highways, hoping to capture his quarry before it disappeared for good.

Despite Johnson’s patronage, and his own stints as an Architectural Record editor and Architectural League of New York program director, he seemed to welcome the ruffled minimalist feathers his enthusiasm for mini golf courses, theme motels, and eye-catching roadside attractions occasioned.




On the other hand, he resented when his passions were labelled as “kitsch,” a point that came across in a 1987 interview with the Canadian Globe and Mail:

People generally have thought that what’s important are the large, unique architectural monuments. They think Toronto’s City Hall is important, but not those wonderful gnome’s-castle gas stations in Toronto, a Detroit influence that crept across the border and polluted your wonderfully conservative environment.

As Margolies foresaw, the type of commercial vernacular architecture he’d loved since boyhood–the type that screams, “Look at me! Look at me”–has become very nearly extinct.

And that is a maximal shame.

Your children may not be able to visit an orange juice stand shaped like an orange or the Leaning Tower of Pizza, but thanks to the Library of Congress, these locales can be pitstops on any virtual family vacation you might undertake this July.

The library has selected the John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive as its July “free to use and reuse” collection. So linger as long as you’d like and do with these 11,700+ images as you will–make postcards, t-shirts, souvenir placemats.

(Or eschew your computer entirely–go on a real road trip, and continue Margolies’ work!)

Whatever you decide to do with them, the archive’s homepage has tips for how to best search the 11,710 color slides contained therein. Library staffers have supplemented Margolies’ notes on each image with subject and geographical headings.

Begin your journey through the Library of Congress’ John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive here.

We’d love to see your vacation snaps upon your return.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Meet Alexander Graham Bell, Inventor of the Telephone and Popular TV Pitchman

Mr. Watson, come here! I want you to tell me why I keep showing up in television commercials. Is it because they think I invented the television?

- The ghost of Alexander Graham Bell

Not at all, my dear Mr. Bell. A second's worth of research reveals that a 21-year-old upstart named Philo Taylor Farnsworth invented television. By 1927, when he unveiled it to the public, you’d already been dead for five years.

You invented the telephone, a fact of which we’re all very aware.

Though you might want to look into intellectual property law.... Historic figures make popular pitchmen, especially if - like Lincoln, Copernicus, and a red hot Alexander Hamilton, they’ve been in the grave for over 100 years. (Hint - you’ve got five years to go.)




Or you could take it as a compliment! You’ve made an impression so lasting, the briefest of establishing shots is all we television audiences need to understand the advertiser's premise.

Thusly can you be co-opted into selling the American public on the apparently revolutionary concept of chicken for breakfast, above.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Mr. Watson gets a cameo in your 1975 ad for Carefree Gum. You definitely come off the better of the two.

You’re an obvious choice for a recent AT&T spot tracing a line from your revelatory moment to 20-something  hipsters wielding smartphones and sparklers on a Brooklyn rooftop. Their devices aren’t the only thing connecting you. It’s also the beards…

Apologies for the beardlessness of this 10 year old, low-budget spot for Able Computing in Papua New Guinea. Possibly the costumer thought Einstein invented the phone? Or maybe the creative director was counting on the local viewing audience not to sweat the small stuff. Your invention matters more than your facial hair.

Lego took a cue from the 80s Muppet Babies craze by sending you back to childhood. They also saddled you and your mom  with American accents, a regrettably common practice. I bet you would’ve liked Legos, though. They’re like blocks.

As for this one, your guess is as good as mine.

Readers, please share your favorite ads featuring historic figures in the comments below.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in Paul David Young’s Faust 3, an indictment of the Trump administration that adapts and mangles Goethe's Faust (Parts 1 and 2) and the Gospels in the King James translation, as well as bits of Yeats, Shakespeare, Christmas carols, Stephen Foster, John Donne, Heiner Müller, Julia Ward Howe, and Abel Meeropol. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” Is the Perfect Song to End Any Movie: The Graduate, Psycho, Easy Rider & 50+ Other Films

It’s hard to conceive of director Stanley Kubrick choosing a more perfect song for Dr. Strangelove’s final mushroom cloud montage than Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.”

Ditto Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Can you imagine Ben and Elaine making their existential getaway to the tune of anything other than “The Sound of Silence"?

Freelance video editor Peter Salomone can (see above). If he had his druthers, all films would end with Dire Straits’ 1985 hit, ”Walk of Life” a tune Rolling Stone described upon its release as a “bouncy Fifties rock & roll song about cool Fifties rock & roll songs,” noting its “cheesy organ sound.”




More recently, the New Zealand-based music blog Off the Tracks proclaimed it “god-awful,” suggesting that the CIA could surgically implant its “obnoxious” keyboard riff to trigger assassins, and asserting that it (“and those fucking sweatbands”) were the demise of Dire Straits.

Such critical evaluations are immaterial where Salomone’s The Walk of Life Project is concerned. Over the course of a couple months, he has gleefully applied it to the final minutes of over five dozen films, leaving the visuals unmolested.

There are no sacred cows in this realm. Casablanca and The Godfather are subjected to this aural experiment, as, somewhat mystifyingly, are Nanook of the North and Chaplin’s City Lights. Horror, Disney, musicals…Salomone dabbles in a wide variety of genres.

For my money, the most successful outcomes are the ones that impose a commercial send-em-up-the-aisles-smiling sensibility on deliberately bleak endings.

Director Danny Boyle may have allowed audiences to decompress a bit with heartwarming footage of the real life Aron Ralston, whose autobiographical account of a life-changing accident inspired the film 127 Hours, but Salomone’s choice to move the playhead to the moment shocked hikers encounter a dazed and dehydrated James Franco clutching his mutilated arm is sublime. That helicopter could not be more perfectly timed:

Some other dark gems:

Easy Rider:

Planet of the Apes

Psycho

Salomone told Gizmodo that he’s taking a break from the project, so if there’s a film you think would benefit from the Walk of Life treatment, you’ll have to do it yourself, with his blessing. Fan stabs at Scarface, The Silence of the Lambs and Gone with the Wind suggest that the trick is not quite as easy to pull off as one might think.

You can view the complete collection on The Walk of Life Project’s website or YouTube channel.

via Gizmodo

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’ll is currently appearing as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3, opening this weekend in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

When Bowie & Jagger’s “Dancing in the Street” Music Video Becomes a Silent Film: Can the Worst Music Video Ever Get Even Worse?

You might remember it. Back in 1985, Mick Jagger and David Bowie recorded "Dancing in the Street" to raise money for Live Aid, the famine relief mega-concerts organized by Bob Geldof. Originally written by Marvin Gaye, and first made famous by Martha and the Vandellas in 1964, "Dancing in the Street" topped the British charts when Bowie and Jagger recorded their version in 13 short hours. The collaboration also yielded what's possibly the worst music video ever made. Or so this survey by The Guardian would conclude. NME ranks it as the 11th worst of all-time.

Shot by David Mallet at the London Docklands, the original video (see below) features "Bowie in an oversized yellow raincoat and leopardish jumpsuit and Jagger in yellow sneakers and a flouncy electric-green blouse," writes Mark Kurlansky in his book, Ready For a Brand New Beat: How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem.




He adds, "It is hard to understand what is going on in this video of two men dancing and hopping around each other." And if you turn the sound off, it only gets worse ... if that's possible.

Above, see what happened when writer & director Strack Azar created a "silent" version of the Jagger/Bowie video last year. It's laugh-out-loud funny at times. It's also a good reminder that when you watch something visual, you can't discount the impact that the soundtrack makes on the total experience.

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