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Category Archives: Comedy


Source: Sara Ivry, Tablet, January 6, 2016

There’s a sort of louche, menacing quality about Jerry Lewis—I’ve always thought so, anyway. Maybe it’s the tan or the bada-bing pinkie ring, or the warmth he seemed unwilling to summon even while hosting a telethon for muscular dystrophy. I found Lewis’ nasal parodic voice irksome and repellent. And his appeal—here in the U.S., or in France—has always perplexed me. I could never stand The Nutty Professor; the only film of his I’ve ever enjoyed is The King of Comedy and that’s partly because he plays a balls-out asshole, or perhaps he’s not “playing at all,” which is part of what makes that film so riveting.

Why speak of Jerry Lewis now, you ask? Because the BBC has just released a short documentary about Lewis’ never-seen 1970 Holocaust film The Day the Clown Cried. Lewis flew to Sweden to shoot the feature, and when he was finished he took the reels with him back to the United States but never released the film. When asked about it, Lewis has asserted he would never screen it because it’s “bad, bad, bad.”

The BBC mini-documentary, The Story of the Day the Clown Cried, features stills from the film and show Lewis with a red nose and painted clown make-up in front of would-be barracks where he is directing would-be Nazis played by Swedish actors. Various Swedes are interviewed about the shoot and production. We learn that Lewis worked on this project for a decade before filming commenced. We find out that some actors never got paid. We’re told that Lewis gave reels of all his films, includingThe Day the Clown Died, to the Library of Congress with the caveat the institution is forbidden to screen the film until 2025 at the earliest.

And we’re treated to a single tidbit of fascinating trivia: While in Sweden, Lewis never laundered his drawers or socks—he simply threw them away after a single wear. One—by which I mean, me—wonders if that is a lifelong habit and where that kind of behavior came from.

Against the improbable background music of Massive Attack, the documentary’s host, British comedian David Schneider (himself the son of a Holocaust survivor) ruminates on the question of whether one can make comedy out of such tragedy, and if that’s what Lewis was trying to do. There’s no way to know, really, if the film was supposed to be comedy, or have comedic elements, so it’s a bit of goose-chase speculation.

Nevertheless, the query reminded me of a gutting joke the British writer Howard Jacobson included in his fantastic novel Kalooki Nights, which I read years ago: What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? A pizza doesn’t scream when you stick it in the oven. That’s the kind of joke (you) never forget. Which begs Schneider’s question: Is it appropriate to make entertainment out of this genocide? Beyond appropriate, is it possible? Fans of The Producers might say yes. That Lewis has refused to make the film public suggests a different answer.

Martin Amis

Source: Philip Oltermann and Anne Penketh, The Guardian, August 28, 2014

In the UK, some critics have hailed it as the “best book in 25 years” by one of Britain’s greatest living writers. But The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis’s “brutish comedy” set in a fictionalised Auschwitz, may struggle to find readers overseas after the author confirmed on Thursday that both his German and French publishers had declined to publish the novel.

The book, which is narrated from the points of view of three concentration camp commanders and is interspersed with German vocabulary, was officially rejected by German publisher Hanser on the grounds that the manuscript wasn’t “sufficiently convincing”, Amis told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. But his interviewer, Thomas David, wrote that in German literary circles the widely shared view was that Amis’s book had been “too frivolous” for Hanser.

The reputable Munich-based publishing house had translated Amis’s past five books to appear in German. So far, no other publisher has bought the German-language rights for The Zone of Interest.

The French publisher Gallimard, which would not comment on Thursday, has previously published Amis’s novels. However, The Zone of Interest will be published in French in September next year by Calmann-Lévy, a publisher that rejected The Kindly Ones, a novel on the Holocaust by the American author Jonathan Littell. It was Gallimard which published that bestselling 1,408-page debut novel.

Deborah Kaufmann, Amis’s new editor with Calmann-Lévy, said that “if Gaillimard are kicking themselves for letting him go, that’s their problem”. She added: “And they already are.”

Calmann-Lévy had picked up the novel “because it’s a good book, and there’s nothing like it. And it’s not a comedy.” She said the publisher was “delighted to be starting a long relationship with Martin Amis, who is one of the top intellectual writers in Britain”.

In his interview, Amis stated he believed that his German publishers had rejected the book on literary merit, rather than because of an unease with the subject matter.

“Germany has reached a stage where younger people are eager to talk about the past, and the country has developed a sober perspective on that criminal period in its history. That’s why I was surprised when the publisher rejected the book,” the author said.

According to Amis, Hanser had “not understood” one of the key characters in the book, the SS officer Angelus “Golo” Thomsen. “The publisher seemed to think that Thomsen stood on the side of the regime and shared its ideology. But in actual fact, Thomsen knows that the national socialists’ ideology is counter-productive and self-destructive. He supports this self-destruction because he wants Germany to lose the war.”

He said that it was his understanding that Gallimard’s rejection was due to the publishing house taking a new editorial direction, rather than because of specific problems with the novel’s subject matter.

While Amis is seen by many in Britain as one of the most influential living writers in the English language, his commercial success and literary appreciation in Germany has never matched that of his contemporaries Ian McEwan or Julian Barnes.

While 1995’s The Information was a success, his other books have failed to generate similar enthusiasm amongst German readers. Money, published in 1984 and translated as Gierig, has been out of print since 1993.

Thomas David said he was puzzled by Hanser’s rejection, but didn’t think it had anything to do with heightened sensitivity about the subject matter. Only this week, he pointed out, the weekly Der Spiegel was carrying an Auschwitz cover story.

“It means that one of the best books by one of the most important writers of his generation doesn’t have a German publisher. But then again, Miley Cyrus is banned from performing in the Dominican Republic …”

Source: Aisha Harris, The Last Behind-the-Scenes Footage From Jerry Lewis’ Notorious Holocaust Comedy, Slate, January 2, 2014

This past August, footage from Jerry Lewis’ notorious, little-seen, Holocaust-themed film, The Day the Clown Cried, surfaced on YouTube. The video, uploaded by YouTuber Uncle Sporkums, was taken from a 1972 Danish TV documentary and featured more than seven minutes of behind-the-scenes takes from the production. It was a film buff’s dream: The Day the Clown Cried is little-seen because Lewis, who co-wrote, directed, and starred in the movie, has insisted that it will never get a proper release. (He says that only one copy remains, locked in a safe.)

Most of us will probably never get to see the full movie, which features Lewis as a German circus clown imprisoned at a concentration camp during World War II. But there is at least a bit more behind-the-scenes footage to peruse, provided again by Uncle Sporkums. According to him, the two videos uploaded yesterday are the last of the footage from the documentary; one features more from the circus ring scene, while the other is an interview with Lewis, who talks about pre-production material from the film.

The reasons for Lewis’ refusal to release the film are still, to some extent, unclear—his own opinion of its quality has vacillated over the years—but the latter video may offer a small clue. When asked by the interviewer how he came across the original script by Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton, Lewis explains:

“Ten years ago, I fell in love with this idea, and 10 years ago, I was not ready to make such a thing … I don’t think I could have handled it 10 years ago. It was the wrong time. I only do what I do when I believe it is time.”

Source: Richard Brody, The Front Row (The New Yorker), August 13, 2013.

Something of a cinematic miracle occurred this weekend: I was tipped off on Twitter by a friend, the critic Simon Abrams, about a post featuring footage from the making of Jerry Lewis’s unseen movie “The Day the Clown Cried,” from 1972. The story concerns a bumbling German clown, Helmut Doork (played by Lewis), whose mockery of Hitler lands him in a concentration camp. There, he tries to entertain a group of Jewish children. He is recruited by a commander, with promises of possible freedom, to continue to entertain them in Auschwitz; when he realizes that they won’t be merely imprisoned there but exterminated, he sacrifices himself to allay their fears and leads them into the gas chamber.

The plot is well-known because the script has long been available. The movie itself, though, has never been released. Shawn Levy explains the issues in his extraordinary biography of Lewis, “King of Comedy”: the story was conceived in the early sixties by the publicist Joan O’Brien, who then wrote the script with the critic Charles Denton. Lewis was recruited for the project by the producer Nathan Wachsberger, who, as it turns out, Levy says, “definitely didn’t have the rights to O’Brien’s material.” The producer also couldn’t afford to finance the film, and Lewis put his own money into the production. Lewis repeatedly expressed his desire to work matters out and release the film; O’Brien, who was unhappy with some of Lewis’s changes to the script, never authorized the release. (She died in 2004.) And, in 1993, when Levy asked Lewis about the film, Lewis responded to Levy by unleashing a torrent of verbal fury at him.

If ever there had been a chance for a release, it wasn’t helped by a 1979 remark by the comedian Harry Shearer, for whom Lewis privately screened the film: Shearer likened it to “a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz.” But, in this post, the writer and editor Brendon Connelly includes a clip from a public discussion with Lewis, who says that he himself will never let the film be seen because it’s “bad, bad, bad”; he says that he was “embarrassed” and “ashamed of the work” because he “slipped up”:

I didn’t quite get it. And I didn’t quite have enough sense to find out why I’m doing it, and maybe there would be an answer.

I haven’t seen the movie; but now I’ve seen these brief clips and I find them profoundly moving. When O’Brien came up with the idea for the film, the discussion of the extermination of much of European Jewry by Nazi Germany wasn’t as frequent and the historical documentation was far less copious than it is now. Elie Wiesel’s memoir “Night” was published in 1960. Raul Hilberg’s crucial work of history “The Destruction of the European Jews” was published in 1961. The term “Holocaust” hadn’t yet come into frequent usage. And, even in the early seventies, when Lewis worked on the film, his attempt to confront the practical details of daily life in an extermination camp was, at the very least, unusual and original. (I can recall a visit by Wiesel to our synagogue on Long Island around 1973; what he told his audience seemed to hit them with shocking force.)

When Claude Lanzmann did research for the film that would ultimately be “Shoah,” he discovered (as he later wrote in his autobiography, “The Patagonian Hare”) that

what was most important was missing: the gas chambers, death in the gas chambers, from which no one had returned to report. The day I realized that this was what was missing, I knew that the subject of the film would be death itself, death rather than survival…. My film would have to take up the ultimate challenge; take the place of the non-existent images of death in the gas chambers.

The deft and exquisite physical comedy that Lewis performs in the clip foretells the final routine, inside the gas chambers. Even if the specifics of the script bear no relation to actual events, it is known—as Lanzmann shows in “Shoah”—that the extermination-camp guards in fact relied on ruses and extended false hope to lure prisoners into the gas chambers. There may be no comparison between Lanzmann’s patient and relentless pursuit of personal testimony as a touchstone of ultimate history and Lewis’s sentimental vision of a clown who sacrifices his life in the interest of the ultimate consolation. But each, in his own way, sought to film the unfilmable. For Lewis, performance—even unto complicity with the ultimate evil—is the definitive act of solidarity; for Lanzmann, the <href=”#folio=014″>bearing of witness—even unto the evocation of the agents of ultimate evil—is the definitive act of solidarity. But both imagined themselves into the gas chambers.

I haven’t seen any more of Lewis’s film than these brief clips; of course, his own assessment of the work, and Shearer’s, may be accurate. If Lewis remains determined not to show it, if O’Brien’s wishes are respected, and if rights issues remain unresolved, we may never find out. But if these clips suggest anything of the rest of the film, any tastelessness, sentimentality, or clumsiness of Lewis’s effort would be beside the point. He was working in the dark, in a self-inflicted state of moral shock, and attempting the impossible.

Source: The Jewish Chronicle, September 12, 2012 (read full article)

Heard the one about the six clowns that get put on a train to a concentration camp? No? So, the first clown says to second clown… In fact, in the award-winning Holoclownsto, nobody says a word. You will soon be able to find this out for yourselves. Troupp Pas D’Argent, an acclaimed theatre company from Brazil, is bringing its clown show about the Holocaust to London. (…) It is a completely wordless piece that works for all ages. In short, it is a great piece of theatre.

So far so good. And yet, whenever I tell people we are presenting a clown show about the Holocaust, I tend to get one of two reactions. The first is confused nervous laughter followed by a pause and possibly the expectation (or hope) that I will say that I am only joking. The second is confused anger that manifests itself in a barrage of questions or, worse, a sad shake of the head. The shake of the head is near impossible to deal with. The person’s mind is made up and will not be changed. The barrage of questions, however, is really interesting: how dare they do a clown show about the Holocaust?; is the Holocaust something to laugh about?; what do they know about the Holocaust? Are they even Jewish?

Each one of these questions raises yet more questions about the nature of taboos — how far one can go on certain subjects, what is permissible and what isn’t. (…) Stand-up comic David Schneider has been mulling over the idea of humour within the context of the Holocaust for some time. When I ask him what makes one joke about the Holocaust funny and another simply offensive, he is fully aware of the volatile nature of the subject but suggests there are perhaps two basic rules — you have to be able to defend it, and it must have truth. After that, getting a joke right is all about context — who is telling the joke, who is the audience and where and why the joke is being told. In the right context and handled right, jokes on even the most taboo subjects can break down barriers and change the way we think for good. Of course, get it wrong and it will blow up in your face.

(…) And yet the most profound tragedy has invited the most profound response from artists from all genres. I will never forget sitting in a cinema for 10 hours watching Shoah. I will never forget reading Primo Levi’s If This is a Man and I will never forget laughing for the first half and crying for the second half of Roberto Benigni’s film comedy, Life is BeautifulHoloclownsto is not disrespectful or distasteful. Troupp Pas D’Argent has simply created a show that continues in the tradition of Benigni and Primo Levi in holding up a light to the darkness. It is a work of intelligence and compassion that highlights the experiences of all the Nazis’ victims.

It is not a show about pratfalls (though there are great pratfalls) and it is not a show about balloons (though there are balloons) and it is not a show about acrobatics or silly music, though they are present too. But it works precisely because it is a clown show. As Troupp Pas D’Argent itself says: “The story we tell isn’t less tragic because we tell it as clowns. It is the contrast between the innocence of our characters and the terrible nature of what happens to them that makes it a story that cannot be forgotten. The clown exists to present the folly and stupidity of mankind and make it recognisable to the audience.”