Today is the birthday of Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levich). Like Philip Roth and many other great Jewish writers and actors, he was born and grew up in Newark, NJ. Lewis passed away on August 20th 2017.
While there are many arguments about who popularized the schlemiel in America (Hannah Arendt argues that it was Charlie Chaplin; Daniel Itzkovtz and many others argue it was Woody Allen, who in winning multiple Oscars for Annie Hall (1977) made it clear that the schlemiel was an American icon; Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi sees Saul Bellow’s translation of “Gimpel the Fool” in Partisan Review, in the 60s, as pivotal). Be that as it may, there is a lot to be said for Jerry Lewis as an iconic schlemiel. While his Jewishness was not at the forefront of his comic characters (as it was for schlemiel’s played by Woody Allen, etc) the schlemiel character-form was. We can learn a lot from Lewis’s use of the body, speech, and gesture in his articulations of the schlemiel. He broke boundaries in an endearing and physical manner.
Schlemiel Theory has written several articles on Lewis that delve into the nuances he introduced into American schlemiel comedy.