The Straight Man, The Monkey, and The Unspoken

Martin & Lewis | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

“Help!”

Somebody is drowning.

“Help!”

As a sense of alarm creeps over the crowded Atlantic City beach, a body swiftly cuts through the confusion and dives into the ocean. Pulled from the surf is a skinny young man, seemingly unconscious. As a crowd forms around the body, his dark-haired savior readies himself to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Right as the anticipation of glimpsing a heroic feat begins to backslide into the panic of witnessing a horrific tragedy, the dead man’s eyes shoot open and he springs upright.

“I’d rather have a malted, sir!”

“We’re fresh out,” retorts his Italian cohort. “Hey, don’t I know you?”

“I’m Jerry Lewis!”

“And I’m Dean Martin!”

“I know that–I’m at the 500 Club with you, first show is at 8 o’clock!”

The plug delivered, rescuer and rescuee then run like hell before the crowd has a chance to strangle them.

***

The phenomenon of Martin and Lewis was always less about the uniqueness of the gags and more about the recognition of the spark between them. Legendary comedian Sophie Tucker gleamed this almost immediately when, one day at the beach, she saw and recognized this drowning stunt as a recycled W.C. Fields bit. Up until this point, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had each been hustling respectively with singing and comedy to varying degrees of success. Many take credit for how these two eventually ended up on the same bill, but all agree it involved some mix of circumstance and kismet. In the end, all it took was one wholehearted endorsement from Sophie Tucker to a local paper and almost immediately the two were strapped to a rocket and launched to stratospheric heights of fame and fortune.

Throughout their 10-year partnership, the performances of Martin and Lewis were continually described as semi-indescribable. There was a formula, sure, the handsome Italian crooner perpetually interrupted by the wacky Jewish kid with no boundaries–the straight man and the monkey. Reading contemporary reviews of their live shows, you see comparisons to Hope and Crosby, Abbott and Costello, or the Marx Brothers; you read words like “rowdy,” “zany,” and “swell nonsense.” But when it comes to specifics, the reviews tend to get a bit more vague. “All they do cannot be detailed, but virtually every bit of it is good for solid laughs” declared their first review in Variety. There was simply something about their live show that just had to be experienced.

Throughout this time, Dean and Jerry were glued to each other. Off-stage, their wives were friends and their children were friends, their celebrity friends were friends. At one point Dean even moved in with Jerry and Jerry’s then-wife Patti while going through his own marital problems. On-stage, they stood practically on top of each other, sharing a microphone or standing so close their noses touched. The audience couldn’t get enough of them, either; they were always on the move, from week-long performances at the Copacabana or Slapsy Maxie’s, to radio recordings, live television and telethon events, and eventually to the silver screen. At the height of their power, crowds of thousands haunted their sold out venues and theaters, desperate for a brief glimpse of their heroes. When it was announced they’d appear live at the Paramount Theatre to introduce films on stage, not even their own movies, theater management had to bribe audiences with a promise of glimpsing the duo’s exterior changing room window to clear the auditorium and seat the next round of super fans. 

It’s rare when comedy ages well, with the ever-shifting public opinion on how to craft something humorous fighting against the low hanging fruit of a cheap, opportune zinger. The true art comes into knowing how to effortlessly land between the immediate laugh and the perpetual laugh. To achieve the second is hard enough for one person, but for two people to hit upon it in sync takes a truly profound bond. To navigate the pressures of maintaining a working relationship with a personal friendship while collaborating creatively and battling against the force of public opinion is downright Olympian—strictly a lifestyle for the young and ambitious. It’s exactly that delight in the unspoken that continuously keeps audiences entranced by the double act, even when the nature of any given group’s comedic style or focus is largely impermanent. A perfect comedy duo will make their audience feel like a lucky participant instead of just a passive audience member, a welcome guest in a secret world. More than just pure entertainment, it almost becomes a showcase for an aspirational lifestyle; an echo of our own hopes and dreams of finding that one perfect partner who can not only make us laugh but knows exactly how and when to bust out the perfect two-step in coordination alongside our lead.

***

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis made 16 films under long-term contract with Hal Wallis from 1949 to 1956, though it’s unclear if most modern audiences would stick around after the first 10 minutes—especially if they’re coming in cold, decades after the fact. Not unlike Wallis’ 31 churned-out Elvis movies the following decade, the Martin and Lewis films are accepted as largely interchangeable cash-in vehicles. They’re the definition of formulaic cinema: Dean plays a businessman, Jerry plays a bumpkin. Dean plays a ladies man, Jerry plays the nerd. Their characters are always named something generic like Eugene and Rick, Joey and Harvey, Bill and Ted. They’re usually childhood friends or coworkers, and almost always need to work together to achieve a mundane common goal.

Scared Stiff (Paramount Pictures)

Some of these films are enjoyably goofy remakes such as Scared Stiff (the Martin and Lewis treatment of Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard’s The Ghost Breakers), or Frank Tashlin’s comic book extravaganza Artists and Models, co-starring a young scene-stealing Shirley MacLaine. Other times it’s a groan-worthy hour-and-a-half of Jerry Lewis pretending to be a 12-year-old boy hiding from diamond thieves at an all-girls’ school, as in You’re Never Too Young, a film which also sports a baffling jump-the-shark water-ski chase climax. In spite of the cheap productions, insipid plots, middling reviews, and recycled gags, these films raked in millions. It’s easy to dismiss the fervent reception of these movies as a blip in a long timeline of questionable public opinions. But to focus on the plots is to lose the plot—these films were born out of years of hyped up public awareness and well-established reputations. For the audience, the medium was strictly mechanical, the easiest, most efficient way to observe this phenomenon up close. The real draw of these films was happening behind the scenes and between the lines, encouraged by a burning desire to decode what it was behind this duo’s ineffable and irrefutable chemistry.

One of the clearest displays of this magic is captured on film in Sailor Beware from 1952. The plot is inconsequential: the two stars as reluctant Navy recruits who spend most of their time chasing after women. Eventually the film has them in their element, performing for a crowd in Honolulu. It starts with a harmony gone wrong gag where Jerry botches the song’s pace and then reveals he doesn’t actually know the words. His comedic dynamic with Dean is brotherly, Lewis acting as the frustrated younger sibling who thinks his desire to participate makes up for his complete ignorance of how to do it. They settle instead on a (questionable) minstrel-referencing call and response song about a calliope—with Jerry Lewis doing his best impersonation of the shrill instrument’s booming wails. Dancing soft shoe, they throw their arms out in a typical Jolson fashion and then take turns strolling in step, one behind the other with hands on shoulders.

The longer this grating song goes on, the more genuine fun they seem to be having. Dean glides around the stage looking enigmatically zen-like next to the manic Jerry, who’s thriving on a comedic plane just beyond over-the-top. It’s then the audience can plainly see a private joke building between the two, a self-awareness in their expressions that comes to a head by the song’s first bridge. They know how cheesy the song is just as they know how funny it is that they’re going all in with this performance. Their song turns into a private game of one-upmanship, with Dean withholding his laughter towards Jerry, who’s desperately calculating how to make his partner break without losing step in their scripted routine. By the song’s second bridge, Dean is clearly caught off guard by Jerry sticking a nose in his neck mid-lyric. As a genuine smile breaks out over Dean’s face, the close observer’s own lips can’t help but follow. We’re not laughing at the insipid lyrics (“Why does the chicken cross the road? / Why to get to that other side!”), we’re laughing at Dean’s sublimely insignificant failure and Jerry’s ecstatic mirth, shaking his fist triumphantly while effortlessly gliding into the next step of their dance routine.

***

At their worst, Martin and Lewis movies indulge in various degrees of patented, decade-specific casual sexism and inexcusable yellow-face racism, scoring the sort of cheap situational laugh that in retrospect would both foretell and mar their solo careers from staying relevant past their own generation. Conversely, it’s downright shocking how much social boundary-pushing they were allowed to get away with in other respects.

Martin and Lewis were the Ur-bromance. With Jerry acting as the smitten, doting girlfriend to Dean’s patient long-suffering boyfriend, flirtation was an established staple of their act. While in life they were both prolific womanizers (not to mention the 15 children between the two of them), their partnership seemed to exist on another plane–somewhere on the Kinsey scale between questioning and queer. They couldn’t seem to keep their hands off of each other, jumping in each other’s arms, hands on faces, noses smooshed together when they weren’t out-and-out kissing. The excuse of it having been “a more innocent time” only tracks for so long. Jerry certainly wasn’t unaware–he practically weaponized the stage for whatever physical impulses he cared to indulge in. On CBS variety show Colgate Comedy Hour, Jerry eluded both censors and his own partner’s consent by surprise kissing Dean on the lips on live television. From the sounds of the audience’s shock and delight, there wasn’t much Dean could do but roll with it.

It’s one thing to do spontaneously on stage, but it’s another thing to have this sort of joke written into a script. We see it almost immediately in their filmography, such as in My Friend Irma Goes West in 1950, which opens with Martin relenting to comfort Lewis after browbeating him to tears for being slow at his orange-juicing job. As Jerry cry-talks about how unfair Dean has been, Dean moves in and rubs his hand over Jerry’s chest in an attempt to “soothe” him. As Dean’s hand slows Jerry’s whimpering gradually comes to a stop, breathlessly requesting that Dean “make a bigger circle.”

To list every instance would take pages. In The Stooge, Jerry in drag moves in to kiss Dean mid-song but then gingerly pulls away after brushing noses. The Caddy has Jerry romancing Dean through tango, a tablecloth over his head and an onion stalk hanging out of his mouth for a rose. In Sailor Beware, Jerry coyly asks if he can trade places with a woman Dean’s been locking lips with. That’s My Boy has them crawling in bed together, while Artists and Models has them crawling into a bathtub together. When Lewis got more interested in the filmmaking process, ghostwriting dialogue and shaping from behind the camera, side characters start informing Dean that “Jerry loves you, he’ll go with you” in 3 Ring Circus, while Dean is forced to tell Jerry how much he loves him (“I’d much rather have you than any white mouse”) in Money From Home. At one point in the latter film, Jerry Lewis in an undershirt and polka dot boxers pins a fully-clothed Dean Martin to a bed in what is otherwise a scene about fixing a horse race. All of this at a time where it was still widely unacceptable to show a heterosexual married couple in bed together in films.

Sailor Beware (Paramount Pictures)

Martin and Lewis’ popularity exploded at a time where obsession with reestablishing gender roles had gone into conservative hyperdrive, causing strife for both men and women who felt anxious to live up to these impossible standards. With Dean Martin as the picture of masculinity and the uninhibited Jerry Lewis willing to do anything for a laugh, it’s no surprise that they found themselves continually tapping into this latent public anxiety as a basis for so much of their comedy. Mostly skating around homophobic tropes, and encouraged by their highly receptive audience, the duo instead mined the depths of their genuine affection for each other–a public release from the rigid insecurities of straight society. Meanwhile, a sea of bobby soxers giggled in both glee and envy.

Whether or not they were doing this consciously is a murkier question. Jerry Lewis was a live wire of emotion, calculating and deliberate in his actions but also rarely able to contain his emotional impulses. As a neurotic East Coaster coming from a family that valued their vaudeville careers over parenting, Lewis grew up with a desperate need for attention that was never truly satiated. It’s tempting to define all of his life’s choices by this hardwired codependency—from his early desire to appear on stage to his teenage marriage to his almost immediate attachment to Dino’s effortless cool. His talents, his amazing ability to tap into an uninhibited imaginative flow in both physical comedy and auteur filmmaking, burned brightest when he had something to prove.

Dean Martin was seemingly just the opposite; coming from a stoic Midwestern Catholic family helmed by a mother who thought showing emotions was for sissies. He capitalized on this detached, easygoing brand of masculinity for his entire career–a lifestyle that friends and biographers have summed up as “menefreghista,” or “person who couldn’t care less.” Yet cutting through this carefully built legacy as the drunken womanizer, Martin’s cool indifference looks less like a masculine ideal and more like a defense mechanism. Where he was largely known as a consistent and hard worker in his professional life and a good-natured charmer in his personal life, he also never stayed too long in any given situation. He was known to disappear for hours seeking solitude, watching westerns on TV if he wasn’t out practicing his golf swing. Dean compartmentalized his life, whether it was calling the cops on his own house parties when they went overlong or causing strife in his marriages through the pursuit of selfish desires.

There’s a palpable loneliness to both of them that borders on cliché when it comes to comedians. In Jerry Lewis’ autobiography Dean & Me (A Love Story), he waxes poetically about how they were “like brothers” in a way that sounds more like what an only child imagines a sibling to be than anything recognizably familial. Lewis talks at length about the depths of intimacy they shared, recounting an early time when Dean helped diagnose a case of crabs directly on Jerry’s pubic hair. Never as forthcoming about his emotions, Dean did publically act as Jerry’s defender for years, protecting him from hecklers and mobsters, or watching over Jerry in the hospital after a pratfall gone wrong. While Lewis would publically bandy about gay slurs throughout his life, in interviews he continually described his partnership with Martin as a type of love–even going as far as to say what they had was “godlike chemistry” as divine as when “the sperm and egg make contact.” (Really!) That each seemed to fill some need for unhindered emotional expression in the other’s life was openly, if not subconsciously, understood. It made their deeply bitter breakup all the more gripping.

***

One of the more interesting ways to watch the Martin and Lewis filmography is through the timeline of their very public split. They arrived at these films on the A-list upswing and in roughly five years their partnership was irrevocably shattered. 1951’s The Stooge was the first film to hit too close to home, following a washed up star (Martin) who is nothing without the haphazard stooge (Lewis) that he hired on a whim to keep him afloat. The title of the picture alone haunted Dean, with reviews of their act continually heaping praise on Jerry’s talents while barely mentioning his own comedic contributions. The Caddy in 1953 has Dean abandoning Jerry and then taking slightly too much pleasure in strangling him after Jerry hauls him back with the help of the cops. Living It Up from 1954 has Lewis literally tossing a framed photo of Martin out of the frame as he sings about realizing how much he loves Janet Leigh, encroaching on Dean’s territory as both the group’s singer and romantic lead.

Rumors of their potential breakup had already been swirling by the time 1955’s Artists and Models was in production. In one scene, his character tired of struggling as an artist and fed up with his roommate’s bumbling ineptitude, Martin makes the executive decision to give up. Framed by the bedroom doorway looking in, Dean packs a suitcase on his bed with solemn determination. “Divorce is the only way out,” he huffs in between stacking heaps of clothing, “we’ve been together too long.” The scene holds unbroken as Dean attempts to flippantly justify this no-notice termination of both lease and friendship while, to the left, Jerry’s back is seen leaning on the doorway as he watches in deafening silence. Briefly looking up to meet his partner’s gaze, Dean tucks in the last of his belongings, only to do a double take, then avert his eyes into the now packed suitcase. He sighs heavily. His expression flows from anger to resignation as he starts unpacking the clothing and throwing it back on to the bed. The saccharine music swells, and the reverse shot of Jerry’s tear-filled eyes is revealed, a smile slowly spreading onto his face.

Hollywood or Bust (Paramount Pictures)

In real life, Dean was done with second chances. By the time their penultimate film Pardners came out, a film that has them singing in unison “you and me will be the greatest partners, / buddies and pals,” the two had already split. The defining break came in the midst of shooting their last film, Hollywood or Bust in 1956. Dean—fed up by Jerry’s limelight hogging that seemed to contradict his public and private professions of love for his partner—in the heat of an argument that had been building for years, spat out to his partner, “to me, you’re nothing but a fucking dollar sign.” From there, the two were no longer on speaking terms. Not that you could tell in the film, they both still breeze effortlessly through their act, leaning on each other through gags and musical numbers. 

Not long after, and in spite of their highly public spat immortalized in hurt-feelings interviews and tell-all articles, a truce between the two was called pretty early on. They sporadically kept in contact and even appeared together on a small handful of professional occasions. But their relationship was never the same. Jerry Lewis largely blamed the pressure of these films as the cause of their breakup. The truth is decidedly murkier.

***

To lose a partner to circumstance is painful enough, to lose them because, after 10 years of near-constant exposure, they pointedly hate your guts and no longer want to know you, is a whole other ballgame. Suddenly the ideal of the comedy duo crashes back to reality–a bitter indictment of how close two people can be without actually communicating. What once held the heat and intensity of a perfect partnership that encompassed everything–mentor, brother, and some degree of authentic love–was suddenly laid bare as a sort of false, toxic codependency built on insecurities. It’s hard to imagine the fallout of such a break wouldn’t somehow shape the rest of any person’s life.

Whatever the truth for any given individual in such a highly public partnership, what was built between the two carries on a life of its own–immortalized on film, on television, in interviews and through a comedic legacy. Jerry Lewis himself meticulously held onto every single reel and news article that ever came out about the duo, proof memorialized in vivid tokens of affection. Even more than half a century on, there’s something endlessly compelling about how these two managed to independently climb the ladder just high enough to fall directly into each other’s laps. Making each other laugh, using their talents to highlight those of their partner, turning a drowning gag into a meet-cute; the appeal was in watching them watch each other, two grown men discovering a secret missing piece of themselves they didn’t realize they were lacking. It’s the inherent magnetism of the envy and embarrassment in witnessing raw emotion on stage, the subversion of stereotypes and expectations through openly acknowledged attraction. A transcendent union, born out of a desire for public acceptance, that in the end was too revealing, too personal and too complicated to remain on public display. 

Comedy, like young love, is rooted in an element of surprise. The momentum must continually be kept up, the act refreshed and reinvented, while still maintaining a level of consistency. Sometimes, or perhaps inevitably, no matter how hypervigilant you are, the audience can simply outgrow you. The same principle applies within any close partnership; an initial spark alone isn’t sustainable in the long term, and it’s certainly not enough to support the weight of two complicated human beings. That Martin and Lewis managed to hang on as a successful team for 10 years–strained under both public pressures and the weight of the interpersonal–showcases the sheer power of belief they held in their unspoken bond. 

On July 25, 1956, exactly 10 years to the date from their first joint appearance in Atlantic City, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis gave their last official shows as a duo at the Copacabana. They glided through the motions, unable to fully look each other in the eye. By all accounts, the audience couldn’t tell; both shows were packed to the brim with A-list celebrities choking back tears as the two sang themselves out on the high note of eternal friendship as “pardners, buddies, and pals.” When it was all over, each performer went to his own dressing room and closed the door. 

Jerry Lewis couldn’t sleep that night. To him, the cold reality of this divorce felt akin to losing a limb. Sobbing, half delirious with grief, he called his wife Patti in the middle of the night. Then, in a fit of courage and masochism, he picked up the phone and called Dean. 

“We had some good times, didn’t we, Paul?” Jerry pleaded over the phone, using, as he often did when they were alone, Martin’s middle name as a pet name. 

The nonchalance of Dean’s response varies depending on who’s retelling the story, “There’ll be more,” to “We sure did.”

But as Jerry tells it, this brief, painful conversation ended with a notable admission. Just before they hung up, and for the first time in their 10-year relationship, Dean finally conceded: “I love you too, Jer.”