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Alex Ross Perry On Jerry Lewis: ‘He Inspired Me as a Philosopher’

The director of "The Color Wheel" explains why Lewis was much more than a comedic actor.

bellboy color wheel

“The Bellboy,” “The Color Wheel”

Jerry Lewis inspired generations of comedians and comedic filmmakers, as many of immediate tributes in the wake of his death at 91 prove. One of the more recent directors to emerge in American cinema to cite his work is Alex Ross Perry, whose 2011 sleeper hit “The Color Wheel” was a wily black comedy that owed much to Lewis’ madcap performances. Perry’s followup, “Listen Up Phillip,” showed similar influences.

Reached for comment following the news of Lewis’ death, Perry shared the following statement on his relationship to Lewis’ work.

Whenever I would cite Jerry Lewis as an influence, I would qualify the statement by saying he inspired me more as a philosopher than a comedian. The remark would get a laugh but I would elaborate, with total sincerity. The intellectual drive of this man, from the very beginning of his career through his instantly-legendary Hollywood Reporter interview last year (his final masterpiece, and a defining summation of his life’s work…) was peerless and the likes of it will never be seen again. Watching the later films he made as writer/director/actor (“The Family Jewels,” “The Big Mouth,” “Hardly Working”) is to see a massively successful entertainer doing the one thing massively successful people seldom do as they age: complicate things.

Jerry went from playing one character to two to seven. What could possible drive a man with nothing but success behind him to risk tampering with his formula! He could have been remaking The Errand Boy until he was 75. Nothing interested him less. That relentlessness, that inability to stop thinking, is what made this man a legend to me.

The philosophical drive of using cinema to represent yourself as the subject of abuse and humiliation (specifically to delight others) while agonizing through the shame, anxiety, Jewish neurosis and barely-concealed rage changed movies in a way usually reserved for works of literature written over a span of decades. His life’s work is closer in form and impact to Joyce, or Proust. If you haven’t personally been touched by it, you somehow have anyway through cultural osmosis. He was always doing it for the laughs, and as the years went on, it became darker, more complex and dangerously personal. He cursed at me and my friend Jake Perlin when we were introduced one time. It felt more substantial than it was and we were delighted. It will forever remain a cherished memory.

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