Jerry Lewis School of Clown?

By Ira Seidenstein

March 19, 2021

Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis. Monroe studied mime with German clown Lotte Goslar


Here you will find out what one of the most talented clowns in modern times, Jerry Lewis, did as he explains how he tried to ‘get it’ and how he ‘owned it’. This article explains what the ‘it’, a Clown Secret is all about.

Below is an excerpt from an interview with Jerry Lewis. In 7 minutes he tells exactly what he did. However, there are other elements he used which are not in the 7 minutes. Therefore, I’m going to bring a few missing elements into this blog. You can watch the video, but, some people may not see or hear what Jerry Lewis implies, even though he speaks openly. So, please, allow me to assist you by bringing some illuminations on to specific points. Those points can be extremely helpful.

I consider it my mission (so to speak) to decipher what the greatest clowns actually did to become adept at clowning. 

Like the old TV show Mission Impossible that began each episode: Your mission should you decide to accept it, is:

How to Make A Clown Act Like the Great Adepts of The Past Did Since They Were Youths

Clown Secret provides all of the keys to clowning. Yet, the missing ingredients exist between the lines. To become a clown, you have to “get it”. “It” is the ability to read between the lines. 

A teacher can not give it to you. It is up to you. However, the template of exercises known as The Four Articulations for Performance are an incredible way for you to start, or restart if you are experienced or even a veteran performer. That template is easily accessible in Clown Secret’s chapter 2. 

Are you already an experienced clown? The same exercises are a great, healthy, safe way for you to reboot your creative battery. If you are a teacher of theatre or dance or performance, the same exercises are pure creativity, and, each exercise has a simple clear structure. They can readily enhance any other performing method.

To “get it”, to understand, it is up to you. To start, get that book. Open to chapter 2, stand up and try any one of the exercises. Engage with it.

In clowning, one of the things people just don’t ‘get’ is – to engage with yourself. Your way. Not the teacher’s way. Those exercises I’ve created, are a unique system. Yet, as you do the exercise, by following the clear, simple instructions, incrementally, step-by-step …. it is up to you to own each step and each exercise. 

Get it.

Own it.

Let me repeat: Here you will find out what one of the most talented clowns in modern times, Jerry Lewis, did as he explains how he tried to get it and how he owned it.

Below is an excerpt from an interview with Jerry Lewis. In 7 minutes he tells exactly what he did. However, there are other elements he used which are not in the 7 minutes.

Therefore, I’m going to bring a few missing elements into this blog. You can watch the video, but, some people may not see or hear what Jerry Lewis implies, even though he speaks openly. 

So, please, allow me to assist you by bringing some illuminations on to specific points. Those points can be extremely helpful.

But do you remember the first three points I’ve already illuminated? Two are listed, the third is within the text, but repeated several times. Or are you already getting ahead of yourself and “putting the cart before the horse”? You’re the horse. You’re the horsepower. You can’t sit back and hold the reins. 

In Chassidic culture it is said that a human heart contains two souls: the animal soul; and, the spiritual soul. The horse is your positive, good, earthly, physical energy. Use it. The best way to use it though is by allowing the animal to be guided by the spiritual soul, the human mind.  Each exercise of The Four Articulations is a practice session for you to develop your own good way to harmonise your two souls: your mind and your body. 

As you learn, stay present with yourself while performing required tasks, that is actually you learning to clown. To clown means to be present, aware, alert, enlivened, and to communicate directly with yourself and the viewer. From The Four Articulations for Performance, the first seven creative exercises are all about communicating with yourself and learning “To Frame” whatever you are imagining.

Carol Burnett & Jerry Lewis, on The Carol Burnett Show

If you can frame clearly for yourself, the audience will be able to follow with you. You come first. One can practice this awareness just like Jerry Lewis will explain and just like all of the great clowns already discovered. Like the old joke. A man is walking in Manhattan, New York City and he’s trying to find one of the most prestigious performance halls in the world, Carnegie Hall. A woman notices that this man is lost. She says Excuse me, are you lost? Yes he replies. She now asks How can I help you? He says, How do I get to Carnegie Hall? She says: Practice.

The question in clowning is what to practice and how to practice. Clown Secret explains that, with clear yet flexible instructions.

Jerry Lewis, one of the greatest clown improvisers ever, practiced. A lot. What did he practice? He practiced; dancing, singing, jokes, one-liners, imitating the entertainers whom he admired, and he practiced his choreographed acts. Improvising he learned as a waiter when he was 14. He explains about that in the 7 minutes video below.

Lucille Ball, one of the greatest modern clowns, could not improvise. She had to have a completely written script and a director. Then her magic happened. She was spontaneous. She came alive when she had what she needed, absolute professional clarity and direction. Then she soared creatively. 

Chaplin was meticulous with fine tuned rehearsal. He was an absolutist when he directed. He would act out every part. Yet for 30 years he collaborated with a mysterious friend hidden right in front of our eyes. He had a clown gag master named Henry Bergman. Bergman played small roles in about 30 of Chaplin’s films. Bergman sat in on every production meeting that Chaplin had in those years. So Chaplin the greatest of clowns had a teacher by his side. Like Mohammed Ali the greatest boxer had to have a coach in his corner. Not just any coach. The right coach for him. 

Jerry Lewis always had his Father for the first few decades of Jerry’s career. His Father was an entertainer, that is a clown in a nice fitting suit who sang and danced and did comedy. Jerry was in awe with total respect of his Elders such as Milton Berle, George Burns, Red Skelton, Chaplin, Stan Laurel and others. Shortly after Jerry started to get gigs, he finally got a gig out of town. He was still only about 15. His Father had a friend with whom he sometimes did Burlesque clowning with, Irving Kaye. The Father hired Kaye to escort Jerry so that the travel and arrangements went well, and to see if the act went well. Kaye traveled with Jerry for the next 40 years until he asked to retire. Kaye was ‘in Jerry’s corner’ all that time and always an able outside eye giving Jerry instant feedback.

JERRY LEWIS ARM AROUND HIS MANAGER IRVING KAYE. SHUTAN CAMERA SHOP CHICAGO circa 1946. JERRY PURCHASED HIS FIRST MOVIE CAMERA FOR THE BIRTH OF HIS FIRST CHILD. Next to Jerry is shop employee Manny Reeder, and Mel Shutan owner. In this era Lewis performed at the CHEZ PAREE club.

Jerry wrote many of the stage scripts for Martin & Lewis. Dean Martin had a photographic memory and he could be completely spontaneous so Martin & Lewis did shows that were two and half hours non-stop interplay between a script and spontaneous. 

Woody Allen as a director has a drawer full of notes he has written on scraps of paper. He starts going through them and comes up with a new scenario for a film. He gives the idea to his Sister and to his producer and takes their feedback. He then presents his idea to the woman who does his Casting and they discuss who could play the main roles and try to see if those people are interested and available. Then the city for filming is arranged and scheduled. When he begins filming each day he knows which scenes he will film but depending how the day unfolds each scene has a spontaneous element. Allen offers very few suggestions to the main actors and they become active co-creators. The Coen Brothers work in a similar fashion. 

There is some mysterious challenge to actually making a clown act. One can make a clown act any way. But, there may be better, and, less better ways.

Jerry Lewis clown

I would say definitely one has to continually remind oneself to seek small funny moments or the physicality that takes a funny idea from inside ones head and into a visible, physical action. One that a viewer can see and that the actor can feel. I call this “Framing”. 

In the old days of classic painting and cinema there are two cliches of “framing”. A painter uses one’s thumb and frames by squinting, by closing one eye. The thumb is used to isolate whatever the painter is looking at. They are looking at either the painting they’ve begun, or the object that is the subject of the painting.

In the cinema the cliche is making an “L” with the thumb and forefinger of each hand, then placing the tips of the thumbs together horizontally, and the forefingers are each vertical. That creates a three sided frame to isolate what one is going to shoot, film, or light. 

Of course cinema was made frame by frame. In old days of editing, Chaplin, Jerry Lewis and other clowns who edited their own movies would cut out some frames of the film causing jumps in reality to cause laugher. Cartoons, which are themselves advanced clowning, are created frame-by-frame.

Jerry Lewis’ first known act was mimicry to recorded music. He did start performing at 14. At 15 he made a mimicry act and performed it in Burlesque (striptease shows that also had great clowns).

From Jerry Lewis’ autobiography: “I was in business, spending most of my waking hours working to a mirror; and when I needed a speed change, a hesitation or the effect of a crack in the record, Lonnie Brown was more than willing to help me with the mechanics. I did all those devices, always finding ways to do different things. Finally the act was set. I tried it out at the Cozy Corner, a dumpy little restaurant about two minutes down the road from the Ambassador”

Jerry Lewis’s autobiography of 1983. “Jerry Lewis In Person”. Written with his friend and colleague Herb Glick. It took them five years to write and edit. The quote is from page 78. That is his first formal act. The was how he started in Show Business. Clowning, acting, theatre is a business.

Words to the wise which Jerry has just provided. Did you get it?

Speed change. Did you get that he mentioned speed change? The very first exercise of The Four Articulations for Performance is The Windmill, a loosening exercise. The exercise includes three speed changes to teach that clown, acting, theatre requires the performer to at least be able to shift from slow to normal to fast.

Mechanics. He mentioned that. I insist that improvisation and red nose are simply two tools for clowning. ALL professional significant famous clowns choreograph or at least rehearse MECHANICALLY.

Device. Jerry Lewis used that word. That means gags, schtick, comic business, tricks of the trade ie anything that will provoke an audience to laugh. An audience needs to be ‘told’ early on “this is funny so it is okay for you to laugh”. 

The act was set. Jerry Lewis said. Choreographed. Repeatable. Therefore automatically ready to… try out

Tried it out. He said.

Dumpy place. He said too.

Nola Rae gave a very good interview recently. A casual zoom style, non-professional situation. What is of particular interest is how much she suffered for her art. Specifically she and her husband had seven years when they rarely had enough to eat. They played in dumps. What I usually call “shitholes”. Filthy bars or restaurants not really set up for anything except a small band. Sometimes even in a theatre. More often in the streets. Often I had to perform directly in front the the instruments. Usually a horrible filthy carpeted tiny stage.

When an actor does one of my exercises and has a difficult time, I often will ask “Did you suffer for your art”? By this point in working with me they realise I will support them and also philosophically we are all in this together. If you suffer you will succeed. If you are not willing to suffer, methodically, for your art, it is unlikely that you will succeed. Take the Road of Guarantee and learn from our great shared lineages of Matriarchy of Clowns and Patriarchy of Clowns. 

Jerry Lewis discussing The Borscht Belt of The Catskills Mountains Resorts

This is just in from Melek Ozansoy

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}


 Subscribe to the ISAAC newsletter to receive updates on Ira's latest blog articles, upcoming international workshops, and more...

Ira Seidenstein