Smörgåsbord, part två
and Jerry Lewis, somehow
There was a short time in the late ‘70s when Swedish chic was a thing in the U.S., before Ikea and The Melting Pot made it gauche. There were Scandinavian furniture stores where you could buy a blocky coffee table that looked like it was drawn by a toddler, and pay thousands of dollars for it; everyone had a fondue set; Saabs were sophisticated and not dressed-up Fords; and people who wouldn’t be caught dead at an all-you-can-eat buffet at the Picadilly would wait in line to eat Swedish meatballs at a smörgåsbord.
We liked saying smörgåsbord, and the American palate had been trained to like meatballs in a sweet sauce by that sfachim, Chef Boy-ar-dee. Now you can get them in lingonberry sauce while buying cheap plates and fiberboard versions of those clunky coffee tables for a pittance, and no one says smörgåsbord anymore.
Unless they are talking about the last movie directed by comedic titan Jerry Lewis.
This movie came out in 1983 and went directly to video and HBO. It’s a human Texas Avery or Chuck Jones cartoon, where Lewis plays a schlub who can’t quit smoking or commit suicide, so his psychiatrist hypnotizes him, and the magic word that makes him go wacky, is of course… Smörgåsbord. This sets up a collection of gags, interspersed with him getting punched by Dick Butkus, who has been hired to stop Lewis from smoking. It’s weird, it’s probably not very good—I’m not paying four bucks to watch it again on Apple TV, no way in hell—but we loved it.
It was in heavy rotation along with his previous film about a clown who gets laid off from the circus and gets a job at the post office, Hardly Working. We also liked that one. (The royal we in this case is my sister and myself.)
As I’ve said before, nostalgia is one hell of a drug. I spent a few minutes looking at clips of this movie, and to call them excruciating would be kind. However, this clip did introduce “tornados of beef” into our family lexicon. (Yes, I know it’s beef tournedos.)
This is the trailer. It is five minutes long. My friend Josh Stallings, writer of the excellent thriller Tricky, cut trailers for a living; he cut the trailers for Robocop, Miami Blues, and many others. I have a feeling Lewis “cut” this one, which is an excruciatingly long, absurd physical comedy skit involving a waxed floor and slippery furniture, which I will inflict upon you now:
I was introduced to early Jerry Lewis (pre-”hey lady!”) by my film professor at Rutgers. He used this pantomime clip from 1961’s The Errand Boy to showcase his genius; it is silent, except for the Count Basie music track, and music easier to take than his later, self-parodying years.
His telethons raised millions for Muscular Dystrophy, and his film The Day the Clown Cried, about a clown who entertained the children at Auschwitz before they were murdered, became infamous as it was considered so painful it was never released. Lewis lived until 2017, long enough to see another comedian, Roberto Benigni, win an Oscar for a film set during the Holocaust: Life is Beautiful. That must have stung.
Jerry Lewis was also the subject of my favorite song by Philadephia’s punk clowns The Dead Milkmen, which appeared on their demo tape “Death Rides a Pale Cow,” which was my introduction to them. And I’ll leave you with its driving guitars and fury at having to watch him take over television for one day every year:
I just watched the tornados of beef clip and found myself lol’ing for real. I have no idea why. The salad dressings did it for me. Oh, & I loved actual smorgasbords in Sweden!!!! Endless, gorgeous, as far away from 70’s gloop as can be imagined.
"Excruciating" seems about right, but then I was never much of a fan.
By contrast, as I get older my appreciation for his erstwhile straight man continues to grow...which, in addition to a stint on Shaolin, is apparently something I share with RZA! 😲