You don't have to be French to laugh at Jerry Lewis -- at least as he is seen with Dean Martin in a fascinating cable documentary this weekend that offers a time trip to one of the less-remembered lodes of the golden age of live television.
"Martin & Lewis: Kings of Comedy," premieres on the premium Disney Channel at 9 p.m. tomorrow (with repeats June 19 and 25).
The old joke about Mr. Lewis, of course, is that only in France is he considered a comedy genius. In this country, he is often dismissed as something of a buffoon.
But if all you know of him is the "Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon," his solo movies, or even the earlier films made with his partner, "Kings of Comedy" offers a revelation.
Comprising mostly rare kinescope recordings of numerous Martin and Lewis appearances on "The Colgate Comedy Hour," which ran from 1950 to 1955 on Sunday nights on NBC, the program more than justifies the narrator's claim that "they were the last great comedy team to emerge from the last gasp of vaudeville."
Loud, physical and farcical, the duo is also undeniably funny. At the time, they were "the biggest names in show business," and viewers may be struck that in some respects, comedy has not changed as much as we might think.
It is hard, for example, to watch a montage of Mr. Lewis doing funny dances and not think of Steve Martin on "Saturday Night Live" and other appearances.
Other examples abound. Some Martin and Lewis physical stunts could easily have been the roots of what Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman would do decades later. There are some moments when Jerry breaks character to speak directly to viewers at home through the camera, just like Garry Shandling on his Showtime cable series. And a short segment even offers some of the verbal catch phrases from the Martin and Lewis shtick that swept the country -- including "I like it! I like it!" and "Don't lick it!" -- just as "That's the ticket" (from "SNL") and the current "Party on, dude" (from "Wayne's World") have done recently.
Viewers might wish, however, that we did not have to see "SNL" veteran Martin Short in the show, who appears with Mr. Lewis in an interview setting. While perhaps validating the comedy continuum, he mainly irritates -- especially when he attempts to duplicate Jerry's patented liquid lip drool routine.
It would be better to see more of the early TV material, for viewers easily sense the element of surprise that live telecasts presented.
"Once we were live and on the air, the two of us would just explode," says Mr. Lewis in interview segments that come between the kinescope footage.
In one skit we see a paper towel dispenser break open and refuse to close, and in another a fake turkey falls to the floor and the wishbone, vital to a coming punch line, disappears.
"Kings of Comedy" is the middle show of a Martin and Lewis trilogy on Disney, with "Jerry, Alone at the Top," due to premiere July 19.
Thus this weekend's show does not get into the team's `f celebrated break-up, which was as big an entertainment story in the late 1950s as the dissolution of the Beatles.
But there is a cute clip included in "Kings of Comedy" that coincidentally forecast the development, as Jerry says to Dean, in a skit about dual apartments, "Boy, one of these days you're gonna miss me, honey."
On the strength of this special, viewers should still miss both of them.