One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen is the Dave Chappelle sketch where he played Clayton Bigsby, the world’s only black white supremacist. It was the story of a man of color who, blind since birth, somehow ended up running a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s ten minutes of comedy gold that made such an impression on me that I wrote “White Power!” in my best friend’s wedding guest book. We’d laughed ourselves stupid over Chappelle’s brilliance for the better part of a year and while we thought it was hilarious, his bride wasn’t quite as amused.
Viking Night: The Jerk
By Bruce Hall
November 8, 2017
Maybe offbeat humor is just my dog whistle. The only time I ever laughed harder than that was the time a third grade classmate told me he’d invented something called the Chocolate Atom Bomb. And how hard did I laugh at the only dessert delicious enough to end a war?
Let’s just say nicknames die hard when you’re eight years old, and leave it at that.
My point was going to be that as hilarious as Clayton Bigsby was, ten minutes felt just about right. It was edgy, topical comedy that nearly made me throw up on myself in a futile attempt to stifle heaving stabs of uncontrollable laughter. But there’s no way I could sit through that kind of thing for the better part of two hours. That’d be like eating an army helmet full of Skittles in one sitting. Listening to Eddie Van Halen play a cigar box guitar would also be interesting for ten minutes. Any longer than that, and you’d actually begin to feel yourself inching toward death.
So along came Steve Martin at the height of his powers and dying to bring something clever to the big screen. If you think Saturday Night Live is big now, remember that in 1979 Lorne Michaels was briefly put in charge of the speed of the earth’s rotation. And by then, Steve Martin had already hosted the show more times than the number of years the show had been on the air. That’s probably the only way this movie gets made, because the premise is this:
Navin Johnson (Martin) was a little white baby abandoned on the porch of a poor black sharecropper and his family. He grew up in the post-war South thinking he was black and just afflicted with some sort of horrible wasting skin condition. He’s not a bright man but he’s more than just inarticulate. He’s “slow” in that unspecific, Gilbert Grape/Forrest Gump soft of way directors go with when it’s time to get the Academy’s attention but you don’t want to actually address a real social issue in any meaningful way.
The difference is that here it’s played for the laughs it deserves and with an inherent, genuine sweetness that may well eclipse both of those other films.
For his part, Navin is the physical embodiment of this, so much so that his adopted family reluctantly accepts his peculiarities. These are things that include “enjoying mayonnaise” and “being utterly unable to dance”. This isn’t lowbrow or mean-spirited humor, though. Even the violent parts of The Jerk have a gentleness about them, and its approach to racial humor is the best part of that. It’s no secret that Steve Martin is an accomplished comedian, dancer, writer, Master of the Ukulele and eternally argent-maned Renaissance Man. And he does take a good natured stab at racial stereotypes with some very deft conceptual humor.
The best and safest way to address race with humor might be to turn traditional stereotypes against themselves, only at the expense of white people. If you make a joke about how many African-Americans seem to enjoy fried chicken, prepare to have your Facebook page hijacked, your Twitter account blown to smithereens, and your home phone number called out in a Taylor Swift song. But if you want to snicker at the seemingly unnatural love affair between white people and mayonnaise, let no one push you asunder.
What’s funny about it is that they’re both the same fucking joke, and The Jerk is one of those wonderfully rare works of art that doesn’t settle for merely exploiting this loophole to make white people appear comically out of touch. Like its muted broadside against the exploitation of mental illness solely for melodrama, The Jerk takes advantage of traditional ethnic boilerplate to tell a wonderfully stupid little love story.
One day Navin discovers that something...something...music is his life’s calling, and he decides to leave home to seek his fortune. This leads him straight down the upwardly mobile path as he quickly finds work as whatever that job is called when you spend all day filling cars with gas and washing windshields. Thanks to his humble upbringing, though, Navin thinks he’s living life of Riley, eating pizza out of a cup in the back of an abandoned semi with a lovable little mutt named Shithead. After that, it seems perfectly normal that a homicidal maniac would force Navin to seek refuge in a traveling carnival as part-time sex puppet to a deranged Nazi biker dominatrix.
Does that sound odd? I hope not, because you haven’t even heard the half of it. Bernadette Peters does Madeline Kahn better than Madeline Kahn as Navin’s equally dimwitted love interest, and the two of them couldn’t be more adorable together. Not even when they spontaneously bust out an emotionally resonant Simon and Garfunkel-esque ukulele/trumpet duo (performed by the actors themselves) on a windswept beach around the midpoint of the story.
The Jerk takes what could have been - and probably should have been - an ordinary a cigar box guitar and turns it into an absurdly charismatic burlesque, filled with joy AND pathos.
Navin is a sweet, good natured boy who hasn’t forgotten his roots. He’s too naive to realize that a tuna sandwich is not a birthday present, and that “pumping gas” isn’t a viable long term career choice any more than “entry level carnival barker.” He’s smart enough to appreciate the little things, though, and thoughtful enough to give of himself even when he’s got nothing left to give.
Simply put, he’s disarming in the dangerously oblivious way children are before they learn not to pet stray dogs, or use Mommy’s car keys to unlock the place where the TV plugs in. Such a character might easily have amounted to little than a proto-Ace Ventura; as annoying as he is eminently punchable. Such a film might have ended up as foundation to the dustbin of comedy history like Caddyshack 2 or pretty much every Police Academy sequel (at best - or in the bowels of hell if I have anything to say about it). Luckily Steve Martin is a genius, having written and starred in one of the most charming and innovative comedies of the 1970s.
It’s like a Charlie Chaplin nouveau-riche satire updated for the disco age. And if you think that sounds hopelessly retro, remember that nobody makes movies like this anymore. And unlike the AMC Pacer, Starland Vocal Band and the chevron moustache, The Jerk is an artifact of that long-ago time that bears revisiting. And if you haven’t revisited Steve Martin’s best work in some time, what better film to start with than the one that first made him a legitimate film star?
Talk about turning cigar box guitars into ukuleles.