The Jerk (1979)

“I’m somebody now! Millions of people look at this book every day! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity…your name in print, that makes people! I’m in print! Things are going to start happening to me now.” – Navin Johnson, THE JERK, 1979.

Of course, I had Steve Martin’s WILD AND CRAZY GUY LP when it came out. Who didn’t? How much of the humor did I understand as an eight year old? I am not sure, but I can still remember the tune and some of the words to KING TUT.  And  I will admit that I listened to that album a lot. Not as much as Bill Cosby’s WONDERFULNESS or Alan Sherman’s MY SON, THE FOLK SINGER, but still it ranked a daily play for many months.

As unbelievable as it sounds, I had not seen THE JERK, all the way through, until two nights ago. I guess at some point in the 1980s, when this movie would have been making its world broadcast premier and then, on to VHS tape, I lost my enthusiasm for Steve Martin’s brand of smarty-pants nervousness. I think in part, my pre-adolescence was not defined by SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. I’ve noticed that there are numerous deviations of humor fans – for instance, there are people who love the THREE STOOGES and those who really dislike them, the same is true of SNL. Aside from the occasional bit by Eddie Murphy, I always felt that the skits dragged on too long, were based on shoddily humorless premises, and were awkwardly unfunny in their eternal quest to mint a new catch phrase.

And while Steve Martin was never a regular cast member of that show, he has hosted like 15 or 16 times, not to mention his cameo appearances. And it is this association with the SNL ethos that seems to haunt his career, a misconception that he seems desperate to distance himself. His career, these last few years, has been designed to install his reputation into the pantheon of “art.” His writing career is reviewed as semi-serious; he seems anguished to have his intelligence linked up to the higher practitioners of American culture.

Which is ironic, yes? Because the early comedy, the standup and THE JERK are so absurdly stupid. Navin Johnson is the prototype manboy, who Adam Sandler and Jim Carey would come to forge their cinematic careers playing. That borderline adult character who seems so idiotically unequipped to deal with the most mundane social experiences that his attempts come off as ridiculous and surreal. Each situation he bumbles into turns on an uncomfortable axis of innocence and arrogant obnoxiousness; idiocy and assholishness. It is this back and forth, which separates these characters from a PeeWee Herman or Mr. Bean, that defines the situational gag that runs this movie.

In short, the plot of THE JERK is inconsequential. The movie is a loose progression of gags, which have seeped into subterranean popular culture – pizza in a cup, cat juggling, the-pants-around-the-ankle-exit from the house. A scene that is so famous Oprah even references it, wrongly. She seems to see the scene has how hard it is for us to leave the house, when in context, it is about the failing selfishness of wealth. So yeah, maybe she does get it.

There is a throwback timeless to the movie. One can imagine that the original pitch was to have Navin floating through Depression Era America, which would explain some of the jokes like the questionable poor black family trope, as well as the traveling circus stint. The accidental capitalist millionaire inventor and the sweetness of the duet, nod toward classic American sketch comedies in which Carl Reiner cut his teeth. But a Depression Era conceit would have required a bit more budget than THE JERK could drum up, one suspects – though PENNIES FROM HEAVEN and the cut and paste DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID all assume Martin’s obsession which acknowledging a vaudevillian influence.

Aside from the classic comedy-kitsch, THE JERK, is incredibly racist, groaningly drug fueled, and falls flat more than it hits a high enough note to make me laugh. It’s influence is undeniable and incredible. And as a foray into the twisted stomach comedy of a cocaine addict, it is an amazing movie.