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Why Do the French Love Jerry Lewis?

April 5, 2019

We all know they’re wrong, and over-generalizations, but there are certain clichés about different nationalities that persist…particularly the ones that seem the weirdest or most inexplicable. For example, there’s the idea that Germans adore Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, or that Canadians love hockey and Tim Hortons donuts. Arguably the most famous of these stereotypes — and easily the most baffling, to many — is the idea that all French people love Jerry Lewis. Yes, the country synonymous with culture, fine wine, and fine dining — and which also popularized the notion of film as art — is full of people who think the guy who starred in The Nutty Professor and other silly and juvenile comedies is some kind of genius.

It’s an Exaggeration.

The French may like him, but when compared to American film critics’ utter hatred of Lewis’s post-Martin and Lewis work (with Dean Martin), the French general approval of the man and his films seems like adoration.

He Went Low

In France, there’s as much of an appreciation for “low comedy” as there is for the finer things. A specific French style of simple, crowd-pleasing comedy dates back to the 1880s French stage. It’s a very visual style that combined buffoonery, slapstick, and silliness, and it easily translated to film. The American equivalents of such a style: lowbrow sitcoms, Larry the Cable Guy…and Jerry Lewis.

He Made Fun of Americans

A few film writers think that Lewis caught on in France because he embodied (and thus satirized) the notion of the “ugly American.” His characters were often boorish, unaware, uncivilized, and vulgar…like the stereotypical “American” traveling overseas.

He’s an Auteur

Lewis wasn’t just a screen comedian. He was truly the author (or auteur) of his movies, and in France, a place that has historically and rigorously elevated film to high-art status, it’s truly appreciated that Lewis is a consummate filmmaker who produced, directed, and wrote his projects.

He Appreciated France as They Appreciated Him

Lewis solidified his popularity in France with a long, much heralded visit to the country in 1965. Shortly after his film The Nutty Professor received critical acclaim and commercial success, he arrived in Paris to hundreds of fans and participated in a three-week film festival celebrating his works, which also included academic seminars. (In 1984, he received two of France’s highest honors: He was made a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters and membership in the Legion of Honor.)

It’s Not Just France

Lewis himself thought that he was just as if not more popular in Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain. And while he never earned an Academy Award nomination, he won filmmaking awards in all of those countries. In France, he won a bunch.

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