“I was born…a poor, black child.”
And so a career was made, and a line from a stand-up routine turned into what is now considered a classic comedy film. I saw this when it first came out lo, those many years ago, and while I liked it, I wasn’t a huge fan. The foul language and the crude sex stuff rankled. (What can I say? I was a child of delicate sensibilities who shouldn’t have been let into an R—now PG-13—movie.) At the same time, there were scenes that I adored, like Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters duet of “You Belong To Me”, which I had on a mix Betamax cassette along with assorted other music videos.
It was the ’80s. We used to do things like that. Think of it as a primitive “mash-up”.
So, I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised to find, decades later, that I possibly enjoyed the movie even more now than back then. This, by the way, is not something you can discover by watching on TV—it really has to be a focused, in-theater experience, if you’re going to compare apples-to-apples. (Movies are always better in theaters, but comedies, horror and epics are hugely affected by the transition to the small, easily-interrupted screen.)
The foul language still rankled a bit. (Mostly because it was humor-from-shock-value which, once the shock recedes, leaves only gratuitous vulgarity.) I was more sanguine about the sex stuff. Catlin Adams’ performance as the crude dominatrix is actually sort of under-rated, perhaps because Bernadette Peters is ridiculously cute and sexy and funny. But Adams’ is the harder role.
A couple of things really stand out today about this film. First of all, it is casually racist. I mean, there’s no way this gets made today. Nobody would object to Navin being the uncoordinated white guy with a child’s palate, or M. Emmett Walsh as the crazy gunman, but the black family eating fried chicken and collard greens while singin’ the blues? The hispanic thugs with the low-rider? The Italian mafia? The cheap Jewish guy with the trophy wife?
Nobody thought a damned thing about it in 1979. Wild, huh?
Well, they were different times. It was much harder to make a living being a buzzkill. They didn’t even have Human Resource departments back then, and the “Personnel Office” would look at you like you were nuts if you complained about getting your feelings hurt. Even Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al were scraping by.
Not that these are the best gags in the thing. Only that, today, they’d be the most transgressive.
Actually, what stands out above all here is a genuine good-naturedness along with a sincere desire to make people laugh, in the purest sense, without regard for anything else. Even the most—if you can call it this—strident moment, is his exchange with the mafia, in which he clearly understands nothing of what they’re saying until:
Boss: “We’ll keep the eggplants out!”
Navin: “Ah good! We don’t want any vegetables.”
Con Man: “Na, na. The jungle bunnies!”
Navin: “Oh of course! They’ll eat the vegetables!”
When they finally make it clear what they mean, he beats them all up Bruce Lee style. But even this comes across as a sorta sweet thing, besides being funny (and completely unexplained).
Roger Ebert didn’t like this movie, by the way. It didn’t make him laugh because it’s just a series of gags, with no rhyme or reason behind the gags. This is an incorrect observation on his part: Some of the best gags arise organically from the story, such as the class action suit resulting in Navin having to pay off millions of former customers by writing them each a check individually. “Pay to the order of…Mrs. Wilbur Stark…One dollar and nine cents!” But when you’re paid to critique movies, you gotta come up with a rationale for your humorlessness. (I don’t have to come up with nothin’, as I am paid nothin’ and I assume no one is reading.)
Of course, this is the exactly sort of rationale I myself might make to justify my own humorlessness, mind you. But it doesn’t bear close scrutiny. The Marx Brothers movies are just a random series of gags, too, sometimes more-or-less coherently organized around a superfluous topic, and Ebert of course gives four stars to Duck Soup, which is perhaps the most random assortment of sketches with a slight coalescence around an anti-war (and anti-government, but nobody notices that) theme, endearing it to hippies in the ’60s.
Beware of critics bearing rationales, is what I’m saying.
Ebert also, naturally, takes a jab at Martin by saying everyone knows he’s hip and cool, and not a jerk, and thus the movie doesn’t work. And there is a moment, at the very beginning of the film, where Navin is sitting around with his black family, not having realized he’s adopted yet, where Martin forgets to be “The Jerk”, and (director Carl) Reiner catches this expression on his face which is nothing more than sincere joy. I sort of think it may have come from having engaged two big Broadway singers (Richard Ward and Mabel King) to be play his parents, as well as just genuinely being happy to enter this new chapter of his life.
But that tone carries through the whole show, no small thanks to Reiner and co-writer Carl Gottlieb (Jaws, Doctor Detroit), as well as frequent Martin collaborator Michael Elias (Serial, The Frisco Kid). You sometimes get that kind of vibe off the better comedies today: No mission, no agenda, just have-a-laugh-kid comedy, but even those go through the multiple layers of straining to make sure no protected group is offended type filtration. Today? Well, The Jerk has a keyword at IMDB of “neominstrelsy”, and it’s the only such entry.
I guess I should be glad we can still air it in a theater—and laugh at it in public.