With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.
The reader: Simultaneous publications from the same author are rare, but Jack Pendarvis pulled it off this year. He published a book in January called Cigarette Lighter, a slim nonfiction volume that explores its own title. Now he has released a short story collection, Movie Stars, a book filled with curmudgeons, loonies, obsessives, and lovable loners who interact with ghosts, murderers, and movie stars, and often compare their own lives to film and television. It’s not often you read an entire short story dedicated to Joan Crawford chopping wood or one that follows a fellow who travels to Los Angeles for Bob Hope’s estate sale, but these are the tales found in Pendarvis’ fictional world.
Beyond his three previous books of fiction and the aforementioned one of nonfiction, Pendarvis is perhaps best known as a writer and story editor for the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning show Adventure Time, in which he voices the popular character Root Beer Guy, the former captain of the Banana Guards. He’s also a huge Jerry Lewis fan, which he often discusses on his blog. After Pendarvis recently celebrated Jerry Lewis’ 90th birthday by detailing 90 approaches to the comedic actor, The A.V. Club asked him to pull together a list of books that mention the legendary movie star.
Jack Pendarvis: In one chapter, Lynda Barry recalls being an awkward, isolated fifth grader. She visits relatives in the Philippines and finds herself able to make friends in her new environment. As she’s leaving, heartbroken, at the end of summer, a little girl calls out to her, “Send me one lipstick! And one photo of Jerry Lewis!” I like the reminder that Jerry was a graceful, handsome, magnetic movie star with universal appeal.
The A.V. Club: But didn’t Jerry Lewis consistently play second fiddle to Dean Martin, the more classically handsome and charming one of the two?
JP: Sure, put him up next to Dean Martin, he doesn’t measure up. But he would also exaggerate. He made funny faces, he purposefully slouched around Dean Martin so that Martin would be the tall, cool one, while Jerry Lewis was—he often referred to himself as “the monkey.” But when he wanted to turn that off and turn on the suave, showbiz thing, he could do that very easily, too.
AVC: In Movie Stars there’s a lot of pop culture references or mentions of old movies and television shows. Do you think that makes the characters more relatable?
JP: Who empathizes with these characters besides me? [Laughs.]
AVC: You don’t find your characters empathetic?
JP: Sure, I think so. John Hodgman said he liked the book for its “yearning weirdos.” They’re odd, I suppose. I’ve seen other people refer to them as “losers” pretty often and weirdos generally. I guess that’s kind of like Jerry Lewis because he fancies himself as Chaplin-esque. He’s the sad sack to whom everything happens—but that describes any decent fictional character. He famously said—Jerry Lewis did—that comedy was a man in trouble. That really is true. You could say a good fictional character is always in trouble.
AVC: Do you consider your writing comedic?
JP: I don’t know. It turns out that way. Often I’ll try to write a straight-ahead crime story and it just turns idiotic. I try to write a ghost story or anything like that, and it just takes a turn. That’s my own weakness I think. Much like Jerry Lewis, I try to use my weaknesses and ride them hard! I ride those weaknesses until they become apophatic.
The Exegesis Of Philip K. Dick, Philip K. Dick
JP: To quote the dust jacket, The Exegesis recounts Dick’s “visionary experience of the entire universe.” Dick dreams that he is Jerry Lewis, “a contemptible clown.” Dick seems to be referring to Lewis himself, not his screen persona, but there’s nothing Philip K. Dick can tell Jerry Lewis about clowns that Jerry doesn’t already know. He plays a shockingly sour, misanthropic clown in The Family Jewels, for example.
AVC: The character in the story “Pinkeye” is a good example of that contemptible clown, but he’s also somewhat lovable.
JP: He really is kind of an awful guy. He’s got his own problems. He doesn’t do himself any favors.
AVC: A lot of those characters miss social cues or, in the story, they break through a certain delusion or expectation. In the story “Your Cat Can Be A Movie Star,” a character realizes the bar he has been going to isn’t as charming as the one in Cheers and if Cheers was real, Cliff Clavin would have long ago killed himself—
JP: I think that’s an accurate assessment of Cliff Clavin. In real life that poor fellow would have committed suicide after just years of bullying and torment by everyone. It would be in the newspapers, and they would probably still harass him. It’s a good thing Cheers took place before Twitter. If they’d had Twitter, they would have killed Cliff Clavin with Twitter and shamed him terribly. The online bullying would have been awful. Boy, Cliff Clavin is lucky he missed out on the internet.
He also would have been the victim of merciless catfishing. Don’t you think Carla would have had a great time catfishing Cliff Clavin? Then he would show up somewhere and they’d splash mud on him.
AVC: Do you think people’s expectations are built on what they see on television or in film? Does that extend to fiction?
JP: That kind of criticism within fiction—like in Northanger Abbey Jane Austen is poking fun at someone who invests too much in the Gothic novel—has always been going on. People always identify through entertainment. Don Quixote is about a guy who read too many romances and now it has driven him crazy. You might just say that I’m the true successor of Cervantes! [Laughs.] But of course that’s what that book is: a guy who has been watching too many movies and goes nuts.
That’s supposed to be a happy ending in Don Quixote when he realizes on his deathbed what an idiot he is. That sounds like a Jerry Lewis movie. Why didn’t Jerry Lewis make Don Quixote?
Silver Screen Fiend, Patton Oswalt
JP: Everyone passes through Oxford, Mississippi, sooner or later. As a result, I’ve bullied a number of show-business types into discussing Jerry Lewis with me, including John Sayles, Maggie Renzi, Laraine Newman, and John Waters. I came close to drunk-dialing Jerry at home with Cary Fukunaga. I met Tom Waits, whose “I’ll Take New York” is a straight-up Jerry impression, but I was too nervous to bring it up. Patton Oswalt came to our local bookstore, Square Books, to promote Silver Screen Fiend, which contains his vivid account of being in the same room with Jerry Lewis. It’s just as psychologically harrowing as you might desire.
AVC: Have you ever met Jerry Lewis?
JP: Almost. I went to New York to interview him. He had called me at home. I wasn’t at home, but my wife called me at the bar where I was and said, “Jack you need to get home. Jerry Lewis just called.” Like a Jerry Lewis character, I leapt into the air and scrambled home. So I went to New York, and I didn’t hear from him all day. Finally the phone in the hotel rang, and it was my mother telling me she’d seen on the news that he had collapsed and gone to the hospital the night before.
That is indeed what had happened. He was giving Tom Cruise an award, and he collapsed as anyone would who is faced with the ignoble task of giving Tom Cruise an award. [Laughs.] I’m just kidding. I’m sure Tom Cruise is a very nice man and had nothing to do with Jerry Lewis’ collapse. [Laughs.] The Scientologists did it!
But Jerry Lewis collapsed, and then his assistant called me later. I could hear Jerry Lewis coughing in the background. I was like, “Oh! Wow! I’m listening to Jerry Lewis cough!” Now you know why he always has a cough drop in his mouth when he gives interviews.
AVC: Where does your fascination for Jerry Lewis come from?
JP: It’s just so fascinating to me that his movies are not like anybody else’s, and the way he thinks isn’t like anybody else. Yet somehow he made massively popular entertainment that was also intensely personal and truly bizarre. You could almost think of him as an outsider artist, which is odd because he was also very much an insider. Many of his movies have doubles in some way. He makes me think of David Lynch a lot.
AVC: Do you feel freer to address things in fiction that you can’t in television, like in Adventure Time?
JP: I don’t know. In Adventure Time you get death, existential crises, questions of in what circumstances murder would be moral. Adventure Time might be much heavier than what I think about in my fiction.
I go to my fiction to escape the psychological terror of Adventure Time. [Laughs.]
JP: Fujiwara’s monograph is the most thoughtful book on Lewis’ pioneering work as a director. It’s written in a high scholarly style and covers every aspect of the movies. It also contains the best Lewis interview I’ve ever read. Fujiwara draws him out on technique, a subject I’ve seen him muddy or evade in other interviews.
AVC: Why is Lewis’ technique so interesting to you?
JP: I think the parts of Jerry Lewis that make him so strange are innate, but the technique was very much self-taught. In making movies with Dean Martin, he always wanted to be in the editing room, he wanted to find out what the guys with the lights were doing, what kind of lens was being used on the camera. He did learn the craft from the ground up. Not from any school, but by being on set and paying attention to what was going on.
AVC: You’re self-taught in a similar way. How did you figure out when a story was done, in television or fiction?
JP: With Adventure Time, I’m working on the outlines of those stories. They’re highly structured, precisely structured. That structure dictates when we’re done.
With short stories, I just come to a last line. Like the first story in that collection, “Everybody else could suck it.” I thought, “Well, that’s the last line of this story.” The reason I thought that is—because it’s not exactly a classic last line for a short story—but I think Barry Hannah had just died when I was writing that story. When I got to that line, I thought, “Oh, Barry would end that story right here.” I’m not sure that’s true, but that whole story feels like a tribute to Barry Hannah.
AVC: How have you entered so many different fields of writing?
JP: Well writing is just one big pile of shit being pushed together. [Laughs.] Can we think of a more attractive metaphor? Writing is writing. That sounds like something Jerry Lewis would say, something so vague as to be virtually meaningless and yet it sounds a little wise.
AVC: Do you feel compelled to pursue it?
JP: It’s a romantic thought, but I think it’s true. A couple of times I’ve thought to myself, “I’m just not going to write anymore,” and then I end up writing again. There is some kind of compulsion to it.
JP: This novel kind of starts over in the middle. That’s a gross oversimplification. But on page 61—in my paperback—you get a whole new set of epigraphs, one of which is a quotation from Jerry Lewis. The book stops to remind you it’s a book, in the way Lewis’ movies want to remind you that they’re movies.
AVC: There are a few lines in here that break you out of the stories. They feel like a story that reminds you it’s a story. For example in “Jerry Lewis,” you write: “Her laugh was like a sexy crow. One of those crows that could talk. But Sexy.” What’s the intention behind that self-awareness?
JP: You’re right. I’m guilty as charged in that case because the story itself is supposed to feel like a crime story. That line is imitating the cadences of a hardboiled story without any of the things that make that kind of story good. [Laughs.]
I just realized you could imagine that protagonist as Jerry Lewis. I never made that connection before even though the story is called “Jerry Lewis.”
Love And Rockets: New Stories #1, The Hernandez Brothers
JP: Gilbert Hernandez worked on the outline that eventually became the Adventure Time episode “Mama Said.” He had Jake talking about Jerry Lewis. I was afraid I’d be falsely pegged as the man who desecrated Adventure Time with his Jerry Lewis obsession. The line didn’t make it into the final version, so everything was fine. Lewis doesn’t technically appear in this comic, but his look-alike Sammy Petrillo does. In real life, Petrillo and his partner Duke Mitchell thoroughly ripped off Martin and Lewis in a movie with the Troy McClure-like title Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla. Hernandez sends them into outer space to battle aliens.
AVC: You don’t often make direct references in Adventure Time, but there’s often an homage, like the episode “Root Beer Guy” to old-school noir.
JP: Very occasionally we do, like when the Cheers theme song was used in a fascinating and emotional way on an Adventure Time episode.
I remember once in an early season Jake puts on some Groucho glasses with the nose and the mustache, but he refers to it as “Groocho.” I think we’re supposed to think that over the thousand years since people knew who Groucho Marx was his name has kind of lingered on in this post-apocalyptic landscape.
AVC: Is the absurdity of Jerry Lewis present in Adventure Time?
JP: I see it everywhere, but it’s never direct. For example, I was watching Broad City the other night, and they had a scene in the DMV, which was very much like a scene you’d see in a Jerry Lewis movie. I don’t think there’s any direct influence of Jerry Lewis on Broad City, but he did create a kind of comedy that made that scene thinkable, that made it viable.
AVC: Would you call it an absurdity?
JP: I think I’d call it cartoonish. You know Jerry Lewis and his mentor Frank Tashlin both would break the quote-unquote reality of the moment whenever they wanted to. Before that, it would have been only permissible in a cartoon.
AVC: What is the function of that humor?
JP: It’s a confrontation. It makes you confront things that would normally frighten you or make you upset or sad, but it makes you laugh at them instead. It’s an exploration of what’s uncomfortable.
That sort of sounds like bullshit, but once again I’m proud because it sounds like something Jerry Lewis would say in an interview when he’s getting really philosophical. [Laughs.]
But really that’s the defining adjective for Jerry Lewis. Not only as a performer but as a public figure is that he makes people uncomfortable. He’s an uncomfortable figure. That’s his strength. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times has commented on that. She has said that it’s an essential quality of Jerry Lewis. People talk about cringe comedy as if it emerged recently with Larry David, but that’s what Jerry Lewis practiced. But what’s so fascinating about Jerry Lewis to me is that with him you’re not cringing in a comedic way—sometimes you’re just cringing.
That’s good. That’s better. What you want is a good authentic cringe.