While the late and celebrated comedian and actor rarely made overt reference to Jews or Judaism in his work, Jeremy Dauber argues that his humor embodied something quintessentially Jewish. He finds this quality in Lewis’s collaborations with the singer Dean Martin, in which Lewis was “manic and kinetic” while Martin played “the suave, elegant straight man”—in other words, a stereotypical Jew against a stereotypical Gentile. And the same juxtaposition is evident in one of Lewis’s best-known movies:
The Nutty Professor is a 1963 comedy about a nebbishy, klutzy college professor named Julius Kelp, who, taking a page from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, drinks a serum he concocts in order to turn into somebody else. But while Robert Louis Stevenson’s Victorian doctor wants to allow his less-socially-accepted urges free rein, Lewis’s comical zhlub — a kind of Mad-magazine parody come to life — turns into a cool nightclub singer, Buddy Love. Whether Buddy Love was based on Martin or not (opinion is divided: Lewis said he wasn’t, and almost everyone else believed he was), he was certainly the apotheosis of a kind of American Jewish yearning: the man women wanted; the man men wanted to be. Julius Kelp (note that weedy early-20th-century Jewish name) was who Jews feared everyone thought they were.
After the movie came out, Lewis admitted he was surprised at that one aspect of its success. He had written Buddy Love as a bad guy, as a way to help Kelp (and audiences) learn that you have to like yourself to have others like you. The movie ends with the love interest confessing she preferred the nutty genius to the sexy crooner. But audiences preferred Love, in a big way.
Lewis’s bemusement about that phenomenon spoke to an essential American Jewish truth of the period, wrought truer in his film than perhaps he knew: did a collectively imagined American dream appeal more strongly than . . . personal history? Can you really have both, without a magic potion, or split personality? And if so, which one would you rather give up?