More than Meets the Eye: The Jerk
By Andrew Neil Cole
(The following contains spoilers. It is intended only for people who have seen The Jerk.)
Regardless of the legendary status it would eventually merit, The Jerk remains one of most misunderstood and underappreciated comedies ever made, which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that Steve Martin, the film’s star/co-writer/co-producer, was the most misunderstood and underappreciated comedian of the ’70s, despite the legendary status he, too, would eventually merit. Martin’s comedy both defined a generation and became symbolic of a gargantuan generation gap. People under the age of 50—those who were raised in the crucible of Cold War paranoia to then come of age as young adults in the blood-soaked shadow of the Vietnam War—regarded Martin’s outrageously silly, intentionally nonpolitical brand of comedy a salve for years of emotional turmoil. Martin was a counterculture comedian who never seriously spoke to the counterculture; he never opined on Watergate or government mistrust, never burned a flag on stage, and never—ever—protested against or advocated for any political ideology or philosophy through his comedy. He simply made people laugh and laugh hard, and in doing so, he made people forget the War and the political scandals and the assassinations of Kennedy and King and the horrors of Attica and Kent State—and the younger generations loved him for it. Meanwhile, people over the age of 50—those who came home from World War II and rebuilt the country with steely eyed determination and a no-nonsense attitude toward life—regarded Martin as a buffoon whose clownish antics suggested a superficial style of comedy; the kind of comedy that was only funny on the surface and lacked any true depth, social commentary, intellectual heft, or emotional resonance. They just didn’t get it, and by the end of the ’70s they were done trying.
Strangely enough, the vast majority of those who loved Martin’s comedy and virtually all of those who hated it had one thing in common: they didn’t really understand it. Consider the following staple of Martin’s stand-up act: Clad in a retina-dissolving white suit with a black tie and black socks, Martin stands at the microphone with his banjo at the ready. He wears a pair of fake bunny ears atop his head and a fake arrow through his head at the temples. A pair of Groucho Marx-style glasses (complete with an attached rubber nose, a set of bushy eyebrows, and an equally bushy mustache) covers most of his face. He begins to play a tune on the banjo, and the crowd howls with gleeful laughter. To those who loved Martin (the under-50 crowd), the overt silliness of a crazy-looking man playing a weird-looking instrument was, in itself, screamingly funny. To those who despised Martin (the over-50 crowd), the overwhelming silliness of such an act was intrinsically insipid and irredeemably stupid. But here is what most people, adorers and haters alike, didn’t fully appreciate or fully comprehend: The joke wasn’t just a goofy-looking man playing a tune on the banjo; the joke was a goofy-looking man playing an extremely difficult tune on the banjo with the precision and talent of a world-class musician. Yes, the visual presentation of the joke was clearly silly, but the execution of the joke suggested a classic comedic juxtaposition. By looking ridiculously goofy while performing at a highly accomplished level, Martin simultaneously plays the heel and the straight man, the idiot and the genius, Oscar and Felix. This is a recurring theme in Martin’s act. He performs complex, multilayered magic tricks, he juggles like a seasoned vaudevillian, he plays the bumbling klutz with balletic grace, and he weaves deeply philosophical concepts into seemingly harebrained monologues—all while ostensibly playing the fool. The problem for Martin was that the surface of his comedy was just too shiny; the act (and Martin himself) was so fresh and new and unlike anything that had come before it that it was difficult for people to see beyond the funny nose and the bunny ears. They loved or hated the first impression and never quite managed to grasp the totality of the act. So, it’s no wonder that The Jerk, a film that perfectly articulated Martin’s comedic modus operandi, would be so misunderstood for so long.
Martin’s propensity to juxtapose seemingly disparate subjects, concepts, and visual iconography for comedic effect remained steadfastly at the core of The Jerk’s comedic aspirations. In fact, the film’s goofball façade was erected upon a narrative foundation capable of supporting insightful satire that spoke directly to post-Vietnam American cynicism. Nothing was sacred. In the universe of The Jerk, little boys wear T-shirts with “Bull Shit” emblazoned in big block letters across the chest, churches are ripped from their foundations and dragged out into traffic, adorable dogs are named Shithead, and psychopaths hunt human beings randomly selected from the phonebook. But the film also openly mocks socioeconomic issues such as income disparity. Don’t forget that the film opens on a theater in the midst of a red-carpet style premiere. Tuxedoed men and beautiful women in designer dresses mingle without a care in the world. The camera then pans to an adjacent stairwell where Martin (as Navin Johnson) sits surrounded by street trash, penniless, homeless, covered in tattered rags and a visible layer of grit. The perfect juxtaposition of the Haves and the Have-nots is accomplished in a single shot. The same can be said for the film’s take on the 1979 oil crisis that created widespread panic and led to absurdly long lines at gas stations countrywide. The camera lingers for a brief moment on a sign in the window of Hartounian’s Gas Station, where Navin finds his first ever job. The sign reads: “GAS PRICES: IF YOU HAVE TO ASK, YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT.” Again, one shot says it all.
But soon enough Navin Johnson becomes filthy rich himself, a device that allows the film to appropriate the classic rags-to-riches paradigm to once again accommodate the theme of juxtaposition while simultaneously commenting on the culture of the period: broken, poor, simple Navin transforms into the embodiment of the nouveau riche just as the economic darkness of the ’70s is about to give way to the absurd financial excesses of the ’80s. Only Navin doesn’t make his money on Wall Street; instead, he hits the jackpot with an invention called the Opti-Grab, a silly piece of plastic attached to the frames of eye glasses that anchors the frames to the bridge of the wearer’s nose. Here The Jerk is actually predictive of the explosive greed and financial malfeasance that would become prevalent (and eventually ruinous) in the ’80s; in fact, the film explores the same pitfalls of extreme wealth run amok years before films like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and novels such as Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. In lieu of engaging in Faustian episodes of insider trading (Wall Street), exposing the impact of class warfare and racial intolerance on American jurisprudence, (The Bonfire of the Vanities), or executing status-motivated serial killings (American Psycho), The Jerk portrays the evils of gluttonous wealth in a series of comedic set pieces, one-liners, and visual gags. When, for example, Navin becomes a multimillionaire, he moves into possibly the most vulgar, ostentatious mansion ever captured on film. Among the sprawling grounds and perfectly trimmed hedge gardens there exists a tennis court with a water station that dispenses rare wine from gigantic jugs to be served in crystal wine goblets plucked from a modified Dixie Cup dispenser. The interior of the house features a rotating bed, a billiard room occupied by a giant stuffed camel (just because), and a disco room complete with mood lightning, overhead disco ball, and a hardwood dance floor. Then, in a satisfying twist, the film manages to comment on the increasingly litigious nature of Americans when Navin loses everything in a lawsuit brought against him by the millions of people who’ve gone cross-eyed after purchasing the Opti-Grab.
Beyond satirizing the socioeconomic shortcomings of ’70s America, The Jerk playfully hints at the demise of Route-66 Americana while cleverly lampooning hero iconography in classic adventure literature and more modern travelogues, touching upon everything from Homer and Cervantes to Kerouac and Steinbeck. After all, The Jerk is, at its heart, a road movie. It is also a play on all things Homeric. Like Homer’s Odyssey, The Jerk is the story of a man overcoming numerous trials and tribulations in his attempt to find his way home (or to find a place to call home, as is the case for Navin Johnson). However, unlike Odysseus, the intrepid hero of Homer’s epic, Navin Johnson is, from the first moments of the film, a parody of a hero. Consider the scene in which Navin first sets out see the country for himself. He stands at the front gate of the house in which he was “born a poor black child” (more socioeconomic/sociopolitical commentary). Clad in a leather helmet, goggles, and a flowing scarf, like a misplaced WWI fighter pilot, Navin visually represents both the classic adventure hero and an over-the-top caricature of a hero—yet another example of comedic juxtaposition within a single image. This concept was clearly lost on Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, who, in his 1979 review, wrote: “Why is he wearing the goggles? So we will laugh. There’s no plot point to be made, and nothing is being said about his character—except, of course, that he’s a jerk.” With all due respect to Roger—he was a truly great critic—he couldn’t have been more wrong. There absolutely was a point. In fact, the parody-of-a-hero theme is revisited and amplified in a scene in which Navin meets with a group of businessmen who turn out to be terrible bigots. When these men begin casually dropping the N-word, Navin, who still self-identifies as African American despite the knowledge of his adoption, flies into a rage, tears off his shirt, and systematically takes out the bigots one at a time in a ridiculously absurd exploitation-style kung-fu sequence. This is as close to the heroic image of Odysseus as the Navin Johnson character ever gets, but the American landscape into which Navin ventures could be interpreted as a modern comedic version of what was encountered by Odysseus. While Odysseus is besieged by treacherous sirens, a hungry Cyclops, and vengeful gods, Navin finds an America beset by rifle-toting lunatics, sexually aggressive female daredevils, and travelling carnival hucksters.
Considering his lack of outwardly noticeable heroic attributes and his penchant for misadventure rather than adventure, it is arguable that Navin Johnson’s journey in The Jerk is more comparable to Don Quixote’s journey in The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (as imagined by Miguel de Cervantes) than it is to that of Odysseus in The Odyssey. There is little doubt that Martin and director Carl Reiner saw both the Navin Johnson character and the film’s overall story to be quintessentially quixotic. Both The Jerk and Don Quixote feature lead characters who, through a series of comic misadventures, deride the image of classic adventure heroes and blatantly display contempt for traditional hero narratives. Unlike the more classic men-of-action characters throughout the history of narrative art—everyone from Achilles to Zorro—any successes attained or goals achieved by either Navin Johnson or Don Quixote can be attributed solely to dumb luck. To wit: Navin Johnson becomes a multimillionaire after he invents the Opti-Grab to assist a gas station customer who just happens to be a successful entrepreneur. Similarly, Don Quixote becomes a knight, but only as the result of a phony ceremony performed by an innkeeper who has grown weary of his presence and hopes a knighthood will hasten Quixote’s departure. But the quixotification of The Jerk is not limited to its lead character. While Navin tilts at the various windmills of the late-’70s American pop-culture landscape, his dog, Shithead, assumes the role of squire (or the Sancho Panza of The Jerk), while his whirlwind romance with Marie (played by Bernadette Peters), an idealized vision of womanhood, clearly suggests the Marie character as the Dulcinea of The Jerk.
Being that The Jerk is patently rooted in the narrative tradition of road stories and travelogues, it is likely that Martin and his co-screenwriters culled inspiration from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, arguably the two most notable road stories in all of post-WWII American literature. It doesn’t require a radical distortion of logic to view Navin Johnson, an out-of-place loner who believes he’s destined for greater things, as a comedic composite of Kerouac’s two main protagonists in On the Road: Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. The divorced, saturnine, prone-to-depression Sal is reflected in Navin during The Jerk’s earliest scenes. Like Sal, Navin feels disconnected from his community and his family. For Navin, this is the result of being told that he was adopted; for Sal, it is the result of divorce. Once he hits the road, Navin’s outlook becomes more comparable with the excitable, energetic, limitlessly optimistic Dean Moriarty. Navin, once on his own, working and living in a gas station, views every mundane occurrence as an opportunity, as evidenced in a scene in which, upon seeing his name listed in the phonebook for the first time, he shudders with childlike glee while proclaiming, “I’m somebody now! Millions of people look at this book every day!”
Once Navin leaves the gas station behind and joins a traveling carnival, the influence of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley on the film becomes nearly impossible to ignore. Like Steinbeck, Navin hits the road with his trusty dog (Travels with Shithead?) to see the country. And, also like Steinbeck, he finds the country mostly disappointing. Navin is targeted for execution by a serial killer in St. Louis, sexually assaulted by a demonic carny in numerous pastoral mid-American landscapes, and deprived of his Opti-Grab fortune in California. Of course, unlike Travels with Charley, The Jerk plays Navin’s myriad misfortunes and disappointments for laughs, while excoriating popular road movie/travelogue banalities.
With the benefit of historical hindsight, audiences and critics now think of Steve Martin as so much more than just the Wild and Crazy Guy in a white suit. He is widely considered one of the most innovative and intelligent comedians of the last 50 years. The considerable depth of Martin’s knowledge of fine arts and literature is also widely known, as is the fact that he is the author of numerous novels, novellas, essays, plays, screenplays, songs, and even a Broadway musical. Therefore, isn’t it reasonable to believe that Martin, as The Jerk’s co-writer/co-producer/star was using the film as a vehicle to satirize ’70s popular culture and caricature classical themes of heroism, adventure, and travel tales by retrofitting traditional acts of derring-do to adhere to his personal, over-the-top, outrageously silly comedic style? Of course it is. And today most comedy fans and film critics can see the film for what it really is. But why did it take so long? Remember, the film was universally panned by critics upon its initial release in December of 1979. But, then again, so was Martin’s wildly successful stand-up act. It’s possible that critics and the over-50 generation thought of Martin as little more than the flavor of the month, and any film featuring him nothing more than a gimmick created to cash in on his flavor- of-the-month status. In this way, Martin and The Jerk were to ’70s cinema what Vanilla Ice and Cool as Ice were to ’90s cinema, in that Cool as Ice received a green light based solely on the popularity of Vanilla Ice’s one and only hit single, “Ice Ice Baby”—an embarrassing comparison, knowing what is now known of Martin’s legendary career.
Sometimes history has a way of correcting itself. Now the movie that Roger Ebert referred to as “a flat, dumb, tasteless movie, in which calling Steve Martin’s character a jerk is almost an act of kindness,” has finally ascended to its rightful place in the pantheon of great film comedies. And what the heck … it only took a couple of decades and the coronation of Steve Martin as comedic royalty for the film to finally be given a fair shake. Eventually the film would come to hold a position of prominence on virtually every “Best Of” list of note and rightfully be credited for inspiring generations of comedians and filmmakers. To be fair, it is also a perfect example of revisionist history. Hopefully, The Jerk will be remembered not only as a fearless, groundbreaking work of comedic cinema, but as a reminder to critics and fans that when you judge a work of creativity (or a comedian or a human being or virtually anything) without truly understanding it, you end up looking like—you guessed it—a real jerk.