It might have been a top ten film back in 1979 but The Jerk seems to have been neglected when it comes to great comedies, partially overshadowed by Airplane, which begat many imitations. It would be harder to bottle and manufacture what happens in Carl Reiner’s delightfully off-beat, non-PC version of Pilgrim’s Progress or Candide, charting the rise, fall and rise of an everyman played by Steve Martin. Martin was already a household name as a comic, but The Jerk gives him the huge train-set of a film production to play with, and arguably it’s the best thing he ever did.
Perhaps political sensitivities have changed; The Jerk’s opening gambit would raise eyebrows today as Navin R Johnson (Martin) reflects on growing up as a ‘little black boy’. This expands on a one-liner from Martin’s comic set, and sets up a running gag about an unlikely adoption, but also sets up Martin’s character as an ingénue, a holy fool who stumbles through life without the superior position that audiences had. Stanley Kubrick was impressed enough to mull Martin and his wife Victoria Tennant for Eyes Wide Shut, but the famous director’s interest in vulgarity is also well served here. There’s a few groaners here to be sure, but also endless invention; if you’re going to launch a new comic talent, then you’d better have some good gags, and The Jerk has some crackers.
Pizza in a cup? Cat-juggling? Water coolers of red and white wine? Iron Balls McGinty? Professional weight guessers? Sh*thead the dog? The Opti-Grab? There’s a slew of visual gags, but also some choice wordplay to savour. Johnson’s bedtime confidence to his sweetheart is a particular great bit of nonsense talk, reproduced in full here;
‘I know we’ve only known each other four weeks and three days, but to me it seems like nine weeks and five days. The first day seemed like a week and the second day seemed like five days. And the third day seemed like a week again and the fourth day seemed like eight days. And the fifth day you went to see your mother and that seemed just like a day, and then you came back and later on the sixth day, in the evening, when we saw each other, that started seeming like two days, so in the evening it seemed like two days spilling over into the next day and that started seeming like four days, so at the end of the sixth day on into the seventh day, it seemed like a total of five days. And the sixth day seemed like a week and a half. I have it written down, but I can show it to you tomorrow if you want to see it.’
Scenes like this take flight in a way that few comedies do; we’re literally seeing the best of Martin’s 70’s routines here. Of course, as a series of sketches loosely linked, The Jerk doesn’t tick the boxes required of a rounded drama, but it’s hard to complain when so many gags land. Some scenes are potentially offensive, as one might expect from an outrageous comedy from forty years ago. But for all its flaws, The Jerk truly brings the funny, and sets a ridiculously high bar that few comedies can dream of topping.And it’s nice to see Martin, who played it safe in many films after this, truly swinging for the fences with some genuinely dangerous material.