In the spring of 1972, comedian Jerry Lewis went into production on a film he directed and starred in entitled “The Day the Clown Cried”. It was about a circus clown who is imprisoned in a Nazi war camp and finds his act appealing to the children there. It ends with Lewis’ character leading some children into a gas chamber at Auschwitz with his antics and then, feeling intense guilt about this, deciding to die with the children.
It was Lewis’ pet project that he wanted to do for years and years. It is perhaps the ultimate expression ever of the clown’s desire to be recognised for something serious. “I don’t just want people to laugh! I want to do serious stuff! I want an Oscar!”
“The Day the Clown Cried” has not only never been commercially released, there are apparently less than a hundred people who have ever existed who have seen a complete cut of the film. One of them is comedian Harry Shearer, known best for his various voice roles on “The Simpsons” and of course, Derek Smalls in “This is Spinal Tap”. He saw an entire cut of the movie on video tape in the late 70s. His quotes about the film have become legendary in and of themselves.
“The closest I can come to describing the effect is if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a black velvet painting of Auschwitz. With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of the perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is.”
The attempt by the comedian to go not just for drama but to attempt to tackle the most horrible event to have ever occurred in human history – to try and pivot his comedic persona toward the ultra-dramatic in order to get to the pathos – went horribly wrong. Lewis overreached to infamously bad consequence.
All of which brings me onto Boris Johnson.
Prior to 2016, Boris Johnson was most noted as the only politician who was genuinely funny. Almost every politician tries to get a laugh here and there, to prove a point while making themselves appear human, but almost all politicians are bad at making jokes. This is a well-known truism that, unlike most truisms, is actually true. Boris was the one politician who broke the mould. I have watched him speak live on several occasions, and at each of them he made me laugh out loud several times during his speech. Now that he has become the monster who brought Brexit this is being written out of history, but Johnson really could make a crowd laugh. He was funny funny, not just funny for a politician, and he was the only one.
Yet when he became prime minister, he felt the time to be the clown had to come to an end. He now had to be “serious Boris Johnson”, whatever that might look like. But the transition hasn’t worked. Since the end of July, he has just looked like a comedian trying to be serious and failing spectacularly. Even when he tries to be funny now it is awful; he sounds like most politicians trying to be humorous because he’s channeling the gags through this “serious Boris” persona that is completely unfunctional. He isn’t funny but he isn’t serious either; he just sounds completely discombobulated, like a third string politician who cannot get their lines straight. He doesn’t know how to act in the role of “normal politician” and looks wooden and false.
This is having a bigger effect on the unfolding disaster of the Tories’ election campaign than most are crediting at present. Yes, his sidekicks have been awful and generated the negative headlines, not him. But Johnson can’t make it better; he isn’t good enough to. The Prince Hal to Henry V transformation has got stuck in an awkward middle stage that is painful to witness.
One thing to be said for “The Day the Clown Cried”: Lewis knew it was a disaster and shelved it. Unfortunately, we all have to watch Boris Johnson’s similar foray into drama, unfolding in front of us with unpredictable results.