Jerry Lewis is best known for over-the-top comedies of the 1950s and ‘60s, like “The Nutty Professor.” But in 1972, Lewis decided to take a serious turn by directing and starring in a movie called “The Day the Clown Cried.” In it, Lewis plays a circus clown in Nazi Germany who entertains the children in a concentration camp. The film was never released, which may be an act of mercy: many say it is the worst film ever made.
Lewis recently donated his film archive to the Library of Congress — including a copy of “The Day the Clown Cried.” He stipulated that it not be shown to anyone for at least 10 years. To date, only a handful of people have seen it. One of them is Harry Shearer — the actor, writer, radio host, and voice of Montgomery Burns, Ned Flanders, and many other characters from “The Simpsons.”
Kurt Andersen: Jerry Lewis has stipulated that the movie can’t be seen for 10 years. If he’s still alive, he will be 99. What’s that about?
Harry Shearer: There were years when Jerry Lewis didn’t say anything publicly about it. But in recent years, he has been very forthright in saying it was awful. You can’t blame a person for saying “I hate this piece of work. I don’t want to be around when people see it.”
The synopsis of the film sounds impossibly bad. Is that fair or is there more to the story?
I think it’s as bad as you would be led to believe by the force of your imagination. That’s the power at work here. It was described to me before I saw it and it exceeded my expectations in that regard.
What was so bad? Was it the jokes?
No, it was the actual treatment of it, the ham-handedness. There were very few jokes. I just remember the overall feeling of it, which was “This couldn’t be more wrong.”
What was going through his mind when he read the script?
You have to remember, Jerry Lewis is the author of a book called "The Total Film-Maker." He had an extremely high opinion of himself as a director, as an auteur. This was encouraged by the French. So he had no reason to believe that he couldn’t do this. There don’t seem to be a sufficient number of people around him to say the crucial words “Are you out of your mind, sir?”
Read Harry Shearer's account of the movie from a 1992 story in Spy Magazine: