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“Knowing Shit from Shinola”: An Oral History of The Jerk

on December 31, 2019, 12:00pm
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carl reiner the jerk gif “Knowing Shit from Shinola: An Oral History of The Jerk

Towards the end of the film, Navin is sued by a big Hollywood celebrity when his multi-million dollar invention The Opticgrab is discovered to cause people to go cross-eyed — and they needed just the right celebrity to fill that part. 

REINER: I was the cheapest one I could find. I got me at a price.

Another member of the film’s creative team also got to shine in a small, but very memorable role as a mobster by the name of Iron Balls McGinty.

GOTTLIEB: I was around and I had been in Jaws. So if you were connected to a picture, and there was a small part, you could do it. It was that simple. So they just said, “You could be Iron Balls McGinty”, and I was. I became a character that was defined by a sound effect. “Clank.” It looked funny in the credits.

The Jerk Oral History

The Jerk Theatrical Poster (Universal)

After a relatively easy shoot, hype began to develop as Martin’s rise as a comedian became unstoppable by 1979. The short that he had done a couple years prior to prove his capability as a leading man? That had been nominated for an Academy Award. There was no escaping him. He was everywhere. And pretty soon, his movie would be, too.

ELIAS: I went to a screening in San Diego, a sneak preview, and it was the first time I saw it. And the audience went crazy. They just loved it. And Steve and I drove down together and went to see it. And we thought, Wow, people are really loving this.

GOTTLIEB: There was a moment when we were doing a preview of The Jerk at a movie theater at a mall outside of St. Louis. By now, Steve was a national phenomenon. In those days, for a sneak preview, they didn’t advertise what movie you were going to see. You went to the theater in the mall and you got to see two movies for the price of one and all you had to do was fill out some opinion cards.

Then word got out and some aficionados found out it was The Jerk, and we were doing two shows, the eight o’clock and the 10 o’clock show. And in between the shows, we couldn’t hang out in the mall, so we got in the car and went off campus and went to a nearby House of Pies or something. And we went in and you could hear hysterical giggling in the kitchen. All the waitresses were going “It’s him! It’s him!” They were peeping out from the kitchen door, hyperventilating that Steve Martin was in their midst.

ELIAS: We didn’t know it at the time, but there was something groundbreaking about [The Jerk], and that’s because of the script. It was written by Steve and us, but it was Steve’s act in a way, which was also groundbreaking and anarchistic and bent all the rules and reflected on itself and parodied other things. But the thing that was also so charming or attractive was its lack of cynicism.

Its innocence and naïveté about the character, especially in terms of race, made it really different. That’s because it had Steve’s imprint of who he was and what his comedy persona was, and I think Carl Reiner really respected that and he got it as a director. And I think that Carl Gottlieb did and I do, too. So I think that’s part of its success. It punched up, it never punched down.

GOTTLIEB: The Jerk never achieved that kind of hysterical, iconic level. It wasn’t The Godfather or Titanic. But it did so well for its time, and it cost so little to produce, that it was a huge success for everybody. David Picker, Steve Martin, and his management owned a big chunk of it, so it’s probably where he got his first million.

The Jerk Oral History

Steve Martin in The Jerk (Universal)

ELIAS: It all came together. And I think the thing is, I’m not sure about the business, but it had a good opening and everything. And the reviews were mixed. Some people got it, some people didn’t. But it just continued to grow and grow and grow. Steve told me, “Stanley Kubrick really lived the movie.” I don’t know anyone who didn’t like it, but to have Stanley Kubrick like a movie that I wrote? That’s great!

GOTTLIEB: And as it turns out, it’s one of AFI’s 100 Greatest Comedies of All Time. So I have two AFI Top 100’s. One for Jaws as best horror film, and one for 100 Best Comedy Films. One of my trite lines is, if I was a Jeopardy category, it would be, “His hits begin with a ‘J’”.

ELIAS: People would say “Oh, it’s my favorite movie.” Then I started hearing, “It’s my father’s favorite movie.” I don’t want to start hearing, “It’s my grandfather’s favorite movie.”

If there’s one thing that’s up for debate, it’s how the film might fare in today’s climate, particularly for its depictions of race in society.

GOTTLIEB: There are a lot of very innocent, but racist clichés there, yes. It was a more innocent time. And if you watch it today, there’s a lot of uncomfortable racism in it. But it was never ill-intentioned, and it was never designed to denigrate the race. And we had wonderful black actors playing the family. So yeah, it’s a little uncomfortable to watch the film with today’s sensibility, but Amos and Andy was still on the air back in those days.

ELIAS: It’s like when he says, “You mean, I’m going to be this color all my life?”, after they break the news to him that he’s adopted. The fact that this is his family, this is his real family, and people love him, and stay with him and rescue him at the end.

REINER: Oh, I think you could do it today. It would be a slightly different version. We reflect the morals of the time. For it to be successful, you have to reflect what you are going through, and what everybody else is going through at the same time. We all live in this society, where we have family, we see entertainment. And if you reflect the truth of the times, you can’t fail.

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