The Jerk

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The Jerk
The Jerk.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Carl Reiner
Produced by
  • David V. Picker
  • William E. McEuen
Written by
Music by Jack Elliott
Cinematography Victor J. Kemper
Edited by
Aspen Film Society
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • December 14, 1979 (1979-12-14)
Running time
94 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $4 million[2]
Box office $73.7 million[3]

The Jerk is a 1979 American comedy film directed by Carl Reiner and written by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, and Michael Elias. This was Martin's first starring role in a feature film. The film also features Bernadette Peters, M. Emmet Walsh, and Jackie Mason.


The film begins with Navin R. Johnson, a befuddled homeless simpleton, directly addressing the camera and telling his story. He is the adopted white son of black sharecroppers, who grows to adulthood naïvely unaware of his obvious adoption. He stands out in his family not just because of his skin color, but also because of his utter lack of rhythm when his adopted family plays spirited blues music. He is teased (although gently) by his brothers for liking stereotypical white food and he admits to not really liking the blues music his family dances to. One night, he hears the staid and starchy Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra song called "Crazy Rhythm" on the radio and his feet spontaneously begin to move with the urge to dance; he sees this as a calling and decides to hitchhike to St. Louis, from where the song was broadcast. On the way, he stops at a motel, where a dog wakes him up by barking at his door. Navin thinks the dog is trying to warn of a fire and decides to name the dog "Lifesaver." He wakes up the other hotel guests to rescue them, but when everyone realizes it was a false alarm, one of the guests angrily suggests he call the dog "Shithead", which Navin takes literally.

Navin gets a job (and a place to sleep) at a gas station owned by Mr. Harry Hartounian. He's thrilled to find that he's listed in the local phone book, as his name is "in print" for the first time. Not long after, a gun-wielding lunatic randomly flips through the phone book and picks "Johnson, Navin R." as his next victim. As the madman watches through his rifle scope, waiting for a clear shot, Navin fixes the slippery glasses of a customer, Stan Fox, by adding a handle and a nose brake. Fox offers to split the profits 50/50 with Navin if he can market the invention, then departs. Seizing his chance, the crazed sniper tries to kill Navin, but fails, hitting the oil cans in the station window and a soft-drink machine. The lunatic chases Navin to a traveling carnival, where Navin hides out, eventually getting a job with SJM Fiesta Shows as a weight guesser. While employed there, Navin meets an intimidating daredevil biker named Patty Bernstein and has a sexual relationship with her, finally realizing what his "special purpose" (his mother's euphemism for his penis) is for. He then meets a woman named Marie and arranges a date with her. Patty confronts them, but Marie knocks her out. While courting, Navin and Marie walk along the beach and sing "Tonight You Belong to Me", with Navin playing the ukulele and Marie on the cornet. Navin and Marie fall in love, but Marie reluctantly decides to leave him because of his lack of financial security. She writes a note in felt pen and slips it under the bathroom door while Navin is in the bath. The note gets wet and the writing smears, so Navin can't understand why she left.

At an emotional and financial low, Navin is soon contacted by Stan Fox via the madman, who explains to Navin that his prior attempt to kill him was because he was upset from a bad marriage and just quitting smoking and that now he works as a private detective. He brings exciting news: Navin's glasses invention, now called the Opti-Grab, is selling big and he's entitled to half of the profits. Now extremely rich, he finds and marries Marie, and they buy an extravagant mansion. Their life becomes one of splendor and non-stop partying. However, motion-picture director Carl Reiner files a class action lawsuit against Navin. Reiner claims that the Opti-Grab caused his eyes to be crossed and his resulting poor vision caused the death of a stunt driver in the film he was directing. Nearly 10 million other people have the same vision complaint (including the judge and jury foreman), and are awarded $10 million. Navin sends out each cheque individually and unkindly criticizes Marie. She tells him she misses how they were originally, before he got rich. Furious, Navin storms out, picking up random objects from around the room as he goes, saying he doesn't need anything except this, and this and this. (The picture used for the film poster and DVD is of Navin holding the random things he picks up during his exit.) He leaves with the words "What do you think I am? Some kind of a jerk or something?"

Navin is now alone and poor, living on the streets. His story now told, he resigns himself to a life of misery and memories of Marie, but to his joy and amazement, she suddenly appears, along with Navin's family, to take him home. There's more good news: Having carefully invested the small sums of money he sent home throughout the film, his family have become wealthy themselves. They pick him up off the street, and he and Marie move back home into the Johnsons' new house — a much larger version of their old, small shack.

The story ends with the entire family dancing on the porch and singing "Pick a Bale of Cotton", with Navin dancing along, now having gained perfect rhythm.



By 1977, comedian Steve Martin was experiencing wild success. He wished to crossover to a film career, believing it promised more longevity.[4] Basing his film proposal on a line from his act — "It wasn't always easy for me; I was born a poor black child" — he fleshed out his ideas into a series of notes he intended to deliver to studios. With confidence in his budding standup career, he imagined it would not be difficult to break into Hollywood. Instead, he found it more difficult than expected.[4] Bill McEuen was acquainted with Paramount Pictures president David Picker, and passed along his notes, which the studio read carefully. It described a series of odd jobs lead character "Steve" would hold in his saga, but Paramount passed on the project.[5] Picker moved to Universal Studios around this time, and moved the film along with him. Martin was able to pick which director he wanted to work with, and chose Carl Reiner, famous for his work on The Dick Van Dyke Show.[6] The duo met constantly, and the film's title grew out of their conversations: "It needs to be something short, yet have the feeling of an epic tale," Martin remarked. "Like Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, but not that. Like The Jerk."[6]

Martin wrote the part of "Marie" with Bernadette Peters in mind.[7] He adapted several bits of his standup act to fit within the film, such as a monologue in which he emotionally exits a scene, remarking "I don't need anything," but nevertheless picking up each object he passes on his way out. [6] In co-writing the script with Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias, their goal was to provide a laugh on each page of the screenplay.[8] In shooting the film, Reiner "ran a joyful set," according to Martin, with the cast and crew eating lunch together each day.[9] Martin's favorite moment of the film, as he detailed in his 2007 memoir Born Standing Up, was the scene in which he and Peters sing "Tonight You Belong to Me". Martin felt the moment was touching, and waited in anticipation at the film's premiere screening in St. Louis. Unfortunately, much of the audience left during the scene to buy more popcorn.[9]


Box office[edit]

A box office smash earning over $73 million[3] (making the movie the 9th highest-grossing of 1979) and produced on a modestly low budget of $4 million. It has an 84% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[10] The website IGN ranked the film as the 10th top comedy film of all time.[11]

Critical response[edit]

The New York Times reviewer wrote that The Jerk "is by turns funny, vulgar and backhandedly clever, never more so than when it aspires to absolute stupidity. And Mr. Martin, who began his career with an arrow stuck through his head, has since developed a real genius for playing dumb... Even when it's crude — which is quite a lot of the time — it's not mean-spirited... Mr. Martin and his co-star, Bernadette Peters, work very sweetly together, even when they sing a duet of 'Tonight You Belong to Me,' carrying sweetness to what could easily have become an intolerable extreme."[12]


The Jerk has been praised as not only one of Martin's best comedic efforts, but also one of the funniest films ever made. In 2000, readers of Total Film magazine voted The Jerk the 48th greatest comedy film of all time. This film is #20 on Bravo's 100 Funniest Movies[13] and #89 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs.[14] Premiere magazine voted Steve Martin's performance of Navin Johnson #99 on their list, "The 100 Greatest Performances of All Time".[15]

Awards and honors[edit]

American Film Institute recognition


There was a 1984 television film sequel The Jerk, Too, starring Mark Blankfield as Navin (the Steve Martin role in the original), and it co-starred Stacey Nelkin (one-time girlfriend of director Woody Allen). It was produced, but not written by Martin, and possibly intended as a pilot for a TV series.[16]


  1. ^ "THE JERK (AA)". British Board of Film Classification. January 16, 1980. Retrieved February 14, 2015. 
  2. ^ Chris Brummel (2010). "The Jerk". Retrieved April 2, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b "Box Office Information for The Jerk". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 28, 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Martin 2007, p. 188.
  5. ^ Martin 2007, p. 189.
  6. ^ a b c Martin 2007, p. 190.
  7. ^ Martin, Frank W."The Jerk Made Detractors Eat Crow" People Magazine, January 21, 1980
  8. ^ Martin 2007, p. 191.
  9. ^ a b Martin 2007, p. 192.
  10. ^ The Jerk - Rotten Tomatoes
  11. ^ Top 25 Comedies of All-Time, page 16
  12. ^ Maslin, Janet."Movie Review:'The Jerk'" The New York Times, December 14, 1979
  13. ^ Bravo’s 100 Funniest Movies of All Time. Retrieved February 19, 2015.
  14. ^ AFI's 100 Funniest American Movies Of All Time. American Film Institute. Retrieved February 19, 2015.
  15. ^ 100 Greatest Movie Performances of All Time by Premiere Magazine. AMC Retrieved February 19, 2015.
  16. ^ Erik Davis, "Yes, These Exist: 'Splash Too' and 'The Jerk, Too'", Moviefone blog, 2010/04/02

External links[edit]