The Jerk
A disheveled man in a bathrobe holding a chair, his trousers fallen around his ankles
Theatrical release poster
Directed byCarl Reiner
Screenplay by
Story by
  • Steve Martin
  • Carl Gottlieb
Produced by
CinematographyVictor J. Kemper
Edited by
Music byJack Elliott
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • December 14, 1979 (1979-12-14)
Running time
95 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$4 million[2]
Box office$100 million[2]

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


Navin R. Johnson is the white adopted 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 because of his utter lack of rhythm when his adoptive family plays spirited blues music. One night, he hears a champagne-style rendition of "Crazy Rhythm" on the radio and spontaneously begins to dance; he excitedly sees this as a calling and decides to leave for 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. He wakes up the other hotel guests to rescue them, telling the dog they will name him "Lifesaver." After everyone realizes it was a false alarm, one of the guests suggests naming the dog "Shithead." Navin takes the dog as his own, indeed naming it Shithead.

Navin gets a job and room at a gas station owned by Harry Hartounian. He is thrilled to find that he is 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 "random victim bastard." 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 shoots but misses. 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"; Navin plays the ukulele and Marie the cornet. Navin and Marie fall in love, but Marie reluctantly leaves him because of his lack of financial security. She writes a note and slips out while Navin is in the bath. He becomes depressed telling Shithead to leave and find a better master, then changes his mind after the dog immediately tries to run off.

At an emotional and financial low, Navin is soon contacted by Stan Fox with exciting news: his glasses invention, now called the Opti-Grab, is selling big and he is 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 and claims that the Opti-Grab caused his eyes to be crossed, and that his resulting poor vision caused the death of a stunt driver in the film he was directing. Over nine million other people with the same vision complaint (including the judge and jury foreman) are awarded a total of $10 million in damages; divided among all litigants, each gets $1.09. Bankrupt and yet again depressed, he yells at Marie for looking at him like he was "some kind of a jerk, or something" and walks out, abandoning his dog and Marie. He winds up homeless living on the streets. His story now told, he resigns himself to a life of misery and memories of Marie. But to his amazement and joy, she suddenly appears, along with Navin's family and Shithead, bringing additional good news: having carefully invested the small sums of money Navin 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 bigger, yet nearly identical version of their old, small shack.

The story ends as the entire family dances on the porch and sings "Pick a Bale of Cotton"; Navin dances along, now having gained perfect rhythm.


Director Carl Reiner, credited as "Carl Reiner, the Celebrity", plays himself. Former Playboy Playmate Sharon Johansen plays Mrs. Hartounian, while Alfred Dennis has a small role as Irving. In addition there are uncredited appearances by Reiner's son Rob Reiner as the truck driver who picks up Navin, character actor Larry Hankin briefly appears as a circus hand.


By 1977, comedian Steve Martin was experiencing wild success. He wished to cross over to a film career, believing it promised more longevity.[3] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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."[5]

Martin wrote the part of "Marie" with Bernadette Peters in mind.[6] 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.[5] In co-writing the script with Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias, their goal was to provide a laugh on each page of the screenplay.[7]

In shooting the film, Reiner "ran a joyful set", according to Martin, with the cast and crew eating lunch together each day.[8] 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.[8]

Deleted scenes

A scene in which Bill Murray was to have made a cameo was cut from the final film.[9][10]

An alternate, comic introduction of Marie (Peters)—near the train ride Navin was running at the carnival was shot. When her nephew takes off on the train, Navin rescues him, and in returning the boy to Marie, has the bill of his engineer's cap pulled down over his eyes so he cannot see the toy village he (Navin) destroys like a lunatic. This scene might have been edited due to a reference to Godzilla.[citation needed]

Another scene that was cut featured Gailard Sartain as a Texas oil millionaire who tearfully begs Navin for money to replace the cracked, dried-out leather seats on his private jet. Navin grants his request and he gratefully states, "Now I can fly my friends to the Super Bowl like a MAN, and not some damned BUM!"[11]

In the television version there is a scene where Navin is at the carnival and spends 6 hours on the Gravatron ride trying to forget Marie. After the boss orders the ride stopped and Navin is removed by two carnival workers, they sit him down on the ride's stairs, in which Navin says "what are you looking at? Haven't you seen a man so broken he needed to spin?"


Box office

The film is considered to have been a box office smash for the time, earning over $73 million domestically,[12] (making the movie the eighth highest-grossing of 1979) and $100 million worldwide, having been produced on a relatively low budget of $4 million.[2]

Critical response

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 83% based on 42 reviews, with an average rating of 6.9/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Crude, crass, and oh so quotable, The Jerk is nothing short of an all-out comedic showcase for Steve Martin."[13] On Metacritic, the film received a score of 61 based on 14 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[14]

Janet Maslin of The New York Times 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."[15]

BBC film review rated the movie 2 out of 5 stars and described the film as an "early watered-down version of the crude comedy the Farrelly Brothers would later take to new extremes" and made references to it having similar themes to the early 1980s parody film Airplane![16]

VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever reviewed the film for its book and rated the movie as being two and a half stars. The author of the review referred to Steve Martin's silly, exaggerated acting as complementary to the early comedian Jerry Lewis.[17]


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 No. 20 on Bravo's 100 Funniest Movies[18] and No. 89 on the American Film Institute list AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs.[19] IGN ranked the film as the 10th top comedy film of all time.[20] Premiere magazine voted Steve Martin's performance of Navin Johnson No. 99 on their list, "The 100 Greatest Performances of All Time".[21] A BBC poll of more than 250 critics rated the film as the 99th greatest comedy of all time.[22]

Christiane Kubrick hailed it as one of Stanley Kubrick's favorite films of all time. It led to Kubrick meeting with Martin to discuss working together on his film Eyes Wide Shut.[23]

In a 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Steve Martin was asked if the film would be accepted in this day and age with all of the "heightened racial sensitivity." His response was that he hadn't watched the movie himself in a very long time, but when he reflects on his experience with making the movie he recalls everyone being treated "with such respect" throughout the filming process.[24]


The Jerk had a television film sequel, The Jerk, Too (1984), starring Mark Blankfield as Navin and co-starring Stacey Nelkin. It was executive produced, but not written, by Steve Martin.[25]


  1. ^ "THE JERK (AA)". British Board of Film Classification. January 16, 1980. Archived from the original on February 15, 2015. Retrieved February 14, 2015.
  2. ^ a b c Brummel, Chris (2008-04-08). The Jerk: That Movie About Hating Cans. BrumBrum via Internet Archive. Retrieved on August 14, 2017.
  3. ^ a b Martin 2007, p. 188.
  4. ^ Martin 2007, p. 189.
  5. ^ a b c Martin 2007, p. 190.
  6. ^ Martin, Frank W."The Jerk Made Detractors Eat Crow" Archived October 20, 2008, at the Wayback Machine People Magazine, January 21, 1980
  7. ^ Martin 2007, p. 191.
  8. ^ a b Martin 2007, p. 192.
  9. ^ Locke, Greg W. (August 26, 2011). "The Top 25 Roles Bill Murray Didn't Take". Archived from the original on November 25, 2011. Retrieved May 25, 2015.
  10. ^ Evans, Bradford (February 17, 2011). "The Lost Roles of Bill Murray". Archived from the original on May 20, 2015. Retrieved May 25, 2015.
  11. ^ Jeff Whitehead (September 10, 2013). Gailard Sartain in The Jerk - Lonnie Don McGinty. Archived from the original on February 14, 2021. Retrieved January 3, 2020 – via YouTube.
  12. ^ "Box Office Information for The Jerk". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the original on January 28, 2012. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
  13. ^ "The Jerk". Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on April 25, 2022. Retrieved July 10, 2022.
  14. ^ "The Jerk". Metacritic.
  15. ^ Maslin, Janet (December 14, 1979). "Movie: Steve Martin Stars in 'The Jerk': Birthday Surprise". The New York Times. Archived from the original on September 25, 2020. Retrieved July 30, 2020.
  16. ^ Haflidason, Almar (November 21, 2000). "The Jerk (1979)". BCC.
  17. ^ Craddock, Jim. "The Jerk". VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever. 2007 ed., Gale, 2006. p. 457.
  18. ^ "Bravo's 100 Funniest Movies of All Time". 2016. Archived from the original on March 5, 2016. Retrieved August 22, 2016.
  19. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs" (PDF). American Film Institute. 2002. Archived (PDF) from the original on March 16, 2013. Retrieved August 22, 2016.
  20. ^ "Top 25 Comedies of All-Time, page 16". IGN. March 13, 2012. Archived from the original on March 9, 2013. Retrieved March 13, 2013.
  21. ^ "100 Greatest Movie Performances of All Time by Premiere Magazine". AMC. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved February 19, 2015.
  22. ^ "The 100 greatest comedies of all time". BBC. Archived from the original on January 11, 2018. Retrieved August 29, 2017.
  23. ^ Barfield, Charles (July 6, 2018). "Steve Martin Discusses Being Pitched 'Eyes Wide Shut' By Stanley Kubrick". The Playlist. Retrieved June 30, 2020.
  24. ^ Kilday, Gregg (June 12, 2015). "Steve Martin on Steve Martin: Actor Looks Back at 6 of His Biggest Movies". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved October 28, 2019.
  25. ^ Davis, Erik (April 2, 2010). "Yes, These Exist: 'Splash Too' and 'The Jerk, Too'". Moviefone. Archived from the original on September 17, 2012. Retrieved May 25, 2012.

Martin, Steve (2007). Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life. New York: Scribner. ISBN 978-1-4165-5365-6.