Bo Hooper (Lewis), a clown, finds himself unemployed when the circus where he works suddenly closes. He winds up living with his sister (Susan Oliver), against the wishes of her husband Robert (Roger C. Carmel). From there he goes from job to job, wreaking havoc along the way. He finally finds some stability as a postal worker, until he finds out that his boss is his girlfriend's father. The father hates all mail carriers because his daughter's ex-husband was one, so he tries to wreck Bo's life, but Bo overcomes the odds and succeeds not only at work, but at impressing the father.
This was Lewis' "comeback" film, as it was his first released film since Which Way to the Front? In 1970. In between, he filmed The Day the Clown Cried, which, to date, remains unreleased.
The film opens with a montage of scenes from earlier Jerry Lewis films, including The Bellboy, Cinderfella, The Errand Boy, Who's Minding the Store?, and The Patsy. There are also connections to other Lewis films. as the clown makeup worn by Lewis in this film was designed by him for 1954's 3 Ring Circus and later reused in 1965's The Family Jewels.
Work on the film was suspended for about six months in 1980 after the production ran out of money, with Lewis himself declaring personal bankruptcy. Because of this, there are many notable continuity issues throughout the film.
Looking back on the shoot, which took place in Florida, Lewis admitted that "the whole experience was a mixed bag". "I have to admit that the awful strain of the past ten years showed in every part of my work," the comedian wrote in Dean and Me: A Love Story. "The movie didn't really hang together, and not so surprisingly, I looked terrible in it." Lewis' future wife, Sandee "Sam" Pitnick, has a cameo as a disco dancer.
Lewis also played the part of the 'Little Ol' Lady' dressed in drag. During the closing credits this part was credited to "Joseph Levitch", which Lewis claimed to be his birth name.
By 1980, Hardly Working grossed US$25 million throughout Europe and South America; this success convinced 20th Century Fox to pick up the independent production for distribution in the United States. The U.S. cut was trimmed from the European prints by around 20 minutes.
The movie received negative reviews; Roger Ebert gave it zero stars and called it "one of the worst movies ever to achieve commercial release in this country [...] no wonder it was on the shelf for two years before it saw the light of day." In his Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin gave it two stars out of four with this comment: "Not a very good movie; the opening montage [...] is much funnier than anything that follows." When the movie was first shown in Miami, Florida, critics were not invited to the premiere, as Fox was afraid the word would get out how bad the film was, before the general release.