The Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon gets no respect. Although most daily newspapers carry a perfunctory paragraph or two about fundraising totals following the annual Labor Day event, the Telethon receives far more ink as a result of demonstrations staged by dystrophic protesters who feel demeaned, marginalized or otherwise insulted by Lewis's approach to raising people's awareness of neuromuscular diseases. (This response is entirely understandable, given the stereotyping and sentimentality in which the Telethon regularly traffics.) Even positive pieces on Lewis tend to overlook the benefit: A two-hour biography of the comedian that ran August 18 on the Arts & Entertainment channel devoted less than four minutes to the topic--and nearly half of that spotlighted the reunion at the 1976 Telethon between Lewis and former partner Dean Martin.
But whether the guardians of taste wish to acknowledge it or not, the MDA Telethon has become a television landmark--one of the last links to the vaudeville-style showmanship that dominated the entertainment industry during much of this century. Moreover, from a rigorously post-modern point of view, the twenty-hour-plus marathon is an entertainingly perverse artifact. A blend of music, comedy, false modesty, tear-jerking and pocket-picking, it exudes a retro brand of camp capable of transporting a viewer to a time when political correctness didn't exist. No wonder it has inspired "Tympani," a drinking game for Telethon junkies (see related story on this page). But the MDA Telethon isn't merely a blast from the past. In fact, it says more about this nation today than many of us would care to admit.
So, too, does King of Comedy, a fascinating new biography of Lewis written by Shawn Levy, a film critic for The Oregonian, Portland's largest newspaper. Levy does not approach the Lewis oeuvre with a chip on his shoulder. Rather, he goes out of his way to acknowledge his subject's legacy: As Levy notes, Lewis was "the first director who debuted in talkies to direct himself; the first Jewish comedian to direct himself; a technological innovator in the cinema; a Top Ten recording artist; the highest-paid performer in Hollywood; the highest-paid performer in television--a catalog of feats he accomplished before turning forty." The author adds, "When he turned his attention to philanthropy after his entertaining career began to wane, he raised well over $1 billion"--an achievement for which Lewis became a Nobel Peace Prize nominee during the late Seventies. But while Levy is clearly an admirer, he is hardly blinkered; in fact, Lewis refused to cooperate with the writer after it became clear that the book would not be a puff piece. Levy documents the events that led to this decision in a hilarious, and eye-opening, epilogue, and he reports elsewhere about Lewis's monstrous ego, paranoid behavior and willingness to treat everyone from family to co-workers with tremendous cruelty should the mood strike him.
At the same time, Levy believes that Lewis initially became involved in MDA out of a genuine sense of concern. The first Telethon took place in 1951, when Martin and Lewis were the hottest comedy team in existence, and their muscle helped them land a tremendous lineup of talent, including Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, Nat "King" Cole, Mel Torme, Gene Krupa, Sarah Vaughan, Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. These entertainers provided musical highlights aplenty, a tradition that was to continue for many years: For example, the 1957 Telethon featured contributions from both Tony Bennett and Dizzy Gillespie. But as time wore on, younger musical acts resisted pitching in to help Jerry's Kids. A few artists from the rock era made contributions--John Lennon played "Imagine" on the 1975 broadcast--but most others saw the Telethon as thoroughly unhip. The only R&R figure Lewis could count on year after year was his son Gary Lewis, who had a dozen hits in the Sixties with his band, the Playboys. You can bet Gary will offer up yet another run-through of "This Diamond Ring" in 1996.
Lewis's attempts to keep up with the times despite the disinterest of contemporary musicians often led to unintended comic highlights. During the 1976 edition, for example, Jerry kicked off the show with what Levy describes as a bossa nova version of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" (a Stevie Wonder hit several years earlier) that featured new lyrics written especially to pluck at the heartstrings of potential donors. Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic?" was also transformed into a Lewis-sung plea for cash--"Help me to help them now! now!" he yelped. As for Sinatra, he wore a leisure suit as he sang Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown."
Such efforts didn't prevent the younger generation from staying away from subsequent Telethons in droves, especially in the United States. (A European MDA Telethon staged in 1983 was an exception; it attracted the participation of Paul McCartney, the Bee Gees and others.) Hence, the Telethon's legitimately good moments came to be dominated by veterans: Aficionados rave about a version of "Music of the Night" sung by Sammy Davis Jr. just before his vocal powers were sapped by cancer.
When brave young souls deigned to enter this Borscht Belt time warp, however, the culture clashes that resulted were glorious. Few who saw it can forget the early Eighties moment when Casey Kasem took the stage to tout the Los Angeles punk band X. (The combo played "Blue Spark," and drew stares from the mostly middle-aged-and-above audience.) Other highlights included Chuck Mangione toodling his flYgelhorn while Jerry squashed a funny hat onto his head and made faces behind him; Lewis constantly referring to rapper MC Hammer as "MC," as if he thought it was his first name; and, especially, a visit by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. One member of the ensemble offered up some reggae-style toasting during the band's mini-set, after which a babbling Lewis mimicked him in pidgin Yiddish.
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If a press release from MDA is to be trusted, this year's Telethon won't feature many current hitmakers. Celine Dion and country singer Lorrie Morgan are probably the closest things to chart-toppers on the bill; the rest of the roster is dominated by stars whose luster faded long ago (Glen Campbell, Roy Clark, Englebert Humperdinck, Eddie Rabbitt, the Osmonds), or who never shined too brightly in the first place (yes, Charo is back). So why bother watching? Because you never know when Lewis will launch into a tirade so nakedly paranoid and self-serving as to strike you dumb. And you wouldn't want to miss the moment at the end of the program, after a new record for donations has been set, when Lewis belts out "You'll Never Walk Alone" (a song Levy describes as "staggeringly inappropriate") with tears streaming down his face.
Some observers will be either disgusted or amused by this carefully choreographed display, which blends phoniness and sincerity into a single gooey mess. But others out there in TV-land will be crying along. And that's what makes America great.
The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. 10 p.m. Sunday, September 1, KWGN-TV/Channel 2.