Jerry Lewis' Telethon

Jerry Lewis died just a few days ago at the age of 91. His obituaries focussed on his accomplishments as a film director after he broke up with Dean Martin. Like many others who follow movies, I regard all of his post Dean Martin movies as unwatchable rather than just merely bad, whatever it is that the French may think of Lewis as a filmmaker. To me, Jerry Lewis’ main accomplishment was as producer and star of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethons, a format for raising money for charity that he raised to being a kind of performance art. Let’s treat the genre of the Telethon as something worthwhile in itself.

Robert Merton, in his groundbreaking book of 1943, “Mass Persuasion”, showed how such events work. Kate Smith sold war bonds by appearing on the radio airwaves for five minutes every hour for twenty-four hours. That was regarded as a feat of endurance by a clearly overweight woman which allowed her to evoke the suffering of the boys on the battlefield. That she stayed awake was like a religious congregation all deciding to give up a Sunday dinner so as to remember the poor and homeless. Those who shared her compassion could exercise their compassion with a contribution. They could feel good about themselves, share in the community’s glow about itself, even though, in fact, war bonds did not provide the money to purchase bullets and tanks and aircraft. That was done by government deficit spending. What War Bonds did was reduce the rate of inflation by taking money out of the economy. But Kate Smith subsumed that perfectly honorable motive under the heading of making contributions till it hurt so as to bolster the national war effort with which every American would make common cause, especially through the relatively painless method of buying five cent war bond stamps at school or through payroll deductions or at banks.

That is the format used by the Jerry Lewis Telethon, a structure created as a television event to meet specific needs outside those of conventional studio or programing formulae. A once a year event, it was carried on for more than forty years, far outlasting the Cerebral Palsy Telethon or the ones staged in this century by the Chabad Hasids to support their drug addiction and other family service programs. Celebrities came on the air at Jerry Lewis’s request to entertain and make a pitch for contributions to a charity dedicated to the victims of a disease, the bigger stars showing up in the early prime time hours and then again towards the end, the next afternoon, while the morning hours featured stars of children’s and teenage television. That formula would not seem to be a formula for continued success, much less a vehicle of sustained dramatic value.

Jerry Lewis did the same thing Kate Smith had done, but much better. He went through the ordeal of appearing on stage for most of the 20 hours or so that the Telethon was on the air, growing more tired as time went on, and then ending with a signature rendition of “You Never Walk Alone”, every year barely able to get through the song without collapsing, before retiring from the stage so that he could recoup for his performance the following year. His string of assistant hosts talked incessantly about how much the show took out of Jerry. Lewis also showed childhood victims of the disease, who were called “Jerry’s Kids”, as well as adult victims of the disease, in wheelchairs and with their limbs clearly out of control. He was criticized for “exploiting” victims, but he knew that the pathos of that situation would bring in the contributions. His viewers felt a bit of the anguish of those who are diseased and of their families and contributions were both a superstitious way to fend off the evil spirit that brought disease and also a token to indicate a good heart and maybe get God to grant their own child the gift of not contracting this or some other life shattering disease.

The Lewis Telethon was rich enough in aesthetic structure so that it took on a life of its own, full of self-referential moments, which were a staple of late night television, Jack Paar referring to a tussle with his producers and the network that led him to boycott his own broadcast for a few days, or when Johnny Carson, an amateur magician himself, took umbrage with Uri Geller and so rigged his stage so that Geller could not perform his spoon bending trick. The Lewis Telethon dealt with the still raw drama of the breakup of the Lewis-Martin team with a Sinatra mediated reunion of the two on the stage of the Telethon two decades after the breakup. The Telethon survived crises, such as a period when it appeared to overemphasize corporate contributors, and a period when it was under attack by militant advocates of the disabled who thought that Lewis was “using” and patronizing the crippled. It never, however, received any acclaim from other media, which would do no more than report the amount of money Lewis raised on a back page or as one line in a local news broadcast. It did not deserve being raised to the level of receiving aesthetic criticism. My mother contributed to the Telethon, as did I when I was a kid, though my late wife, who had as much compassion for the poor and suffering as anyone, never fell for the theatrics, for wearing your compassion on your sleeve.

Eventually the Lewis telecast evolved into a reminder of a time that was past, whose gestures and fashions and references had become cliches or passe and were useful only as reminders of the very different kind of show business that had existed before the Seventies. During that period entertainers worked to ingratiate themselves with their audience and belted out tunes and sweated up a storm. Lewis stopped tap dancing only long after his style of tap dancing, never mind his never great ability at it, was no longer current. His show became where entertainers, like Tony Orlando and Dawn, went to keep their names in public prominence after their main turn on stage was over.

Lewis at first thought that he would see a cure discovered for muscular dystrophy, one that had been funded by his Telethon. Every year he touted the almost breakthroughs his researchers had made, only to find in the coming year that the research hadn’t panned out. Unluckily, muscular dystrophy was not like polio, in that there would be no miracle vaccine. Rather, it was a disease rooted in the deepest nature of cell structure, and that has not yet released its secrets. Lewis’s budgets shifted over time. (He spent over two billion dollars without a hint of scandal, every year releasing a detailed audit of the work of the Muscular Dystrophy Association which, understandably, he came to dominate for most of the history of the Telethon because he was the one who raised all of its money.) Unlike the government, which also funded research on muscular dystrophy, Lewis spent increasing amounts of money on the devices that would allow victims of the disease to survive more comfortably for longer. Towards the end of the Telethon’s run, he openly mused on camera about why it was that God permitted such suffering. He was never willing to explain why he had taken up this cause so passionately, but rumor has it that he had been very hurt by accusations that his early career slapstick imitations of children had been inspired by the behaviors of crippled rather than just normally ungainly children.

In my view, as I say, Lewis did not do much with his post-Martin years. He flopped as a talk show host; his run at a network variety hour lasted only a few years, though he perhaps did his best work ever there, giving in to his actual cynical and bitter view of how life worked and making it into comedy, as Carol Burnett would also do in her “Mama’s Family” sketches. What the Telethon did, however, was give him a platform to rail against the night that imposed itself on so many children and, by implication, on so much of humanity, and call on people to invoke their common humanity so as to fight back against inevitable doom. It was an Apocalypse movie that played in real time. We see numbers of people dying before us in grotesque fashion and a few brave souls are trying to do something about it, trying to give hope where there is little reason to have hope The Telethon was a harrowing thing to watch and experience.