Bart Simpson: You should treat yourself. You work hard for us, or at least you’re out a lot.
Homer Simpson: You’re right. I have been acting like Telethon Jerry Lewis, when I should have been acting like rest-of-the-year Jerry Lewis.
—The Simpsons, “Million Dollar Maybe” (1/31/10)
Well, the 2011 Muscular Dystrophy Telethon has come and gone. If you were with me on Twitter and/or Facebook during the show, you pretty much have my opinions. After all, I nearly doubled my total Twitter output. (To be fair, it’s a new account.) However, I wanted to get in a few extra thoughts before I let it go for good, and perhaps clarify a few of my tweets besides.
- I realize that, given what I’ve seen on websites everywhere in the past day or so, many, MANY people feel that Jerry Lewis was screwed over with regard to his hosting of the telethon this year. Given that both MDA and Jerry have been kind of tight-lipped about the details, this is a debatable point, but I’m thinking that they’re right. Yes, Jerry is 85 years old and won’t be around forever, but between May and a few weeks ago, this telethon was to be his swan song, a genuine passing of the torch to someone else. As a result, the notion at the beginning of the show that Jerry “retired” felt disingenuous.
- A lot of people are also calling bullshit on the fact that the donation total for this year—which never appeared on screen but was instead reported the next day—was over $61 million. I’m willing to accept that figure as more or less accurate, even if the final take winds up being somewhat less (it always is). I’m thinking that a lot of the corporate sponsors and other groups (e.g. firefighters) pushed extra hard this year, thinking that it was Jerry’s last year, and trying to ensure that he’d go out with a big bang. Next year will be a different story; that’s my guess.
- There are several elements of the previous telethons that were missing from this year. One of the things we didn’t get was an array of “old-school” performers coming in and doing their thing. I’m willing to bet that a lot of today’s adults were first exposed to people like Norm Crosby, Freddie Roman or Henny Youngman through the telethon. Their heyday was over but there was still some respect for their brand of performance. Stars who were on the way up and down came by. Take a look at this clip from 1968, the first year of the “Love Network”, when the telethon appeared on four stations. Joan Crawford—who may be a little drunk, I’m not sure—comes out and reads a rather maudlin poem. I don’t remember this appearance, but I do remember when the telethon ran multiple phone numbers on the screen so that everyone’s phone call would be local:
or, check out Jerry’s reunion with Dean Martin in 1976, as orchestrated by Frank Sinatra. There’s a bunch of unscripted clowning going on that could only happen here:
- The other thing that happened back then was, Muscular Dystrophy was very mysterious and absolutely untreatable, never mind curable. So the focus of the telethons then was more of a “pity these poor children and let’s fund a cure” mindset. As the years wore on, the focus moved into “look at the good your money’s done”, with the short films showing all kinds of Science Going On Here. But I still remember one film they showed when I was a kid, in the early 70s. A YouTube search didn’t turn it up, unfortunately, but it went like this: an older gentleman, sitting on a stool and with a black background, starts talking about Muscular Dystrophy. It quickly becomes clear that this guy is Muscular Dystrophy, personified. He says stuff like, “I am Muscular Dystrophy, and I hate people, especially children. I love to make their limbs shrivel up.” Next we see a small child sitting on the floor, playing with a toy. This man walks over to the boy, tousles his hair a bit, and walks off. A few seconds later the kid lays down and dies. This film absolutely scared the shit out of me. If I’d had an income, I’d give it all to MDA just so the guy wouldn’t touch me and make me die.
- As a side note, I also mention this story from a couple of years later: I was in fifth grade so this would have been in 1974. I woke up one morning and, as I got out of bed, I fell to the floor. My thigh hurt and wouldn’t support my weight. I couldn’t walk! I worked my way down the stairs and tried again. I still couldn’t walk. It actually went through my head that I might have Muscular Dystrophy. The guy from the film came by in the night, touched my leg and now I’m crippled. I’m eleven years old and I’m going to be in a wheelchair; soon I’m going to die. By the end of the day, my leg had loosened up enough for me to walk, if still in a bit of a gimpy fashion, and I figured that I really wasn’t at death’s door. So that’s my story of how I beat Muscular Dystrophy, I guess. (In retrospect, it was probably a Charley Horse, but how I got one in the middle of the night is anyone’s guess.)
- Let me say something about the acts that were on during the telethon this year: really, none of them were all bad. Some of them were weird, but Jerry would have some weird stuff going on at about three, four in the morning too. I could have done without the Singing Tampon act called VocaPeople, but this is the sort of thing you get from the telethon. But it’s what comes in between the acts that holds the whole program together, and the four people who’d teamed up to replace Jerry just weren’t getting it done. Everyone simply handed off to the next act without linking anything together. And it was pretty clear that Nigel Lithgoe was cashing in a lot of American Idol chips.
- The best on-camera personality throughout the show? It was absolutely Abbey Umali, the 12-year-old MDA National Goodwill Ambassador. Her clumsiest moment was probably when she tried to identify 7-Up as her favorite soda, but even that came off as a little charming.
So with Jerry’s untimely removal from the show, I think we’ve lost an important part of show business in general. It’s not as though Jerry was going to hand the reins to someone else who would continue in a similar tradition, but I think that, with this event, we’ve been given an actual date for the end of this particular brand of showmanship, and we’re all the poorer for it.