Monday, September 01, 2008


Thanks to a crazy work schedule and an overall lack of interest, I'm breaking with tradition this year: I'm not watching Jerry Lewis' Labor Day Telethon.

Lately--by which I mean the last twenty-five years or so--I've watched the telethon ironically, as a last bastion of old-school showbiz, a B-list Friar's Club gathering at which the nominally-talented continually praised each other for their genius and overwhelming love of humanity.

In the more innocent days of my childhood, I didn't so much watch the telethon as endure it. The damned thing was always on every year in my household, though I don't remember anyone ever actually paying attention to it, and I certainly can't imagine anyone being entertained by it. The local affiliates that carried it--the so-called "Love Network"--ran full-page ads in TV Guide encouraging us to "Stay up with Jerry and watch the stars come out", boasting a lineup including the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bill Cosby, but it frequently turned out that the Big Guns only appeared in pre-taped homily-filled testimonials instead of, you know, showing up onstage and performing.

So most of the heavy lifting, entertainment-wise, came from Jerry himself. Lewis was utterly despised by everyone in my family, so it's weird that the telethon was always tuned in, but there he was every year, berating his production staff as anti-Semites even as he casually indulged in the most cringe-inducing ethnic humor imaginable. In full Buddy Love mode, Jerry might tell jokes and occasionally, God help us, sing, but mostly he'd just ramble on, sometimes about the poor schmucks stricken with muscular dystrophy (though treating them as mere props to showcase his humility) but more often about whatever the hell was bugging him at that particular minute. It was like watching Krusty The Clown on a two-day bender.

The telethon no longer has quite the same train wreck appeal it once had. Sure, Jerry usually pulls off some jaw-dropping acts of insensitivity every time out, but he's absent for much of the proceedings--napping, presumably--and lately he's come off more as a doddering old man than a volatile monster. And as dull as the whole thing has always been, lately it has become excruciating, with faceless co-hosts (who exactly is Jann Carl?) and an endless parade of bland ambassadors from huge corporations doling out oversized novelty checks to the cause.

On the other hand, it's still the only place outside of Branson where you'll actually see Tony Orlando get a standing ovation.