As recently as ten years ago, Jerry Lewis' labor day telethon extravaganza still had some sort of cultural relevance. Sort of. The local stations carrying it--The Love Network--were network affiliates, willingly bumping ad dollars in prime time, giving themselves over to Jerry through the night and all the next day.
True, it was a far cry from the glory days of the sixties and seventies, when top singers and comedians would stop by and entertain live, and big-name stars would join Lewis on stage. Still, you'd get to see imported performers from lesser Broadway shows and second-tier musical acts like Ringo Starr's All Star Band, and co-hosting duties were handed to the likes of Ed McMahon, Tony Orlando and Norm Crosby, who admittedly failed to amuse or enlighten on any level, but at least they were there, familiar TV faces you had seen in the past, providing some level of comfort by their very presence. More importantly, the whole furshlugginer ball of wax still showcased the awesome spectacle of Lewis himself, cranky as ever, lurking about the stage like an aneurysm waiting to happen, self-righteously lambasting any critics who failed to appreciate his work, routinely chastising anonymous assistants who failed to cater to his whims with all due speed.
Things had already gotten pretty dire in the past decade--for one thing, few network affiliates bother carrying it anymore, and those that do seldom run the whole thing--but the program this year was absolutely painful to behold. Third-rate Vegas magicians were introduced with embarrassing superlatives, and much of the show was given over to sub-America's Got Talent singers and dance troupes, many of which the co-hosts couldn't even bother introducing by name.
Ah yes, our co-hosts, Jann Carl and Nancy O'Dell, perky blond "correspondents" from rival TV infotainment programs, here united by both their fealty to Lewis--expressed over and over and over again--and their utter vapidity. This was it? This was the best they could get? Sure, Ed McMahon is shilling Budweiser in Heaven, but what about Tony Orlando? Did he really have better things to do?
Saddest of all was our host, a shambling, pathetic old man, rambling incoherently, blinking incessantly. Jerry Lewis was once one of the most famous men in the world, and dammit, he really was a great comedian and a brilliant filmmaker. But he was also always an arrogant prick, and this year his telethon seemed to represent some sort of ironic come-uppance: All his friends have either died or deserted him, and he had nothing to fall back on but his increasingly frail comic gifts, and they simply weren't enough. In that sense, his final, ritualistic performance of You'll Never Walk Alone took on an unexpected poignance: Lewis seemed to be singing to himself.