Like a rock of certainty in torrrents of change, Jerry Lewis came out again this year to host his eponymous Telethon to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association in its work to help and cure those with neuromuscular diseases. His 60th year, I think he said, appearing in telethons for MDA. Now old and frail, Lewis did his segments his usual way, filled with the usual, effective, it seems, bathos, 1950s-era quips, and self-adulatory riffs.
I have had many friends with MD and many friends dedicated to helping them. Many feel quite schizoid about Lewis, and one old friend even created a comedy sketch around it that might make the comedian in Lewis proud. It features Good Jerry, the man who works tirelessly to raise awareness and money, and Bad Jerry, the megalomaniac who uses the words “I” and “me” a million times in the 24-hour telethon and refers to everyone even remotely associated with the charity as “his”, as in “my kids” and “my doctors” and “my firemen”, all of whom are there to “help” Jerry win his fight against neuromuscular disease. It’s Bad Jerry’s mission, and we’re all just helpers, accessories to the great man’s work -- a touch of a creepy self-cult of personality on display. So for many, the love-hate relationship endures.
But what a sight it’s been. Good Jerry’s out there all year fundraising for a most worthwhile cause, and brings it all together once a year in a TV extravaganza. The show itself for years has featured mostly minor celebrities and not-yet-celebrities and never-will-be celebrities (now who’s that performer?) in a production that’s a parody of its former self but yet remains somewhat inexplicably compelling viewing for those with heart and an appreciation for live TV as it once was. Bad Jerry thinks the big story’s all about him.
So once again Good Jerry and Bad Jerry have teamed up for another show, in all their florid glory. I wonder if anyone under 50 years old who pauses the tuner on the channel for ten minutes has much of an idea who Lewis is, or can fathom the stale, stiff, and often anachronistic jokes: in his opening monologue, unhappy with the cameraman’s framing of him, Jerry quipped “I got this guy from the Third Reich” -- the 1950s/60s Nazi theme that Jewish comedians like himself or Rickles might quip to anyone who seems to be doing them some disservice; it’s old , stale, and perhaps unintelligible to anyone unfamiliar with borscht belt-type comedy, but I, for one, love that style, at least now for nostalgic reasons even if most of the humor has long dried up, and I must admit a "Hey Lady!" now and then would still crack me up.
Though decades have passed, Good Jerry and Bad Jerry once again capture our attention, each in his own way, to goad us to help them help their kids, always plugging the “toll free numbers listed on the screen”. Now where’s that phone?
John M Greco