AN OPEN LETTER TO FOLLOWERS OF THE JERRY LEWIS VS. THE MUSCULAR DYSTROPHY ASSOCIATION CONTROVERSY
Happy, well-adjusted people probably missed it, but this year, for the first time since before I was born (in 1967), Jerry Lewis didn’t host the Jerry Lewis Telethon over Labor Day weekend. Age and changing demographics caught up with Lewis—and his on-air performance and relationship with the Muscular Dystrophy Association decayed in recent years. 2011 was supposed to be Lewis’s last year hosting the telethon, but he was summarily fired by the MDA a month ago. Both parties remain mum about what happened. In the absence of information, the Internet is full of theories. Supermarket tabloids love the story, as do certain Cable TV news-talk shows.
Whatever was actually spoken between the MDA and Lewis is irrelevant to the underlying reason that Lewis was fired: With apologies for being so blunt, most Jerry Lewis fans are dead or dying, and they’re no longer writing checks. People my age and younger know Jerry Lewis mostly as “that old guy who hosts that telethon no one watches.” Some also know him as that guy with the “Jerry’s Kids” rap that portrays people with MDA as victims. The pity-pitch seems out of touch with modern sensibilities that focus on the empowerment of people with diseases.
But even if Lewis’s fossilized celebrity and condescending schtick were magically fixed, it would not reverse the larger problem. The Jerry Lewis Telethon—in which Jerry once sang, wept, and sprayed seltzer bottles for 2,356 straight hours without so much as a bathroom break—is withering. This year, it’s down to six hours.
Blame the demise on Cable TV. As a boy, I remember watching the Jerry Lewis telethon because there was no alternative. There were only a handful of television stations and holiday weekend programming was awful. The telethon was awful too, but it held its own in a weak field. Now the telethon competes with Facebook, big time sports, high-rated television programs, and popular movies perennially re-run on basic cable. (Can you find a moment in which The Godfather or one of the Star Wars movies are not being re-run?) The modern audience isn’t interest in the has-been (Celine Dion) and never-was (J-Lo) lounge acts that headline the telethon. Lewis’s inability to connect with younger viewers compounds the problem. Modern viewers have choices, and they’re not choosing the telethon.
In a perfect world, the MDA would have phased-out Jerry Lewis in the same manner that ABC is phasing out Dick Clark from its New Year’s Eve program. That young Potsie Weber (Ryan Seacrest) who now anchors the ABC broadcast is as squeaky-clean, cute, and smooth as Clark was 50 years ago. ABC understands that nothing would look worse than summarily dismissing Clark, always a company-guy. Clark deserves a graceful exit and ABC is giving him one.
And that’s probably where things went wrong with Lewis. Whatever his assets, Lewis was not a company guy. In the old days, Lewis was the telethon, and the MDA had to lick his boots in exchange for the star-power and sweat he gave them each year. But Lewis’s intemperate moments, on-air gaffes, and fading celebrity changed the equation. The MDA might be a non-profit devoted to a good cause, but it is run like a business, and there is no business case for keeping Lewis around.
With or without Lewis, the days of the marathon telethon are numbered. The telethon raised $50 million a year, but mostly through corporate philanthropy that will continue as long as the MDA supplies a photo-op for the giant check. This could be handled via 30-minute infomercial. Muscular Dystrophy is a significant disease, a degenerative genetic condition without a cure. I hope the MDA will maintain its donor base in the future, but the odds are slim that they’ll ever duplicate the exposure that the telethon brought in its hey-day.
As for Lewis, over the last fifty years, he spearheaded efforts that raised $1.6 billion to battle muscular dystrophy, and he deserves to be ranked among the giants of modern philanthropy. His motives were pure, even if his behaviors were peevish. I wish him happiness and camera shyness in his retirement.