Monday, September 03, 2007

Review: The Jerry Lewis Telethon

First off, thanks to all of you who responded to yesterday’s post. Part of the fun for me of having this blog is making new friends without having to be on Facebook. If you haven’t responded yet, please do. Thanks.

Okay, I admit it. I unabashedly love the JERRY LEWIS TELETHON. I look forward to it every year…for both the right and wrong reasons.

It does benefit a very worthy cause, the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The videos of the kids are both heartbreaking and inspiring. Let’s hope someday there’s a cure.

But the JERRY LEWIS TELETHON is the absolute height of entertainment cheese, a time warp to a Las Vegas scene that everyone but Jerry realizes has long since passed, and is the home of the most insincere sincerity that only show business can create. The treacle just oozes out of your speakers. Born in the swinging 60s, nurtured by Sammy Davis Jr. (combining over-concern, hipness, gross sentimentality, and jewelry), this style was perfected by Jerry Lewis who added his own special touches. No one could beg with such passion while sticking a cigarette in his ear. No one could deliver a biblical sermon, break down crying, then go into his spastic retard character for comic relief.

The Frech call him Le Roi du Crazy. They still shortchange him. Since his auteur movie days he has developed his own unique and delicious blend of condescension and humility. Every year I know what I’m going to get and am always richly rewarded.

This year Jerry called local New York co-host, Tony Orlando: “Only the best Puerto Rican to ever come to this country.”

Now how can you NOT love this???

Nowhere do superlatives fly like the JERRY LEWIS TELETHON. In only one half hour I caught “infamously wonderful”, “exceptional talent”, “most talented”, “most amazing”, “most exciting”, “unmatched”, “extraordinary”, “a true legend”, and “a treasure in every sense of the word.” On the other hand, Jerry described guest David Cassidy as “that little cocker”. He’s probably right but still!

And of course, hugs for all. Except one. I'll get to that later.

Jerry looked better than in years past – especially that one where he was on steroids and looked like a Macy’s balloon. And his hair is no longer jet black. Finally, at age 80 he’s starting to grey.

I miss the fact that he doesn’t emcee all 21 hours anymore. By hour 16 he used to be slobbering about Dean even when the media director from Safeway markets was trying to hand him a check.

And then there’s Ed McMahon. For sixty years America has been wondering – just what IS this guy’s talent? Say what you will, the man has made a wildly successful career for himself by playing the toady to the host. And we only get to see that obsequiousness one time a year now.

There was also Jann Carl and Tom Bergeron to interview people and pronounce the big words. Jerry is quoted as saying, “They’re GIANTS in their field” and he’s “Proud and humbled” to have them.

Since Jerry and Ed now take the late night hours off, who fills in and emcees? This is not a joke. Puppets!!

In LA we had three crawls going constantly. I’m sure other stations had local storm warnings, sports scores, news headlines, and promos for the new season of JUDGE JUDY so there were as many as six crawls.

The telethon is a throwback to a better Vegas, a classier Vegas – where all performers dressed, dyed their hair, and drank. It was elegance as only the mob could imagine it. There were dinner shows and late night lounge shows, and no gift shops right outside the showrooms. You couldn’t buy Keely Smith t-shirts, Rosemary Clooney refrigerator magnets, or Frank Sinatra lunch pails. But I digress…

Celine Dion recorded a gooey-gram and then sang a pre-taped song from her overblown Vegas show. Dancers were flying all over the place. Dion was raised on a large hydraulic pedestal as she belted out a song she selected just for the occasion. I kid you not, the song she felt most appropriate for the Muscular Dystrophy telethon was called “Drove All Night to Make Love to You”.

Other guests included some fat comic doing alfalfa sprouts jokes (“you call that food?”), a ventriloquist who used Jerry as his dummy, Ace Young, the cast of GREASE, super entertainer Ivanka Trump, John Tesh, Vonzell, Tony Danza, and of course the best Puerto Rican to ever come to this country.

Jerry’s son, Gary performed two songs. In the middle of the second song (a touching teen ballad Gary dedicated to his father called “Everybody Loves a Clown”) Jerry wandered onto the set, stood next to Gary for twelve seconds, obviously felt uncomfortable, and then just left. After the song, nothing. Jerry just moved on to the next thing.

So I guess the only one of Jerry’s kids who wasn’t showered with love and emotion turned out to be his own.

But it's that kind of weirdness that keeps me coming back for more. On the other hand, nothing would please me more than to hear that the telethon has been canceled because a cure has been found. And maybe Jerry could spend next Labor Day fishing with Gary.

This year's telethon collected $63.7 million dollars. Good goin'!


Anonymous said...

Ken, brilliant review, "3" big thumbs up on this one!
My favorite moment: Jerry and 2 tiny Muppet characters together. One was a shrimp Muppet. Jerry and the shrimp Muppet did 3 minutes of "Hey LAAAADY!!" Just the best. The VERY best!

Anonymous said...

You mean Gary actually sang... not just a lip-synch? Wow!!

Sorry to say I missed this year's extraveganza. I went to a ballgame instead.

BTW, hope someone noted how good Tony Orlando looked. He's taken off nearly 100 pounds this year.

Howard Hoffman said...

How ancient am I? I used to go to the Americana Hotel in NYC to watch the Jerry Lewis Telethon on Channel 5 - and ONLY Channel 5. They'd turn over the crowd every hour so Jerry can make his hourly wade through the crowd to collect cash.

Many of us remember the year they first hit a million. Jerry grabbed a can and brush and painted a big "1" in front of the six-figure American Totalizator Company display.

It's been all downhill since. But still - you gotta watch.

Anonymous said...

Back when it was in L.A. I used to go to the telethon which was shot at Television City, thus realizing a childhood dream coming true. The true highlight was when after the African-Americans in the "Stomp" troupe finished their number Jerry said, "You is awesome! You is awesome!"

Anonymous said...

I've watched the telethon every year since I was 14 or so. I had a strange fascination with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis.

My favorite telethon moments include watching Wilfred Brimley sing "It's Not Easy Being Green"...and then getting a kiss on the lips from Jerry.

He always introduced Jack Jones as "The Singer's Singer", and he introduced Shelly Berman as "The Man Who Decided One Day To Invent Something That We Now Call Stand Up Comedy".

Jerry has a dictionary at home that, when you look up the word, "Friend", or "Giving", or "Compassion", or one of any number of other kind shows a picture of celebrities ranging from Big Ed McMahon to Wayne Newton to Willie Tyler.

I also love the VP's with the corporate checks who try to get through reading their notes on how compassionate their company is...while Jerry is sitting just off camera pretending to play a trombone or smell his own farts.

You observe him for long enough and you realize that "The Day the Clown Cried" could only star Jerry Lewis.

I hope they find a cure. One way or another, this telethon will be gone someday and we'll never see anything like it on TV again.

Cap'n Bob said...

I was a child when the telethons started and while I laud their effort for a worthy cause I've always hated the show itself. At least nowadays, with cable TV, they don't eat up 20% of the available stations extant as they used to.

I heard a comic do a joke about it. A little crippled girl was watching Jerry Lewis and because of him she was able to get up and walk. She walked over to the TV and turned it off.

Anonymous said...

On the Internets, they're saying that in the 18th hour Jerry caught himself just as he was joking that a cameraman's son was an "illiterate f*****" (as in the extremely offensive word for a gay man). It's hard to hear, though, and he may have just been saying "fatty."

Either way, I think that's also an example of the kind of humor that used to be common in the classy good ol' days of Vegas.

The video is here:

blogward said...

You almost make me wish we had it in the UK. Almost, but we have the Brit version of The Mob meets Carny People. Comic Relief, which is still in that pre-Beatles timewarp where modern showbizzers with flagging careers, or those too old to do anything else get their annual fix of greasepaint.
Nice to know Celine will be carrying the torch into the 22nd century.

Sharon Cobb said...

Fabulous piece, Ken.

It's nice to meet you!!!

Sharon Cobb in Nashvegas

Anonymous said...

I kid you not, the song she felt most appropriate for the Muscular Dystrophy telethon was called “Drove All Night to Make Love to You”.

Because you notice these things, Ken, and point them out, I come here often. It's probably true that the best comedy writers are the people who most easily see the absurd moments in real life.

Anonymous said...

Ask and ye shall receive, eh?

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

Ken, I hope you'll consider giving a few lines of your take on the Chabad Telethon. Those who haven't seen it because they aren't near a Chasidic population center will swear you're exaggerating or making things up. If nothing else, it might clue some French folks in that we've got a lot crazier than Jerry in our tribe alone.

Anonymous said...

Jerry Lewis is great. The twelve seconds he spent next to son Gary was time well spent; he was just making sure he was not actually singing. If so, he would have faked some technical difficulties to shut down the audio.

Ed McMahon is a case study of having ambition mixed with a hearty grasp of reality. He knows what his strengths are- his announcer’s baritone voice, and what his weakness’ are- just about everything else.

He’s the lead inductee in the sidekick hall of fame.

Andy Richter was our generations Ed McMahon…but without the announcer’s voice and grasp of reality.

Anonymous said...

Ken, great review, but will you please billboard it a little earlier in the future -- so we will know a further in advance that we don't have to actually watch?

Greetings from Dallas and the annual 24-hr. Telethon to Help Find a Cure for RLS – REPUBLICAN LEG SYNDROME, the #1 crippler of western state senators– where we ask the musical questions:

1. Isn’t airport bathroom sex kind of dicey if every time you move, the toilet flushes?

2. Could the SOB have avoided this predicament with one o’ of them astronaut diapers?

3. Isn’t “Boise” the gayest sounding name for a state capital you can think of? And what
about Idaho Governor “Butch”Otter? (Almost as much visual imagery as the old Dick Butkus joke…but one more than “I da ho.”

4. Where’s Jeff Gannon when you really need him?
5. Who the hell splits on Bridget Moynahan? What is this guy, coyote crazy?

Now let’s take a look at the Telethon Tally Board:

--The National Cheerleaders Assn. turned over a $40,000 check from their human pyramid scheme.
--The National Letter Carriers Assn. delivered Tom Bergeron a check for $700,000.
– And General Petraeus pledged to draw down the troops by March.

Ken, you may think that was a long way to go for very little payoff, but trust me, they consider it very funny in France. You can say all you want about the Jerry Lewis Telethon, but I woke up this morning and was able to walk. I could walk yesterday. I just wasn't paying attention.

You know how the firemen collect Jerry’s kids contributions in their boots and others raise money locally in very creative and “original” ways like having friends make contributions to get you out of “jail,” or pledge $5 for each mile you run in a 10K race? (Incidentally, we just had a 10K race for Alzheimer's. They’re still looking for 12 people. And pledging $5 for every mile you run is such a protestant work ethic kind of concept. Any of us Jews could at least see going to a friend and saying something like, “Murray, I just pledged $499.95 to run 10 miles. They said I could run one mile LESS for every $100 I raise. Can you help a guy out?" That makes SENSE.

Here in Dallas, I thought they could have raised a heck of a lot more for Jerry’s kids with a TeleTHONG at all the “gentlemen’s” clubs. You might appreciate that once, I returned from Washington state and facetiously told people I had thought of an entertainment venue combining the worst excesses of Seattle and Dallas: STARBUCKNAKED – the topless club with the bottomless cup of coffee. 50% of the responses were, “Y’know, I think that could work here."

BTW, these telethons don’t necessarily have to be the Hollywood Squares of variety entertainment. They occasional get some younger talent. Oh, wait, that was when they broke away 3 hrs. for the Deutsch Bank Golf Tournament. But still.

A. Buck Short

Anonymous said...

1. Ed McMahon's behavior at varying points in the broadcast leads me to believe the poor guy is suffering from the early stages of dementia...or speaking in tongues.

2. I want to buy a recording of Pepe the King Prawn dueting with cardboard-Jerry-on-a-stick on the old classic "Who's Your Little Whozzis?" God, that was funny.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone see this, in the 18th hour of the telethon? Does Jerry use the gay slur f-word, or does he say fatty?

The Minstrel Boy said...

one of the more fun things i've ever done in the business was bringing a thrown together act from the MGM show "jubilee" to the vegas set of the telethon. it was about 4am and the studio audience was made up of other show folks. our doo-wop line was made up of black boy dancers in drag and they were impeccable. all i had to do to bring the place to its knees was growl "sing it girls" into the mike, step back and vamp.

jerry was a prince backstage. in every fine sense of the word. he was gracious, cordial and generous.

i loves me this show too.

Anonymous said...

I now have my 15 year old son sharing my annual tradition of watching the very beginning of the telethon to see how bad Jerry looks, and watching Jerry cry during his closing song at the end. The rest of the show is so bad you can't look away... I can't believe they still do it... poor Jerry can't read the cards or talk anymore. I do wish someone would put out DVDs of telethon highlights from the 70s.

Anonymous said...

I know you this, Ken, but for those of you who don't...

Harry Shearer, the guy who does most of the voices on "The Simpsons," has a weekly satirical radio show, called "Le Show, where he sends up politicians and celebrities doing all their voices himself. On one of his funniest shows he just played tapes of Jerry Lewis in late hours of his Telethon, drooling and babbling. Wonderful, just wonderful.

Anonymous said...

I am amazed each year to find that not only are there people who watch Jerry's Telethon, but who make a tradition of watching it every year.

I'm 57, and I have never watched more than 30 consecutive seconds of the telethon. Most years I don't see even a single second of it. Maybe I don't have the requisite love of Vegas Cheese, nor did I ever find trhe Rat Pack glamorous, but there are ALWAYS better TV viewing choices to me, like that "OFF" choice, for instance. You really watch this every year? What a masochism orgy.

At some point yesterday, a mention of the telethon was heard on somehting I was watching, and a friend who was over said, "Is that thing on today?" I said, "I think so." and we switched over to it, just in time to see a negtleman in a wheel cahir making a speech, clearly one of "Jerry's Adults", and making a small, self-depricating joke that got a nice laugh. Cut to two-shot just in time to catch Jerry unable to stop himself from rolling his eyes in annoyance that someone else was gettng a laugh. That was enough. We switched it back off. I believe we'd seen 20 seconds, although it seemed more like 45 seconds.

Some years abck, I saw the first night of a five night run of a late night "Jerry Lewis Talk Show". Introducing Mel Torme, Jerry said, "He takes a song beyond the limits of forever and back again." I am still trying to figure out what, if anything, that means. Jerry asked Mel what he thought of to work himself up to taking a song beyond the limits of forever and back again. Mel answered, "Believe it or not, Jerry, I think about you."

Why does anyone watch Jerry?

Anonymous said...

Was the telethon on? I must have missed it. You think the TiVo would have picked it up. I tried watching a couple of times for the kitsch factor, and just couldn't take it. There's good bad TV and then there's bad bad TV.

By the way, another Dallas reader checking in - I would have to go back through my logs to figure out how I found your blog but I'm glad I did.

Also, StarbuckNaked would work here.

Mama's Boyfriend said...

I'd rather see him ignore his son than what I saw him do about 3-4 years ago, which is hoist his grown son in his lap, kiss him, and joke(?) that they should get a room. I kid you not.

Alto2 said...

Well, hurrah for the big bucks raised. I can't stand watching that slobberfest anymore. I am *really* surprised you wasted a whole post on the telethon.

Would you please return to our daily dose of snarkiness?

ajm said...

Harry Shearer, the guy who does most of the voices on "The Simpsons," has a weekly satirical radio show, called "Le Show, where he sends up politicians and celebrities doing all their voices himself. On one of his funniest shows he just played tapes of Jerry Lewis in late hours of his Telethon, drooling and babbling. Wonderful, just wonderful.

In 1976 Harry went to Vegas to cover the Telethon live and in person for a piece which, in 1979, appeared in Film Comment magazine. It's absolutely worth tracking down.

Mr. Shearer's also one of the few civilians to have seen the rough cut of "The Day the Clown Cried," which he's compared to a Tijuana velvet painting of a concentration camp...

Anonymous said...

Although nothing could get me to watch the telethon, PLEASE do keep reviewing it. That way, I don't have to see it myself, but can still enjoy the cheese nuggets culled from it by your expert BS detector. In the case of Jerry Lewis, your review is not "The next best thing to being there." but is actually a vast improvement on being there.

In Arthur (Son of Groucho) Marx's book on Jerry & Dean (EVERYBODY LOVES SOMBODY SOMETIME, ESPECIALLY THEMSELF), he recounts a writer's room incident in which Jerry allegedly ordered Norman Lear, then a lowly Martin & Lewis TV writer, to lie on the floor and be a golf tee, so Jerry could demonstrate his golf prowess. As ordered, Lear lay on his back, with a golf ball lying on his puckered lips, pushed as far up as Lear could get them, and Jerry took his driver and swung. Lear was clubbed unconscious.

It's a great story. Does anyone out there know if it's true or not? Can anybody ask Lear?

Anonymous said...

What a shame that you went to all the trouble of writing this nice tribute, and then Jerry makes you look the fool by being a horrible bigot who thinks it's okay to call someone a "faggot" on the air.

Anonymous said...

That was seriously one of your best posts on this blog, bar none.

Motherbear said...

Hi Ken & greetings from Salt Lake City, Utah. Contrary to the beliefs of most people, I don't belong to the predominant religion in the state; I don't have a long braid and don't wear dresses down to my ankles; and yes, they sell beer here. Sometimes I even drink beer although I enjoy wine with my dinner a lot more, or sometimes a shot of Bailey's after dinner. Anyway I didn't realize that the JL telethon was still on the airwaves - I stopped watching TV for the most part a long time ago, when everything on went beyond lame and the current bizarro antics of faux celebrities is captured on every newscast in the country. The last show I was hooked on was Almost Perfect with Nancy Travis and when it was cancelled I decided I'd had enough. I spent yesterday painting my living room, and gathering up a huge box o'crap to take to the thrift store so I can cut down on some of the clutter. I started linking over to this blog from James Wolcott's after he'd mentioned you in passing. I keep coming back because I enjoy reading your stuff and it gets me away from some of the other things that are breaking my heart such as the current state of our country and the vicious political climate right now. Keep up the great work and I'll be right here laughing along with you.

Anonymous said...

I saw about five minutes of the telethon this year, most of it Jerry interacting with those little puppets (I agree with "anonymous" that the "Who's Your Little Whoozis" bit was priceless). I used to watch more of it when I was a kid, back when our choices were rather limited, Jerry was youngish and spry, and his most talented pals were still alive. Now I just tune in long enough to make sure Norm Crosby is still above room temperature and slingin' those crazy malapropisms.

Anonymous said...

I'll be qualified to snark, bitch and whine about The Jerry Lewis Telethon as soon as I earn hundreds of millions of dollars for the charity.

Anonymous said...

Do we have to pretend that it's great entertainment in order to appreciate all the good it does?

Anonymous said...

n Arthur (Son of Groucho) Marx's book on Jerry & Dean (EVERYBODY LOVES SOMBODY SOMETIME, ESPECIALLY THEMSELF), he recounts a writer's room incident in which Jerry allegedly ordered Norman Lear, then a lowly Martin & Lewis TV writer, to lie on the floor and be a golf tee, so Jerry could demonstrate his golf prowess. As ordered, Lear lay on his back, with a golf ball lying on his puckered lips, pushed as far up as Lear could get them, and Jerry took his driver and swung. Lear was clubbed unconscious.

It's a great story. Does anyone out there know if it's true or not? Can anybody ask Lear?

I heard that story. But I don't think it was Norman Lear.

I think it was Lear's then partner, Ed Simmons, who went on to then head write the Carol Burnett show.

But I'm just going by memory, which may not be accurate because I'm 57 too.

Anonymous said...

Another Jerry Lewis moment. When Bob Crane was Morning Man on KNX Radio, he had a drum set in his studio. He was a pretty good drummer and would play along, on-air, with Big Band records by Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman. Jerry Lewis, Crane's guest one day on the 9-10am celebraty hour, sat down at his drums and completly destroyed them, on air. Next day, a truck pulls into the CBS lot and delivers a brand new, top of the line drum set to Crane.

Anonymous said...

I met and became friends with one of Jerry's kids, who at that time in his life took on the guise of a mean, bitter Jerry's Adult. He was cynical about the telethon and had hilarious stories, which (like so many stories about Jerry) seem impossible, but actually happened.

But he also had a ball and met lifelong friends at camp.

He was a poster child when he was young and cute (his words), but then he grew a beard and long hair and wore death metal t-shirts and got a kick out of scaring the volunteers.

In those later years, he liked to smoke weed and watch the telethon and laugh at the REAL weirdos.

That’s why I like the telethon too.

Anonymous said...

Ed McMahon may not show much on TV except that baritone voice, but in person he is a very nice, charming man.

I met him once when I was about 12. I got his autogrph, and when he handed my book and pen back to me, he thanked me before I could say a word.

I met him again a couple of years ago, at a signing at Book Soup, when he was signing his book "Here's Johnny!" He walked in, sat down, and started reminiscing. TWO HOURS LATER, he started autographing books. If he had gone another two hours, I would have been okay with that. He talked about vaudeville, early TV, the carny, pretty much his whole life. Fascinating.

Given, I've been a fan of the guy since I was twelve, but I think people don't give him enough credit.


Anonymous said...

I watched the telethon for years starting when I was... well, I don't really recall when but I was young enough that staying up late meant till 11pm ow when I fell asleep on the living room carpet in front of the tv - whichever came first. It was this love of Jerry's cheesy entertainment and the good it does that lead me to volunteer my time for a four consecutive telethons as a floor director of the Canada branch on our local community channel.

When you work in tv, referring to something so awful on air as cable, you will understand that that loving term came directly from this telethon and the shitty broadcast quality in which it was produced with. But, it's so shitty, in fact, people clamour to be a part of it. People like that are the true lovers of tv broadcasting.

I still look back on my years doing my bit with fondness despite having the direct one of the stupidest hosts on the planet. One year he managed to turn his mic while on air interview a donator. I was ordered by the director to jump in front of him and his camera and turn the flippin' thing on. I was so embarrassed I turned beat red as I blocked his shot with my back.

And then there was the year I was crouched down madly scribbling his next throw cue on my white board when I hear the same director scream into my headphones, "Will somebody please tell me why the host isn't looking at the camera!!" I looked up at the host and he was looking down at the floor where I was, talking to me. The whole time he was on air. I jumped up, with five seconds to spare, leading over a table and got him to do a perfect throw to his co-host across the set. I have never been reamed out like that before in my life. Never. And we all still laugh about it ten years later.

Ahh, good times. Good times, indeed.

I loved this post, Ken. And the comments were just as entertaining.

BTW, what is Ivanka's super talent???


Mike Barer said...

Holy cow, Gary Lewis looks like every middle age Jewish man. (it's ok, I'm Jewish too)

Anonymous said...

I'm with Dr. Leo! Jerry's party may be older and loooonger (and for a better cause), but, for laughs? The outrageousness factor in the Chabad Telethon tops it! John Voight wearing a yarmelke and dancing the hora with all the frock coated Hassidim, c'mon! That is priceless!

Mike Barer said...

I'm also middle aged, so I guess that makes Gary Lewis an old man.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know who that fat comic who spoke about alphalpha sprouts was? He was great!

pamela rodriguez, zoe's professional animal care sitter service said...

the telethon makes me sick, everyone acts like the only thing killing anyone is md, but it's not, we could have a telethon everyday for all the illnesses, also what the hell is he doing with all this money they have done nothing for god sake its been going on for over 53 years now all i hear every year is we are close it's not even the leading cause of death in the usa its heart disease and cancer where is anyone raising money for that, also Jerry lewis has 7 kids 5 of them hate his guts they even said he was a rotten dad i also heard he a ruthless dictator and is very hard on his staff and they all hate him too, he is so old now, he is so senile all he talks about is sex, i would love it to be gone, they never really tell how much money he gets, all they put up is what the regular public gives him, all the millions of dollars given to him by the corporations is never added into this amount, so you can bet he gets close, or over, a billion dollars every year, being that said, as i said before, what is he doing with all the money??????? also mda is funded but the government just put it in a search bar, and there you will find more money he gets that of corse is never talked about.