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Without Jerry Lewis, MDA telethon promises to be bland affair

Jerry Lewis shown last month has been relieved his duties as MDA chairman. | Glenn Pinkerton~AP

Jerry Lewis, shown last month, has been relieved of his duties as the MDA chairman. | Glenn Pinkerton~AP

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Updated: November 4, 2011 6:59PM

No one would sniff at all the dollars Jerry Lewis has raised to fight muscular dystrophy: a couple of billion during his 45-year reign as host of the MDA Telethon.

But what kind of TV did he offer in exchange? The short answer: Jerry put on a show like no other.

Labor Day weekend this year promises to be bland by comparison, with the 85-year-old Lewis now banished from the annual rite he built from scratch and molded in his image.

As if deflated by the absence of its larger-than-life host, “The 46th Annual MDA Labor Day Telethon” will fill just six hours (6 p.m. Sunday to midnight), rather than the grueling 21½-hour endurance contest that Lewis used to churn through with his viewers in tow. Locally, WGN-Channel 9 will air its own telethon programming from 5 to 6 p.m., with intermittent cutaways from the national telethon thereafter.

On this year’s broadcast (which, ironically, will no longer be actually airing on Labor Day), a quartet of lightweights are standing in for Jerry: Nigel Lythgoe (“So You Think You Can Dance”), Nancy O’Dell (“Entertainment Tonight”), Alison Sweeney (“The Biggest Loser”) and Jann Carl (billed as “an Emmy-winning journalist”).

Celebrities will include Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez, Lady Antebellum, Richie Sambora and Jordin Sparks.

It may be entertaining. It may spur contributions. But as a media event, this year’s telethon can hardly match the display of wretched excess Lewis guaranteed, especially in his epic, unbridled prime.

“Jerry is a ferociously contradictory personality, and that’s what makes him fascinating to watch,” says satirist-actor-writer Harry Shearer, a Jerry watcher for a half-century. He noted just two of Lewis’ clashing identities: “the inner 9-year-old, set loose” and the would-be deep thinker “who fancies himself something of an autodidact.”

“It all makes for psychodrama of a high order,” Shearer marvels.

Year after year, Lewis bounced between the polarities of smarmy sentimentalism and badgering lunacy as if in a weightless environment. He put his multiple identities on raw display, each constantly jostling for the spotlight.

It was fascinating, ridiculous, cringe-worthy and spellbinding to see how Jerry held court for the parade of entertainers, the checks-bearing civic leaders and corporate sponsors, and the adorable, afflicted kids.

The Jerry Lewis telethon was a reality show decades before the term or genre had been invented. It was video retailing, years before QVC. It was round-the-clock TV companionship long before cable news and the Weather Channel. For nearly a full day, it was a spectacle of show-biz glitz, heart-tugging emotion and suspense: Would Jerry make it to the end without unraveling? Would the level of pledges do justice to his efforts at soliciting them?

There was a perfect symbiosis of the telethon and Lewis. He made muscular dystrophy as big a star as he had once been. Meanwhile, aligning himself with the search for its cure gave him the gravitas he had always sought. He branded the disease with himself, and vice versa.

He was not only the host of the telethon and chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (a job he would hold for 60 years), but the central figure in a massive enterprise as the self-styled avenging angel of a dread disease.

There was the unresolved question of Lewis’ motives — he has famously refused to say why he poured so much of his life into MDA. How much of what he did was prompted by humanitarian urges? How much is explained by the voracious appetites of an attention hog?

And how to explain the choice of theme songs by Lewis for his righteous cause: the piteousness of “Smile (Though Your Heart Is Aching),” and, of course, the riotously inappropriate “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with which Lewis, overcome by emotion, ended each telethon, daring his audience to consider it a cruel joke.

Lewis found a perfect counterbalance for his excesses and vanities in the purity and urgent need of “his” kids. Everything he did he was doing in their service, which, in his mind, absolved him of his carte blanche life-or-death extravagance.

And it made him, at last, a success on TV. He was a comedian-singer-writer-actor-director-producer-movie star who, after splitting with his partner Dean Martin in the mid-1950s, had failed to match his other triumphs with any real television inroads. But on the telethon each year, for 21½ hours, he was the unquestioned boss of the Love Network.

On Aug. 3, with no elaboration, MDA announced that Lewis had “completed his run” as national chairman, and that he would not be appearing on the telethon, as promised earlier.

Lewis has provided no insight into the matter. But it’s hard to imagine how wronged he must feel.

The telethon will be on again this Labor Day weekend, in some faint version of what Lewis wrought. But for those who watch, and remember it with Jerry, it is likely to feel like a lonely affair.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Comedians who think Jerry Lewis was unceremoniously dumped from his post as chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and face of its annual telethon are holding a Web-athon of their own. Los Angeles’ Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada said Friday that his club will hold a fundraiser on Monday featuring comedians such as Norm Crosby and Dave Chappelle. Fans can watch the performances online and make donations. Proceeds of the event will be presented to scientists working toward a cure for muscular dystrophy as the Jerry Lewis Award. Masada says the event will be held annually until a cure is found. AP

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