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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Jerry Lewis-ethon Needs to Go

I just happened to catch the beginning and the end of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon hosted by Jerry Lewis over the weekend, along with a few moments of it during the day on Monday. Listening to Lewis reminded me of watching All in the Family reruns with the incessantly inappropriate Archie Bunker. The only difference was that excusing Lewis as a relic of his time is more difficult when he continues to open his mouth in our time.

I admit to being biased against Lewis ever since hearing his comments in a 2001 interview in which he said, “You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house.” I’ve already had my rant about how disgraceful it is that he continues in his role with MDA after these asinine remarks.

Yet, watching Lewis over the weekend was downright embarrassing for reasons that go beyond his ignorance, which is still on display. The former star of the ‘50s made it pretty clear with his opening monologue that the telethon is all about Lewis. He babbled on about how his Hollywood friends are there for him every year, the year-round effort that the telethon is for him and his staff, and so on. Even when he got around to the idea of the money being raised helping people with muscular dystrophy, Lewis referred to the recipients of this assistance in his classically patronizing “my kids.”

Lewis actually referred to the fact that the MDA Telethon has outlived all of the others as if it was an achievement. I guess it’s possible that the elderly Lewis honestly doesn’t understand that the other organizations have given up their telethons in deference to the notion that they are degrading to the people they are supposed to be serving.

I’m not even convinced that telethons needed to become extinct if they had been done in the right way. The need to raise funds is just a reality for non-profit organizations.

In fact, the few moments that I saw between the opening monologue and the close of the show suggested that everyone around Lewis “gets it.” I saw a country singer with MD perform, another guy with MD was apparently a part-time host, and I saw local hosts talking in respectful, mature terms about the good that the funds being raised could do. The telethon showed that it might just be possible to hold one of these events without degrading the people it’s meant to help, though I’m not convinced that the underlying concept of a telethon doesn’t make this impossible. That’s another debate for another day.

For whatever reason, Lewis no doubt continues to draw people to the telethon and helps raise millions of dollars, which is no doubt why MDA continues to tolerate him. It explains why they overlook his crude jokes about people in the south, his ridiculous comments about smacking Lindsey Lohan, and his ancient, high-pitched voice he uses when he attempts self-deprecating humor.

But when the man closes the show by spending several minutes talking down to a small girl (who I assume had MD), continues to encourage the public to pity people with disabilities – flying in the face of the goals of the vast majority of disabled people seeking equality in society – and is protested against year after year by people with MD, the cost of those millions raised must be questioned.

As Lewis balled his way through a farewell tune that he apparently sings every year, I couldn’t helped but wonder if he was really weeping over the end of his annual day of relevance. The self-praising act, with tears clearly flowing over how overwhelmed he was by his own annual effort, was truly train-wreck television.

I’ve heard that the MDA does many great things, and I have no reason to question those assertions. It’s time for them to do one more great thing for people with muscular dystrophy and other disabilities by making his tear-soaked finale a weepy goodbye forever by ending their relationship with Lewis.

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