Monday, August 8, 2011
Tears of a Clown
I don't know what surprised me more: the news that Jerry Lewis has gotten an unceremonious heave-ho as host of the Muscular Dystrophy Association's Labor Day telethon, or my reaction to it.
After all, I've never been a fan of slapstick comedy, which is Jerry's shtick in trade.
But this news has me really upset. It's not only the height of ingratitude; it's a shameful way to treat a man who deserved much better from the MDA.
Over the past 45 years he raised $2.6 billion for them. More importantly, he put the disease - and the association - on the map.
But time moves on, and last spring Jerry, who is 85, and the MDA jointly announced that this would be his last telethon.
Unfortunately, last week the MDA kicked him to the curb with this terse press release:
"The Muscular Dystrophy Association announces that today Jerry Lewis has completed his run as its national chairman. . .We will not be replacing him as MDA national chairman, and he will not be appearing on the Telethon."
They're going to replace him as host with four nonentities I've never heard of: Nancy O'Dell, host of "Access Hollywood;" Nigel Lythgoe, producer of "So You Think You Can Dance;" Jann Carl, former reporter for "Entertainment Tonight" and Alison Sweeney, host of "The Biggest Loser."
No disrespect intended, but collectively they couldn't carry Jerry's whoopee cushion. This is the dumbest re-branding decision since Coca-Cola introduced New Coke.
And the way the MDA handled it is even dumber. The smart thing - as well as the kind thing - would have been to allow Jerry to take a yearlong victory lap, the way NBC did when Johnny Carson retired.
He could have spent the last few months appearing on all the talk shows, reminiscing and plugging the MDA - and you know Letterman and Leno, who greatly admire Jerry, would have been happy to have him - culminating with the telethon itself, which would have been the most star-studded event ever.
Every A-Lister in Hollywood would have lined up to appear on this historic show, and the ratings would have gone through the ceiling.
And now? They'll be lucky if they can get Carrot Top.
And will you be watching? I sure won't. I'll be surprised if it's still on TV in three years.
To his credit, Jerry is keeping mum until after the telethon. He doesn't want to rain on his "kids'" parade. Who could have guessed that Jerry Lewis, who spent his whole career cultivating a childish persona, would be the only adult in the room?
I'm not the only one who is upset. Oakland Tribune reporter Kristin Bender's late father, Phil Bender, directed the telethon's Bay Area’s remote broadcast at KTVU for many years.
"He also worked on 'Romper Room,' 'Creature Features,' 'Dialing for Dollars' and A’s games, but it was the telethons that he loved the most," she says.
Jerry has had health problems of his own, including prostate cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and two heart attacks. But it never stopped him from helping children with disabilities.
"If the MDA executives decided it was time for him to leave the telethon, that’s fine," says Kristin. "But why not let the guy have his swan song? Imagine the ratings. Imagine the viewership. Imagine how it would have made an old man feel."