Jerry Lewis Telethon LogoThis Labor Day weekend will mark the first in 45 years where Jerry Lewis will not be beamed into our households to convince us to contribute to Muscular Dystrophy Association. To those of us of a certain age, this will be quite strange.

I don’t know what kind of ratings the MDA Telethon has netted in recent years. I think that the decision to shorten the broadcast from 21 to 6 hours is an indication that not as many people watch it as they once did. With cable/satellite/FIOS, Americans have thousands of options to choose from now, and I don’t think that the telethon has been able to draw the kind of talent that attracts today’s audiences.

I’m talking about a simpler time, before cable, when most Americans only had a choice of a few channels to watch, and with summer full of nothing but worthless reruns (did I just say “worthless”?), it was refreshing to see Jerry Lewis, Ed McMahon, and the whole MDA crew doing something new, or at least novel.

I think that those of us between the ages of 40 and 50 have fonder memories of the Jerry Lewis Telethon because of this. If you’re outside that age range, and you feel differently, please let me know. By the mid-’80s, the show had begun drifting into self parody. You knew it was only a matter of time before Jerry untied his bow tie. You knew Charo was going to come out and dance, and her strapless dress was going to come this close to becoming a topless dress. You knew that, at some point, Jerry was going to act silly and stick his microphone into his mouth.

The Telethon became a total joke. How many irrelevant entertainers were going to grace the stage this year? When was Jerry going to go overboard and publicly humiliate some poor soul on the crew who missed a cue? How far through “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was Jerry going to get before he started crying?

It all became so predictable.

In 1992, I decided I had enough of this nonsense. I was going to watch the entire Telethon, all 21 1/2 hours, and then I’d never have to watch it again. I’d be done. To prepare, I bought two items: a bag of Doritos (I can’t remember which flavor) and a package of Chips Ahoy! [exclamation point theirs]. I also made sure I had paper and a pen to record milestone events during the broadcast. I’m sad to say that I am unable to locate the notes I took that evening (and day). I’ll blame it on my purge frenzy following my marriage’s demise. (I may have also thrown out my Pop Tart box tops, but I digress).

I don’t remember much now;–just a few key moments:

  • Jerry untied is bow tie after only 30 minutes.
  • Eddie Rabbit did a horrible job lip syncing “I Love a Rainy Night.”
  • Charo did a horrible job lip and guitar syncing the song she performed (she’s an accomplished flamenco guitar player in case you didn’t know).
  • Julius LaRosa sang at 3 a.m. (I thought this was odd at the time, but then I realized it was only midnight where he was performing.)
  • Leeza Gibbons used the word “superfine” at about 4 a.m.

That’s it. Twenty-one and a half hours boiled down to 5 bullet points. So sad.

During the night, housemates would get up to go to the bathroom and see if I was still going. The next day, friends stopped by to see how I was doing. Very nice that they cared so much.

I had no trouble staying up, and I can’t remember if I felt significantly bored during the night, though I must have. I don’t know when Jerry left to rest or when he came back in the morning to continue. Most of the show was pretty unremarkable.

There is one more thing: during my adventure that night/day, I came up with the line that would define it for me for years to come:

“Not so much a triumph of will as a plea for help.”

That sums it all up. I held true to my plans, by the way: after that telethon, I never watched it again. The thing is that I never felt any real loss, and when I told others about it, it seemed rather anti-climactic. Why did I feel the need to watch the whole thing just to stop watching in the future? Why did I put myself through that? Why didn’t I just stop?

And why Chips Ahoy!?

I can’t answer those questions, but it seemed to make sense at the time. I felt like I was making a stand about something. What an a-hole!

The telethon won’t be the same without you, Jerry. I guess we will walk alone after all.

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