Great comedians are usually, as Sid Caesar once memorably told Larry King, “miserable sons of bitches,” and few fit that description better than Jerry Lewis. As a result, he also stands as a classic example of how not-so-nice people can still do wonderful, heroic deeds. In Lewis’s case, the deed is the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon. Lewis has announced that because of his failing health and advanced age (he is 86), the 2011 version will be his final telethon, and the show itself is being drastically scaled back from over 20 hours in its heyday to about 6 hours. The decline of his Labor Day telethon tradition is as good a time as ever to give Lewis—arrogant, loutish, egomaniacal, tough old bastard that he is—his due. Jerry Lewis is an Ethics Hero. There’s just no way getting around it.
For decades I thought that Jerry Lewis’s involvement with MDA was a stunt cooked up by his publicist during his decline in popularity, to ensure that he would have public visibility after studios stopped offering him movie roles. That was wrong: Lewis started doing telethons for muscular dystrophy in 1952, when his stardom was just blooming and he was still teamed with Dean Martin. his fundraising for medical research began as a series of local broadcasts and went national in 1966. By then Lewis’s career was indeed on the wane (his last hit movie had been “The Nutty Professor” in 1963), but the telethon had already been a constant in his life for 14 years. Jerry wasn’t doing it for himself. He really was doing it for “the kids.”
I personally found the show itself almost unwatchable. As the hours dragged on with Vegas B acts and Lewis pals like the spectacularly unfunny Norm Crosby providing respite from cringingly sentimental features about sick children, local station appeals and presentations of giant checks accompanied by deadly speeches by corporate VPs, the only hope would be that Jerry’s famous temper might flash in a live exhibition of churlishness in the early morning hours, as it sometimes did, or that he would sing, which held the same fascination, approximate entertainment value, and melodiousness as when the movie gremlin falls into a spinning blender. Jerry Lewis may be the worst singer who has ever ventured to warble for a mass audience. It’s not that his voice is bad, though it is; lots of wonderful singers—Marlene Dietrich, Louis Armstrong, Robert Preston, Jimmy Durante—have had bad voices. It’s that he has nothing to offer as a singer at all: his phrasing is terrible, he’s unmusical, he’s off-key, and he’s hard to look at when he sings. Worst of all, he really seems to think he’s a singer. My father’s theory was that it drove Jerry nuts that Dean Martin was both an accomplished comedian and a singer, so he had to prove he could sing too. True to form, Jerry is determined to torture us one last time: his final sign-off with the telethon this year will consist of his rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
None of which really matters. What matters is that the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon has raised over 2.45 billion dollars for muscular dystrophy research since 1966. Much of the research this money has financed would not have taken place without Jerry’s devotion to the cause, and many thousands of desperately ill children have been kept from greater suffering by his five decades of hard work. Jerry Lewis may be a miserable son-of-a-bitch, but he has done more good with his life than the vast majority of mensches. He’s a bona fide lifetime Ethics Hero, and nobody can take that away from him.
Sing, Jerry. You’ve earned the right.