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Tune In a Kind of Genius at Work

Commentary: It might be nutty, but one critic can't say enough about Jerry Lewis, whose annual Labor Day telethon even revives vaudeville.

September 01, 1997|TOM SHALES | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — What do you know, the French were right: Jerry Lewis is a genius after all. At least, a genius of sorts. He wants to be thought of as a great film director, but it's as a performer that he's earned his genius badge. He is also a genius at surviving.

Lewis was dismissed for years as a vulgar egomaniac and buffoon, but through the prism of time one can see how inspired much of his buffoonery was. Sight gags in his best movies are worthy of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, critics' darlings. His riotous appearances on "The Colgate Comedy Hour" in the '50s with partner Dean Martin were masterpieces of controlled anarchy.

Their movies together for Paramount, often shown on the AMC cable network, reached dizzying heights of hilarity. The films, and many of the old TV shows, are also available on home video.

And now, as it does each year, comes Lewis' crowning achievement, the telethon he's been conducting for 32 years for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. The pressure on Lewis this year will be to pass the $50-million mark in viewer donations, since he always wants to top the previous year's total. Last year's: $49.1 million.

"The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon," a national rite that marks the official end of summer, airs until 5 p.m. today on 200 TV stations throughout the country, including KCAL-TV Channel 9 in Southern California.

Lewis has taken tons of criticism over the years, some of it for the telethon and the way he conducts it. He was chided for smoking during the show and gave it up. Sometimes the way afflicted children were paraded before the cameras struck some people as cold exploitation.

But the subject of the telethon is, after all, a cruel and crippling disease, and it makes sense to look at its effects unflinchingly. Most of the vignettes seen on the show are inspiring, not maudlin.

Raising money is the first order of business, but of course the telethon has much more to it than that. For one thing, it is a yearly one-day revival of vaudeville, a form of entertainment that keeps dying and being reborn. First the movies killed it, then TV.

But Jerry Lewis has all the hours to fill, and he fills it with the kinds of acts you just don't get to see on television anymore. It's encouraging somehow to wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning, turn on the TV set, and see tap-dancing kids or flip-flopping acrobats back in the spotlight on the telethon.

This year's scheduled stars on the program include the cast of the hit musical "Rent" and those tireless Irish hoofers of the "Riverdance" show, which has been touring the country and opens soon at Radio City Music Hall in New York. When will they appear? You'll really have to watch the whole thing to be certain not to miss them.

If you took a poll of 100 Americans, you'd certainly hear from some who'd like to find a cure for Jerry Lewis as well as a cure for the neuromuscular diseases discussed on the telethon. But he's mellowed and a lot of us have mellowed and we can now see the methods in his madness, and the beauty of it, too.

Lewis is 71 now; no one can say how many more telethons there will be. But his career has sprung back to life in films like 1995's quirky "Funny Bones" and in his current triumph in a Broadway revival of the musical "Damn Yankees," now on tour. Eddie Murphy's huge comeback hit, "The Nutty Professor," was based on a Lewis film, and Lewis was credited as executive producer for the Murphy version.

In an interview last year with writer Lloyd Grove, Lewis said, "When I awoke this morning and my eyes opened, I was a hit. You can't do better than that." He is an astonishingly dauntless ham who has defied time and trends and innumerable critics. Jerry Lewis is the Nutty National Treasure.

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