BEFORE there was Live Aid -- or Live 8 or Live Earth -- there was Jerry Lewis and his telethon. Begun in 1966 to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. (of which Lewis is national chairman), it occupies 21 1/2 hours of Labor Day weekend air time each year with a mixture of famous faces, just-flew-in-from comics, spangly lounge singers and solid citizens bearing checks. And presiding over it all, the man the French call Le Roi du Crazy.
"Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon" is that thing that barely exists anymore, an actual television event -- and a variety show, to boot, while we're counting our nearly extinct species. But it is also remarkable in the way that Lewis -- not too proud to beg, cry or stick cigarettes in his ears if it will get you to send him a dollar -- has come, in an almost religious way, to embody his mission. It's his totally wired, sleep-sacrificing performance -- clownish, rabbinical, sentimental, slapstick -- that gives this marathon its weird ritual power. (The telethon raised $61 million last year, so "power" seems apt.) There is nothing quite like it.
I wouldn't want to claim that Lewis won't live to see a cure for any or all of the 40-some neuromuscular diseases that MDA funds help fight, because evidence suggests he can't be killed. At 81, he has fought prostate cancer, diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, viral meningitis, a bleeding ulcer, two heart attacks and an addiction to painkillers from injuries sustained in the pursuit of comedy. But he has never missed a telethon.