Jerry Lewis has been ousted from the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. telethon he has hosted for nearly half a century -- and the comedy community is outraged.
On Wednesday night, the MDA released a statement saying it was severing its association with the 85-year-old performer. Lewis won't appear on this year's Labor Day weekend telethon.
The announcement provoked an outcry from the comedy community, even as the circumstances surrounding Lewis' departure remained mysterious. Here’s what some of L.A.’s comics had to say:
Tom Arnold: "Younger comics were coming out [to the show] for Jerry Lewis. Jerry let them fly. They would use the word ‘genius’ -- and he certainly is. It’s been handled so poorly. To me, Jerry should be able to come back and say goodbye.... It's probably time for him to retire. But he should get to say goodbye. They screwed up. If they'd promoted this as Jerry Lewis' final telethon they could've gotten guys like George Clooney, which would've opened the door to God knows who. It would've been a big deal and showbiz loves big deals."
So. Jerry Lewis is out as host of the Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon, which he had captained since 1966 (though he had hosted local telethons for the charity as far back as the early 1950s). Having announced that the 2011 telethon would be his last, Lewis later called that into question; perhaps, like that other aging, raging lion, Lear, he suspected he might have been hasty in giving up the crown. The matter was then settled for him by the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. itself, which announced Wednesday, in the briefest possible statement, that his "more than half century of generous service to MDA" was done. "We will not be replacing him as MDA national chairman," said Dr. R. Rodney Howell, chairman of the board of directors, "and he will not be appearing on the Telethon."
There may continue to be an MDA Labor Day Telethon without Jerry Lewis, though it will contract from 21 hours to six this year and possibly continue to shrivel away, like the vestigial appendix, to a memory of its former usefulness. But there is no Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon without him, and whatever difference that makes to the fate of "Jerry's Kids" — no longer Jerry's Kids, I suppose — or the number of dollars racked up on the tote board, that one very special tradition ends here. The charity may be no less worthy, but the television event is over. There is really no reason to watch it now.
Some might say that was already becoming the case. There was a time, when Lewis was younger and his associates were hale — many, of course, lacking his superheroic constitution, have predeceased him to that great Friar's Club in the sky — that the telethon was a lively, star-studded event, worth staying awake for almost through its entirety. It was unpredictable, in a good way; it had currency. More lately, it can seem a little shopworn or second-string, emerging as if out of a time capsule, or like the mythical, musical city of Brigadoon, reappearing whole once a year, but here showing its years.
So it is with Lewis, who, like most of us, remains a creature of his own youth into the youth of a different world. (In more than one interview over the last decade he has suggested that one problem with showbiz kids these days is that they don't know who Al Jolson is.) His timing, in a kind of existential sense, is off. His jokes, which, in the habit of his generation, flirt with racial and gender stereotypes — or I should say, flirt with them in a way in which no irony is apparent — have created little hiccups of controversy in recent years. The show became unpredictable, in a less good way. And yet it was no less fascinating. The man, like the artist, represents an inextricable mix of sentiment and steeliness, and part of the fascination of the telethon has been watching him rocket between those poles, like the divided self he played in his masterpiece "The Nutty Professor" — the sweet scientist, with his thick glasses and sideways teeth, and the soulless swinger, with his slicked hair and sharp tux.
But that is only part of the story. Because if the telethon was on the one hand a very long variety show, it was also something greater: a kind of ritual, a rite of sacrifice, an altar across which Lewis splayed himself in order that the coffers would be filled and a cure found. If there was something almost unseemly in the intensity of his identification with his cause, an identification that may have ultimately discomfited the organization for which he worked for so long as "a labor of love," there was also something wonderful about it. He played the telethon like a Yiddish-theater Las Vegas remake of the climax of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," where James Stewart holds the Senate floor, flooding it with truth and beauty, until he collapses — but with funny walks and noises and faces. For many years, Lewis was onstage for the whole 21 hours: Going the distance was part of the point; it was what the gods required.
Jerry Lewis may have a big, new documentary coming to Encore this October, but you won't see him hosting the annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. Even though this year's telethon was reportedly going to be the last for the 85-year-old comedian, the MDA released a statement Thursday confirming that Lewis was off the telethon and out of the organization effective immediately.
Lewis has been hosting telethons for the MDA since 1952, but the national Labor Day telethon we're all familiar with began in 1966. Now that era is over. There will be new hosts for the telethon and money will still be raised, but we won't have Jerry Lewis to kick around anymore.
Last week at TCA, Jerry Lewis batted down rumors he was severing his association with the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. telethon he presides over every Labor Day weekend. On Wednesday night, MDA confirmed those rumors -- the organization said that it was relieving the performer of his duties as national chairman and that Lewis won't be appearing on this year's telecast.
In a short statement announcing the telethon news, R. Rodney Howell, MDA chairman of the board, said that Lewis is a "world-class humanitarian and we're forever grateful to him for his more than half century of generous service to MDA." It said it would not replace him for the post of national chairman.
The 85-year old Lewis has hosted the telethon since it began in 1966, turning a generic fund-raising event into a fixture of the entertainment calendar and raising more than $2 billion for the disease.
But his involvement hasn't been without controversy in recent years. In 2007, Lewis nearly let slip a homophobic epithet. In the last few months the question of his relationship with the telethon has grown more complicated. In May, news surfaced that Lewis would host his last telethon in 2011. Lewis denied the report. At TCA, he reportedly said to journalists that "it's none of your business" when they asked about his future association with the event.
MDA is expected to name a new host, who will join a quartet of co-hosts that includes entertainment personalities Nigel Lythgoe, Jann Carl, Alison Sweeney and Nancy O'Dell.
Lewis can still be seen on television in the coming months: He'll appear in the new documentary "Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis," which takes a look at his long career via rare footage and the testimonials of comedians such as Eddie Murphy and Alec Baldwin. The special airs on Encore this fall.
There were a few nervous moments when the members of Pearl Jam screened the new PBS documentary about the band, the film's director says.
Cameron Crowe, the Oscar winner behind "Jerry Maguire" and "Almost Famous," told reporters Saturday that "Pearl Jam Twenty" covers such touchy topics as the grunge band's tortured feelings about Seattle rivals Nirvana, their battles with Ticketmaster and their slow shift from being led by guitarist Stone Gossard to vocalist Eddie Vedder. Vedder has told journalists the film was difficult to watch.
"That's a measure of success, that you're able to get under people's skin a little bit," Crowe told reporters at the TV media tour in Beverly Hills.
Crowe, a former music journalist, has known the band members since their beginnings 20 years ago and spent three years assembling footage, he said. "It was our labor of love, our hobby," he said of the project, which will premiere Oct. 21 under PBS' "American Masters" banner.
During filmmaking, band members compared the experience to group therapy.
Over the years, Pearl Jam has gradually moved from laboring in obscurity to becoming an international sensation, and now enduring as a grassroots touring band with enduring appeal.
"There was no rulebook for what they did," Crowe said. "They've become a little bit like the Grateful Dead."
Comic legend Jerry Lewis admitted to reporters here that his legs these days aren't what they used to be, and that he has various health issues that have slowed him down. But in the end, those things don't matter.
"I'm the happiest 85-year-old you'll ever see in your life," Lewis proclaimed, prompting a rapturous response from the gathering.
Lewis, who is almost as known for his temperamental nature as he is for his iconic career, was mostly at his charming best during his appearance to promote "Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis," an original documentary on Encore that will explore Lewis' wide-ranging legacy in film and television. The project also will feature testimonials from A-listers such as Steven Spielberg, Jerry Seinfeld and Quentin Tarantino who discuss the effect of Lewis on culture and their careers.
Though Lewis offered up occasional jokes, he made several pointed comments about his view of the current TV scene.
Said Lewis: "I love the industry. I don't allow my daughter to use the term TV around the house. It's television. It's a miracle." But he added that the attitude toward the medium has changed. "No one rushes home anymore to watch something good. They rush home and hope they see something good."
He also belittled some modern innovations such as watching movies on smartphones, Twitter and Facebook: "We're not going to have human beings in 20 years; people don't know how to have conversations with each other. Lewis also said the industry needs to focus more on appealing to "the child within us."
Lewis touched on other topics: reports that he was ending his involvement with the Muscular Dystrophy telethon after this year were not true; John Travolta would be starring in a new version of Lewis' classic comedy "The Family Jewels"; Jim Carrey is the "most brilliant physical comedian today." Not a day goes by that he doesn't think about his former partner, the late singer Dean Martin.
With all his accomplishments, Lewis said he hadn't fulfilled everything he hoped to achieve, but he's coming close. "If I got the cure for muscular dystrophy, that would be it."