Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Nutty National Treasure

By Tom Shales

SEPTEMBER 8, 1997:  What do you know, theFrench were right: Jerry Lewis is a genius after all. At least, agenius of sorts. He wants to be thought of as a great filmdirector, but it's as a performer that he's earned his geniusbadge. He is also a genius at surviving.

Lewis was dismissed for years as avulgar egomaniac and buffoon, but through the prism of time onecan see how inspired much of his buffoonery was. Sight gags inhis best movies are worthy of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin,critics' darlings. His riotous appearances on The ColgateComedy Hour in the '50s with partner Dean Martin weremasterpieces of controlled anarchy.

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

And now, as it does each year, comesLewis' crowning achievement, the telethon he's been conductingfor 32 years for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The pressureon Lewis this year was to pass the $50 million mark in viewerdonations, since he always wants to top the previous year'stotal. Last year's: $49.1 million. This year's: $50.5 million.

The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor DayTelethon, a national rite that marks the official end ofsummer, airs on 200 TV stations throughout the country.

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

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

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

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

This year's scheduled stars on theprogram included the cast of the hit musical Rent andthose tireless Irish hoofers of the Riverdance show, whichhas been touring the country and opens soon at Radio City MusicHall in New York.

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

Lewis is 71 now; no one can say how manymore telethons there will be. But his career has sprung back tolife in films like last year's quirky Funny Business andin his current triumph in a Broadway revival of the musical DamnYankees, now on tour. Eddie Murphy's huge comeback hit, TheNutty Professor, was based on a Lewis film, and Lewis wascredited as executive producer for the Murphy version.

In an interview last year with writerLloyd Grove, Lewis said, "When I awoke this morning and myeyes opened, I was a hit. You can't do better than that." Heis an astonishingly dauntless ham who has defied time and trendsand innumerable critics. Jerry Lewis is The Nutty NationalTreasure.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

  • MDA - official site of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

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