The MDA Non-Jerry Lewis, Non-Labor Day, Semi-Telethon

Been meaning to write about this for a few days, but time and the blog have gotten away from me.  (Apologies in advance for all the swearing and the length of the post, but I feel strongly about this…)

It’s almost the time of year (again) where I ask you to consider giving to the MDA over Labor Day Weekend.  I’m still going to do that, because it’s important and because those kids still need our help…but unfortunately, MDA has made some decisions that mean this is no longer a Labor Day tradition, no longer a lengthy event, and no longer the thing I love.  (But I want to be absolutely clear…my disdain for what they’ve done to the show, as described below, will not effect/affect/aeffect my giving.  I still believe in what MDA does, even if I don’t like the way they’re doing it.)

For as long as I can remember, the Jerry Lewis hosted telethon has taken place on Labor Day Weekend, beginning on Sunday night and going through Monday afternoon/early evening.  There have been some significant changes to that this year.  First, the show now only takes place on Sunday night (6pm through Midnight, Eastern).  And second, it will no longer be hosted by Jerry Lewis.  (In fact, he will most likely not appear at all.)

Let’s begin with Jerry Lewis.

Jerry Lewis has been involved with trying to raise money to cure muscular diseases for longer than most people have had TVs.  This was his pet project LONG before it was cool for Hollywood to give a shit about anything.  It was the one thing that even if you hated his movies, even if you judged him for some of the irresponsible things he’s said (or allegedly done) in the past, even if you thought he was the biggest asshole in the business…you could at least look at his work to cure Muscular Dystrophy (and related diseases) and think, “Well…at least he has a soul.”  His efforts have helped to raise billions of dollars over the years.  The only words that seem to resonate about Lewis are “slapstick,” “annoying,” “funny,” and “telethon.”

So what happened?

No one seems to really know…or at least they’re not telling.  Last year, the MDA started talking about making some changes to the telethon, citing dropping donations and ratings…and it seemed evident even then that Lewis (now aged 85) would be on his way out.  For the past several years, age and health had already reduced the number of hours that Jerry would appear on the show.  There’s nothing shameful about saying that he’s gotten old and just can’t do all 21 hours anymore.  That happens, and we all knew that one day he would either step down, be replaced, or maybe even die doing the freaking show.  Over the years, his health problems have been evident on screen, sometimes grabbing bigger headlines than the event itself.  We all sort of saw it coming…but not like this.  This is weird.

There has been a back-and-forth in the media where the MDA camp and the Lewis camp have been making different claims about if he will appear at the Telethon this year…with both parties now saying that he will not be hosting, nor will he show up at the event at all.  For a while, they were saying they might let him come out at the end and sing his trademark “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” but it is now evident that even that will not take place.  When a reporter directly asked what happened, Lewis pointedly replied, “It’s none of your business.”  There are rumors that he will hold a press conference on the day following the event and will address a thing or two.  No one knows what he might say…but it seems evident that there was some sort of falling out between Lewis and the people at MDA…and that’s a shame.

I don’t know who’s at fault, and no matter what either side says, we might not ever know, because that’s how the business works…but either way, a guy who’s worked his ass off for these kids for over 60 years, whose poured literal blood, sweat, and tears into the organization…  That guy’s gone.  And that’s bullshit.

Also bullshit is the major cut in the length of the telethon.

It is now less a telethon than a prime-time special, airing from 6-midnight (5 Central, I think?) on Sunday night.  It will no longer reach those of us who used to love sitting up until three a.m., who needed those hours to sit and wait to be moved to give.  It might not move a LOT of people to give at all this year, just because maybe they aren’t going to see the ONE story that would’ve gripped them and made them want to DO something…or they might see that it’s not on on Labor Day and assume the organization went belly-up.  Or they might not remember it.  Or they might think the suspicious ousting of Jerry Lewis is unforgivable.

So why are they doing it?

The MDA says they have been concerned about dropping ratings and lower giving in the past few years.  Their solution to the ratings problem is to shorten the show and put it on during the hours that people actually WATCH TV.  (Albeit against Fox’s biggest comedy night…ahem…)  Still…  I get that…and sure, it might help the ratings a little…  But that’s it.

The donations aren’t going to go up.  Not in this economy.  Times are hard all over, and the fact that they’ve still made a respectable showing, if not their “dollar more” over the past 5-10 years is remarkable.  In the wake of things like 9/11, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, etc, etc, the show has still raised TONS of money each year (even boasting its most successful year in that timeframe).  For the past few years, giving has been down, yes…but people don’t have fucking jobs.  If there’s no money to give, they can’t give it.

Plus…y’know…people aren’t going to give once the telethon’s over.  They’re just not…or at least not in the same volume.  When you cut a 21-hour show down to SIX hours, I don’t know how you expect it to make the same money…or (as MDA is predicting) for it to do BETTER numbers.  (Despite boasting such—ahem—“star power” as Darius Rucker, Martin McBride, and Lady Antebellum…only one of which I know had a real hit within the past 5-or-so years…and all of whom are suspiciously associated with the Pop-Country genre for some reason.)

In their shameless ratings-grabbing ploy, MDA has lost sight of a lot of why people gave to the show.  It isn’t because of star power.  (Even though I’m critical of the stars mentioned above, I am aware that they’re all at least a step above George Wallace, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and Billy Gilman.)  It wasn’t because the show was a ratings juggernaut.  (Hell, most of the time it was almost unwatchable.)  It was because we gave a damn…or were MADE to give a damn…

I’ve shared before that I used to watch the Telethon just for the purpose of making fun of it.  But over the years, over time, and over countless stories shared by families who need our support, the Telethon broke my heart.  MDA is one of only a handful of charities I give to these days—whatever that may say about me—and it happened because one night at three in the morning, I saw some kid sitting in a wheelchair talking about how much he loved going to an MDA camp, and as I watched him smiling and his mother standing in the background crying, I suddenly realized that I was definitely going to outlive that kid.  That didn’t seem right to me…so I gave for the first time, and I’ve given ever since, both during the Telethon, and also at Christmastime.

The telethon isn’t going to be on at three in the morning this year.  If this were the year that would’ve broken my heart, it wouldn’t happen.  I don’t know…  Maybe MDA doesn’t want to reach people like me anymore.

I haven’t decided if I’m watching the Telethon this year.  I might end up not remembering that it’s on and end up watching my usual Sunday night ritual of the Simpsons/Family Guy ilk, and there will be no continuing local coverage to remind me…  And I don’t think I’m the only one.  I think MDA is expecting a banner-year…a record-breaking year.  I’m predicting that this will be a decently rated show, but that it’ll probably be record-low numbers in terms of giving…and they won’t even be able to blame Jerry Lewis.

Oh well…  Just because the front office (or the marketing people, or whatever) has their collective head up their somehow also collective ass, that doesn’t mean that the kids should suffer.  So…think about giving anyway, even though this sucks, okay?  I’ll try to blog again before then and I’ll mention it when I do…but in case this week slips away too…give to the KIDS, and tell the people at MDA how much extra effort you had to go to in remembering to do so, since they hacked 15 hours out of the show.


Songlist from church this weekend:  (I ended up leading again, after someone else had to cancel.)

  1. Are You Washed in the Blood?
  2. Victory in Jesus
  3. Be Thou My Vision
  4. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
  5. Jesus, All for Jesus
  6. Blessed be the Name