Jerry Lewis emcees the death of summer. Each year, in a medieval carnival that’s Hieronymus Bosch–meets– the Knights of Columbus, this manic, borscht-sweating Grim Reaper in clown makeup brings terminal closure to the summer, not with a scythe but wielding a monogrammed Hoffritz toenail clipper. And it’s death by a thousand cuts over the course of the 21-hour telethon.
I think one of the reasons I love the telethon so much is that, deep down, I don’t really like summer. I like the “regulation” year—the working year. I like unrelenting overdrive, the sense of embattlement, the crushing, migraine-inducing deadlines, the serried, cacophonous streets, life in extremis with its rigor and intensity. It’s hard-core. Summer is soft. It’s lax. Summer is an elephantiasis of the weekend.
I’m not a hard-hearted person, and I can certainly appreciate many things vicariously. But by Labor Day, I’ve had it. And seasons like the summer can not be appeased. They understand only one thing: force. This is Jerry Lewis’s indispensable function in our culture. Without him, summer would never end.
As irreproachably laudable as the telethon’s purpose is—raising money to cure muscular dystrophy—we all know there’s something coarse and grotesque about the proceedings. We cringe, we peek through our fingers, but we can’t turn it off. Jerry Vale, Steve and Edie, the bugged-out Marty Allen, Señor Wences, tuxedoed dervishes on unicycles juggling candlepins and spinning plates to “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” trained bears, children in leg braces, and the latest cash tally announced with drum rolls and fanfares of trombones.
At the heart of the medieval carnival was an inversion of hierarchical rank. And so it is with the telethon. Stars are forced to perform menial labor, manning the phones, and in that manically unmodulated voice, Jerry blasphemes captains of industry as they hand him circus-size checks for his kids.
Each and every year, Jerry Lewis reenacts his murder/suicide pact with the summer. Disheveled, mopping flop sweat from his jowls, barely coherent, the shaman of madcap morbidity chokes up as he sings “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high” and you know he’s taking the summer down with him. It’s all over. The meshugene martyr self-immolates to expiate our excesses. For months, we’ve reveled in a sea of gin and tonic, anarchic, acrobatic coupling, and sun-blocked sloth. Jerry dies for our sins.
He’s not a well man himself. Last year, a shockingly bloated Lewis (he’d gained some 50 pounds from steroids he was taking as treatment for pulmonary fibrosis, an inflammatory lung disorder) appeared for less than half of the 21-hour telecast.
So whether it’s a new incarnation of the traditional MDA telethon or perhaps a telethon to raise money to cure Jerry Lewis himself, somebody’s going to have to step up and preside over the affair. Perhaps Ali G. Maybe the erstwhile Iraqi minister of information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf.
But one thing is certain. Without someone to terminate the summer—and terminate it with extreme prejudice—things could get seriously out of control.