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Farewell, Jerry Lewis

There’s an old story… perhaps even true… told about Winston Churchill at a party. Another guest reproves him saying, “Winston, you are drunk.” He responds, the story goes, by saying, “yes madam, and you are ugly. But tomorrow I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”

We laugh at that line because it evidences Churchill’s famous wit and self-composure. But, let’s be honest, that remark has barbs. It stings! Churchill was a great man, but he wasn’t always a nice man.

The same, I think, can be said of Jerry Lewis, the man who last night on 4 September 2011 was denied any chance to appear on the MDA Telethon that he helped start and make famous. Apparently Jerry was scheduled to appear in a taped segment singing his signature song 'You'll Never Walk Alone.' But even that was stymied at the last minute, reports say.

I’ve been hard on Lewis in these pages. As a marketer I always thought he was always too closely enmeshed with the branding of the Muscular Dystrophy Association… ‘Jerry’s Kids,’ and Linkthe ‘Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon’ to cite just two… for the MDA’s own good. Certainly, once Jerry and the MDA started down that road 44 years ago, this ignominious 'retirement' was always one of the possible endings.

Moreover, Lewis has made a regular habit of putting his foot in his mouth and ticking people off in inventive ways, sometimes even on air. No matter what he has said, he almost never apologizes. Why would he? The fact that Jerry had grip on the MDA Telethon through last year, when he was 84, tells you something about power of the man.

But do not doubt for a moment that just because he is not always nice man that he isn’t a great man. Lewis, for instance, taught both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas at the USC film school. In the 1960s he basically invented ‘video assist,’ the system whereby a film director can review the video version of a take immediately after it is shot.

On the charitable side, Lewis first hosted the MDA Telethon in 1952. The MDA Telethon became an annual event in 1966 and Lewis hosted it until 2010. For many of those years Lewis was on-air basically around the clock for more than 20 hours straight.

But the stamina it took to do that doesn’t compare to the perseverance and will Jerry Lewis showed in getting and keeping the MDA Telethon on the air for those 44 years. I don’t know Lewis and I haven’t read anything about how he did it. But I was intimately involved with the production of the Children’s Miracle Network Telethon. So I can promise you that telethons don’t just happen.

Entropy is the rule in television. There are so many forces tearing at commercial television shows, for instance, that rare is the program that lasts even one full season. Fewer still make it long enough to get to syndication after five years. Television in the United States isn’t a public service, it’s a business and a ruthless one at that. And one of the first rules of that business in the United States is “don’t give up your airtime for free.”

What Lewis did was create something compelling enough that hundreds of local television stations were willing to part with their precious airtime and even spend their own money airing it. And to do so for some part of 44 years. All to find a cure for a disease that afflicts right around 50,000 Americans. For the sake of comparison, more than 562,000 Americans die of cancer every year.

In 1966 Jerry Lewis didn’t enjoy the same prominence he did in, say, 1956. But it’s safe to say that to build up the MDA Lewis basically put his own career on perma-hold. Had Lewis thrown his considerable energy into his career in 1966 the way he did the MDA, Lewis almost certainly would have had 10 or 15 more good years as an actor and comedian and maybe 10 years beyond that as a director.

And there’s something sad about this old clown. Jerry Lewis might have been Bill Murray, the comedian so capable of both comedy and pathos, 10 years before Murray's talents were revealed to the world on Saturday Night Live.

I don’t know that I’d want to hang out with Jerry Lewis at a party the way I would another lively octogenarian, Betty White. But just as I revere Churchill I respect Jerry Lewis and what he has accomplished.

His many faults and foibles notwithstanding, you should too.

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