NEW YORK - No one would sniff at all the dollars Jerry Lewis raised for muscular dystrophy: a couple of billion during his 45-year reign as host of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon.
But what kind of TV did he offer in exchange? The short answer: Jerry put on a show like no other.
Labor Day this year promises to be bland by comparison, with the 85-year-old Lewis now banished from the annual rite he built from scratch and molded in his image.
As if deflated by the absence of its larger-than-life host, "The 46th Annual MDA Labor Day Telethon" will fill just six hours (Sunday from 6 p.m. to midnight in each of the United States' four time zones), rather than the grueling 21 1/2-hour endurance contest that Lewis used to churn through with his viewers in tow.
On this year's broadcast (which, ironically, will no longer be airing on Labor Day), a quartet of lightweights are standing in for Jerry: Nigel Lythgoe ("So You Think You Can Dance"), Nancy O'Dell ("Entertainment Tonight"), Alison Sweeney ("The Biggest Loser") and Jann Carl (billed as "an Emmy-winning journalist").
Celebrities will include Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez, Lady Antebellum, Richie Sambora and Jordan Sparks.
It may be entertaining. It may spur contributions. But as a media event, this year's telethon can hardly match the display of wretched excess Jerry Lewis guaranteed, especially in his epic, unbridled prime.
"Jerry is a ferociously contradictory personality, and that's what makes him fascinating to watch," says satirist-actor-writer Harry Shearer, a Jerry-watcher for a half-century. He noted just two of Lewis' clashing identities: "the inner 9-year-old, set loose" and the would-be deep thinker "who fancies himself something of an autodidact."
"It all makes for psychodrama of a high order," Shearer marvels.
Year after year, Lewis bounced between the polarities of smarmy sentimentalism and badgering lunacy as if in a weightless environment. He put his multiple identities on raw display, each constantly jostling for the spotlight.
Hear him on a circa-1970s telethon introducing singer Julius LaRosa with syntax-butchering effusiveness as "the kind of human being that is wonderful to get close to and near, and then you pray that it's contagious" and as "what the literal translation of the word 'professional' means," in possession of "probably the best singing voice I think anyone has ever heard, when you listen to the heart that goes into it."
It was fascinating, ridiculous, cringe-worthy and spellbinding to see how Jerry held court for the parade of entertainers, the checks-bearing civic leaders and corporate sponsors, and the adorable, afflicted kids.
The Jerry Lewis telethon was a reality show decades before the term or genre had been invented. It was video retailing, years before QVC. It was round-the-clock TV companionship long before cable news and the Weather Channel.
For nearly a full day, it was a spectacle of show-biz glitz, heart-tugging emotion and suspense: Would Jerry make it to the end without unraveling? Would the level of pledges do justice to his efforts at soliciting them?
There was a perfect symbiosis of the telethon and Lewis. He made muscular dystrophy as big a star as he had once been. Meanwhile, aligning himself with the search for its cure gave him the gravitas he had always sought. He branded the disease with himself, and vice versa.
He was not only the host of the telethon and chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (a job he would hold for 60 years), but the central figure in a massive enterprise as the self-styled avenging angel of a dread disease.
The contradictions, though, were legion, breathtaking to behold. Shearer covered the 1976 telethon during its heyday for Film Comment magazine.
"The telethon combines the hysterical mystique of the (Las Vegas) Strip superstar with equally hysterical desperation of the downtown lounge act," he wrote. "It mixes the glib disinterest of a TV star taping a thirty-second public-service spot with the glib agony of a comedian on a crusade."
There was the unresolvable question of Lewis' motives; he has famously refused to say why he poured so much of his life into MDA. How much of what he did was prompted by humanitarian urges? How much is explained by the voracious appetites of an attention hog?
And how to explain the choice of theme songs by Lewis for his righteous cause: the piteousness of "Smile (Though Your Heart Is Aching)," and, of course, the riotously inappropriate "You'll Never Walk Alone" with which Lewis, overcome by emotion, ended each telethon, daring his audience to consider it a cruel joke.
Lewis found a perfect counterbalance for his excesses and vanities in the purity and urgent need of "his" kids. Everything he did he was doing in their service, which, in his mind, absolved him of his carte blanche life-or-death extravagance.
It made him, at last, a success on TV. He was a comedian-singer-writer-actor-director-producer-movie star who, after splitting with his partner Dean Martin in the mid-1950s, had failed to match his other triumphs with any real television inroads. But on the telethon each year, for 21 1/2 hours, he was the unquestioned boss of the Love Network.
It is not as if his TV acceptance was not a mixed blessing, as Shawn Levy observed in his Lewis biography, "King of Comedy."
On the one hand, Lewis was the star of a hit show "for which the nation not only dropped all else on a summer holiday weekend but actually opened its wallets." On the other hand, Lewis could never be certain "that it was to him and not his cause that the American public was responding with its support."
This has long since become moot, all the more so since Aug. 3, when, with no elaboration, MDA announced that Lewis had "completed his run" as national chairman, and that he would not be appearing on the telethon, as promised earlier.
Lewis has provided no insight into the matter. But it is hard to imagine how wronged he must feel after bonding with the telethon for so long. As Levy writes in "King of Comedy," Lewis "had conflated America's charitable instincts with love for himself as a public figure and even as one more lonely child."
The telethon will be on again this Labor Day weekend, in some faint version of what Lewis wrought. But for those who watch, and remember it with Jerry, it is likely to feel like a lonely affair.