Jerry Lewis Ousted as Telethon Host


For the first time in 45 years, comedian Jerry Lewis will not be hosting the telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). This year’s Labor Day event was supposed to be his last and it’s not entirely clear why the 85-year-old entertainer will no longer serve as chair of the telethons which have, all told, raised $2.5 billion, says the Los Angeles Times. Other performers including Paul Rodriguez, Dane Cook and Dave Chapelle have objected to his ouster but to many of us, it was long overdue and not simply because of the declining earning power of multi-hour telethons in the age of the internet or Lewis’ erratic behavior (mocking a female reviewer’s menstrual cycle in 1986, the near-utterance of a homophobic epithet in 2007).

“He’s the public face of the telethon,” performer Jason Masada says of Lewis in the Los Angeles Times, a comment that exactly captures why Lewis as chair of the telethon, and even telethons themselves, belong more and more to the age of the rotary telephone with the curly cord. Says M. Carrie Miceli, co-director of the Center for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at UCLA:

“When the disease wasn’t treatable, it was sadness and poster children. The new image is not as pitiful as much as empowering.”

Muscular dystrophy is a “group of disorders” affecting more than 1 million Americans; the most common form of the disorder is Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which affects about 1 in 3,500 males worldwide. Neuromuscular disorders weaken the muscles and can eventually “result in profound disability,” but scientific advances mean that those with it now live into their 30s and beyond. Other groups, including one called Cure Duchenne, have also arisen and challenged what you might call the hegemony of Lewis’ telethon which, in its heyday, could go on for 21 hours (it has now been whittled down to six).

At the February 2009 Oscar awards ceremony, Lewis received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his work in the telethon. But many felt that he had really done more to harm rather than help the public understanding of disability; disability rights advocates had long criticized Lewis’ telethon for perpetuating pity rather than respect and dignity for individuals with disabilities. An essay entitled A Test of Wills: Jerry Lewis, Jerry’s Orphans, and the Telethon in Ragged Edge made the case that all the telethon had come to do was to  reinforce the “stigma against disabled people.”

Once, a glitzy, smiling celebrity and a child with crutches, in a wheelchair, wearing leg braces — “Jerry’s Kids” — was the public image of disability. Being disabled meant you were sick, weak and in need of help and grateful for whatever someone — especially someone famous! — was so kind to give you. It meant you were “a blessing” and, as my husband’s uncle told him and his son when they went to visit their severely disabled cousin JP in a state institution, a reminder of “why you should be grateful you’re not like that.” But today, the discourse about disability is about empowerment: Think of Oscar Pistorius qualifying for next year’s Olympics on high-tech prosthetic blades. Someone with disabilities may indeed need accommodations such as ramps or an augmentative communication device. But unlike yesteryear’s crutches, these aren’t meant to evoke pity but to show how, by changing the world around us, we can make it a better place for all us, with all of our different abilities.


Related Care2 Coverage

Siblings, Autism & Autistic-American Families: Book Review

Transportation is a Civil Right

A Subminimum Wage For Workers With Disabilities? TAKE ACTION!

Photo from Wikimedia Commons


Bruce S.
Bruce S6 years ago

This "Telethon" should be boycotted by anyone who has a drop of decency. To THROW OUT an old man who has done more for Muscular Dystrophy and raising money for its research, is beyond the realm of reason.


Marie W.
Marie W6 years ago

Sounds like a personal vendetta to me.

Lois M.
Lois M6 years ago

I thought I heard this some time ago and it was Jerry who was pulling out after so many years. He is a remarkable man and I'm sure has made his share of mistakes as we all have. He ran the telethon for years and his star power earned millions for MD. He deserves a huge thank-you and best wishes for his future!

Debbie Wasko
Past Member 6 years ago

Yet another great idea going bad. Jerry is, was and will always be the mentor of this worthy cause, period!

Joe R.
Joe R6 years ago

Jerry always creeped me out. Not a nice man.

Lindsey DTSW
.6 years ago

I fail to understand why anyone would be castigated for helping to inspire "pity" for someone suffering with MD. "Pity" is defined as "sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed, or unhappy." We SHOULD feel sympathetic sorrow for anyone who has a painful or physically limiting medical condition - and then put our sympathy to work trying to alleviate the problem.

Thanks to Jerry Lewis for a lot of years trying to help alleviate the problem.

trina firey
Trina D. firey6 years ago

There is no mention of Jerry's age being a factor in his resignation, yet some people are inferring this, and getting angry. I really doubt age is the reason he wont be back for MD.

BTW, a man here called Jerry, who is 85
years young, an old dinosaur? This is offensive to me, a 50 year old. My dad is 84. He plays trombone in three bands, sings in the church choir, rides his bike 8 miles each day, takes care of a ranch home and two acres of land, works on his collections of big
band memorabelia & antique toys and is still impassioned by civil war history, He surfs the
web, sends e-mail and organizes shriner's events. To insinuate that people his age are has beens, incapable, Incompetent and unproductive is cruel and ignorant. It perpetuates disregard for all people as most will experience growing older in their lifetime, and, unfortunately, the stigma of age.

Jerry raised awareness of a terrible condition, otherwise relatively unknown. He raked in a lot of money to fund research. He should not have been ousted, if he really truly was...

But, Jerry is a Jerk. He is arrogant, crude and rude. Not fun to watch!

Gary A.
Gary Addis6 years ago

In a televised interview twenty years ago, Jerry refused to discuss how much he was paid to be the public face of the disease. Oh! y'all didn't know that he was an unpaid volunteer? Well, that depends on how you define "paid." He doesn't receive a wage, but he and other headliners do receive an honorarium, to cover their "expenses" so that they won't be out of pocket for giving their time and fame. Nearly 19% of MDA direct contributions from fundraising activities is scraped off the top as direct fundraising costs. Another 14.9% of total contributions (bequests, is consumed by a category listed as fundraising. FYI, stations that carry the telethon live donate the broadcast time. People who man the phones are unpaid volunteers. Professional full time MDA staff are accounted for in general overhead. So, 14.9% of $190,000,000 collected in 2009 is a significant amount of money that is going somewhere, to honorariums perhaps?

Then there's the fact that MD sufferers felt belittled by Mr Lewis' paternalism--for instance, his standing beside a 40 yr old man confined to a wheelchair and proclaiming all MD patients to be "Jerry's Kids."

Still, MDA's record is better than that of many other charities that consume 40-80% of donations with administrative costs. MDA is definitely a worthy charity. I'm just sayin' ......

Dorothy P.
Dorothy P6 years ago

God bless you Jerry, 45 years as telethon host for Muscular Dystrophy, that is an amazing feat. Well done to you for lasting that long regardless of the gossips, facts, news stories.

Long live televised telethons.