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 MDA 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 (6 p.m. Sunday, KTNV-TV, Channel 13), rather than the grueling 21½-hour endurance contest that Lewis used to churn through with his viewers in tow.
On this year's broadcast (which, ironically, will no longer actually air 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 Jordin 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 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.
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.
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.