The Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon was must-watch TV in our house

This story originally appeared in our September 1998 edition of Columbus Monthly. We republish it here in memory of comedy great Jerry Lewis, who died Sunday.

My dad liked Dean Martin because he was from Steubenville. Dino, not my dad. From Steubenville, I mean. Dean was. My old man is from Washington, Pennsylvania, and he liked Steubenville and Dean Martin just on general principles. Eastern Ohio river towns like Steubenville and old western Pee-Ay steel towns like Warshington, as they call it, feel a kinship based on blue-collar roots and tough-ass football.

This affection does not carry over to Dean’s old partner. My father did not—does not—like Jerry Lewis at all. I didn’t understand that until I tried to drag him into one of my Why-Jerry-Is-Great deals one time, enthusing about the deft minimalism of “The Bellboy” or “The Ladies Man,” and he hit me with, “I never could stand Jerry Lewis.”

“What do you mean? Remember when I was a kid and we used to watch their movies that were always on TV on Saturday afternoons? “The Caddy?” “The Stooge?” “That’s My Boy?”You’d watch them with me; you said you remembered going to see them when they came out! What do you mean you don’t like Jerry Lewis?”

“Well,” my dad said, “I liked Dean Martin. He was from Steubenville.”

I expect if you divided the world into people who like Jerry Lewis, and people who don’t, the mass of humanity would be on one side and on the other side there’d be me, some lunatique French film critics and, of course, the many grateful recipients of Jerry’s charitable activities.

When I talk about Jerry Lewis I usually get a laugh. Gotta be a put-on, right? When I get to the part about Labor Day being my favorite holiday because of my love for the telethon, they’re sure it’s a joke. No joke. This is a very big time of year around my house. The wife and kids, I know, would probably vote for Christmas or Halloween, but me—I like staying up with Jerry and watching the stars come out.

I’ll sleep late the Sunday before Labor Day, then lay in supplies for the 22-hour extravaganza. I’ll tell the kids that, tonight, they can stay up all night if they want. By 9 p.m., when Jerry hits the stage in Vegas, I’ll be at fever pitch. I’ve been known to give him a standing ovation right there in the living room.

There’s nobody like him. Like he muscular dystrophy telethon itself, only America could have produced such a creature as Jerry Lewis. As we’ve all discovered since Jerry and his partner were the biggest movie attraction in the world in the ‘50s, there are two sides to Jerry: the geek-boy and the prick. Truth be told, I like the prick better. This is why I regard “The Nutty Professor” as a genuine masterpiece. Jerry’s take on the Jekyll-Hyde tale is one of the most personal films ever made. It’s almost grotesque. What leads a man to put his two selves so nakedly out there before the public, inviting them to laugh at the self-loathing geek and the narcissistic prick?

And it’s damn funny.

I’ve read that when the movie came out everybody assumed the Buddy Love character was Jerry mocking his former partner Dino. But Buddy is the same guy we’ve seen on the telethon all these years, right down to the jet-black oil slick of a haircut and pinkie ring. Jerry aficionados know that Jerry keeps certain accessories—the rings, a gold watch, the hair—on in every movie, no matter what character or costume he’s wearing. Jerry needs those things, like if he takes them off someone might easily mistake him for a little Joey Levitch, an unloved, ignored schmuck from Newark, New Jersey. He fascinates me.

My wife refused to believe I was really sincere about this until the very beginning of our first telethon together. I’d been talking about it for weeks, confounding my then-future father-in-law. “Get the hell out of here,” he said when I told him about my thing for Jerry Lewis. So he called during the show. It was the first telethon after the death of Sammy Davis Jr., the only really big star from the old days who’d still make the show every year and do a killer number. I’d told my father-in-law that Jerry would do a tribute that would be the highlight of the show, and Jerry didn’t let me down. He showed a montage of clips of Sammy’s telethon appearances through the years, then, when the film ended, Jerry stood stunned, silent. He gathered himself after a minute, tears forming in his eyes, and said, “I told them not to let me see that until this very minute because I wanted it to do to me what it should do to me, what it did do to me. . . .” And here he broke down. My ecstasy was disturbed by the phone. “Jeffrey!” It was my father-in-law and he was laughing like hell. “Did you see it?” We bonded somehow at that moment.

I’m looking forward to the telethon more this year than in a long, long time. The sad truth is that the show—and Jerry for that matter—had been in a decline that was steepening year by year. His Hollywood and Vegas buddies had deserted him: no more Frank, no more Bob Hope, not even Jerry Seinfeld—Jerry was lucky to get Wayne Newton. The old showbiz glitz, the telethon’s whole purpose as far as I was concerned, was replaced by a steady stream of remote bits from Branson, Missouri. I kid you not. He had goddamn Boxcar Willie on three or four years in a row.

And Jerry wasn’t as much fun. Whatever his doctors were doing to keep him lucid for the duration of the show was working all too well. A far cry from the ‘70s telethons when Jerry was in the midst of his self-confessed drug-and-booze addictions and you never knew what the hell he was going to do.

Well, you knew he was going to cry. Especially as he tried to struggle through “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at the end of the show. And sometimes he’d let the prick run loose, making long vicious speeches about the evil bastards who questioned his charitable motives. God, I loved that stuff.

But just as I was about to give up on Jer, and admit that yet another American institution was at the end of the road, he came back last year and knocked ‘em dead. Jerry’s comeback in the Broadway revival of “Damn Yankees” had suddenly made him hot again, and the big stars came crawling back. Jerry was rejuvenated, back to being his old prickly self, even letting the geek-boy out more often than he had in years.

I got the chance to meet Jerry a couple years ago and it was a disaster. It was a press conference for his Columbus stop on the “Damn Yankees “ tour, and I wangled my way in, my copy of Jerry Lewis Sings!—his ‘50s foray into pop crooning that must be heard to be believed—tucked under my arm.

I asked a bunch of questions which he graciously answered, then I went too far. I asked him about “The Day the Clown Cried,” his unreleased film about a clown who leads children at a Nazi death camp into the gas chambers (honest to God). The movie is said to be more grotesque, more Jerry, than even “The Nutty Professor.” It’s long been a sore point with Jerry that he lost control of the movie, which supposedly is sitting in a bank vault in Sweden.

Jerry looked at me with dead eyes. I saw color start to creep up his cheek. But Jerry appears to be mellowing. “Let’s not talk about that,” he said. “I want to talk about things that are positive.” I summoned the courage to ask him to sign my album, which he did with a flourish. If my house catches on fire, the wife and kids are on their own: The first thing I grab is going to be Jerry Lewis.