For nearly 50 years, Americans knew that Labor Day weekend meant one thing: a new installment of The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon, an epic length, star-studded charity drive for muscular dystrophy. Usually hosting the proceedings from a glitzy Las Vegas venue such as the Sahara or Caesar’s Palace, the tuxedo-clad Lewis would broadcast for 21.5 hours straight, all but begging viewers to send in their donations and scolding them when the money wasn’t coming in fast enough. The comedian would do anything to keep people watching, and he wasn’t above bringing children with wheelchairs and crutches onstage to elicit sympathy. Lewis was a pioneer in the telethon field. He and his former partner, singer Dean Martin, began hosting such events in the early 1950s when they were the biggest entertainers in the world. The first Labor Day broadcast, however, didn’t happen until September 4, 1966. By that time, Lewis and Martin had gone through a bitter public breakup, so Lewis hosted the show solo.
Though his devotion to the cause was sincere, the controversial, outspoken Lewis was eventually ousted as host of the telethon in 2010, and the MDA gave up on the show entirely in 2014. But there are still plenty of highlights to be found on YouTube. The show’s most famous moment came in 1976, when Frank Sinatra organized an onstage reunion of Martin and Lewis, both of whom looked extremely uncomfortable.
And then there was the time Joan Crawford appeared on the show in what seemed to be a state of profound intoxication. Crawford’s daughter, Christina, appeared with her. Their rocky relationship would later be dramatized in the campy Mommie Dearest.
For the most part, The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon was profoundly unhip, serving as one of the last bastions of old-fashioned showbiz after The Ed Sullivan Show bit the dust. Nevertheless, John Lennon and Yoko Ono enthusiastically appeared on the show during the height of their fame, even citing Lewis as one of their favorite comedians.
For most of the years of the telethon, Lewis’ sidekick and announcer was Ed McMahon of The Tonight Show. Lewis had been a frequent guest and occasional substitute host on that show, so the pairing seemed natural. But Johnny Carson himself was also persuaded to appear on the telethon and did so with his usual panache.
All through the years, the mawkishness and shameless sentimentality of the telethon made it a popular target for comedians and satirists. Tom Lehrer and Frank Zappa both took potshots at Lewis in their acts. But maybe the definitive parody came in 1997, when Mr. Show With Bob And David devoted the last third of the “Please Don’t Kill Me” episode to a telethon hosted by an evil genius, who demands $30 million annually in exchange for not blowing up the world.
That sketch nails many of the telethon tropes, including the way Lewis would traditionally end each show with a teary rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel. Here’s the original for comparison.