PRINT November 1989



WHO IS THIS GUY? What is this guy? Glistening hair floats over a militantly loosened collar stuffed into a shiny, expensive, ill-fitting suit. The camera closes in on a familiar face. This guy is taking advantage of just about the only airtime he’s had this year. Aside from brief sightings on Wiseguy, the Labor Day Telethon is it for Jerry Lewis. Ordinarily, to get this much attention he’d have to schlep to Paris. You see, in France Jerry Lewis is considered a genius. This last sentence is the funniest thing that ever happened anywhere near Jerry Lewis, which is disappointing since he’s supposed to be a comedian. Who thinks Jerry Lewis is funny (besides the French)? True, funniness, like most other attributes, is constructed in part through taste. True, one person’s sirloin is another person’s kitty stew. But really, who thinks Jerry Lewis is funny? Perhaps he’s about for more serious stuff. Perhaps Jerry Lewis is about a kind of abjection; a glistening knot of anger and petulance marinated in a soup of vindictive disingenuousness. (Write him for the recipe.)

But on second thought, comedy is always dead serious. Every parodic moment, every smidgen of irony, every giggle and smile is detonated by the feel of our lives; by moments that can be so weighted by sadness that they might only be experienced through farce. This farcical view can be a mediating force that acts upon gestures and emotions, coating them with the sheen of commentary, with the gloss of parody. This para-ode, this song alongside of, can break down the exaltedness of sacred cows and expose the delusion that lurks beneath every arrogant moment. So maybe Jerry Lewis, in his extreme expository projection of what it’s like to live a lie, really is a genius. (Just kidding.)

The pathos of comedy can shed light, allowing us to view the image of our own imperfection with generosity rather than fear and loathing. It can deliver a dose of vigilant self-examination that might temper us with a kind of joyous sobriety. But in its un-self-conscious form it might offer itself up as an object of derision, ripe for the pickings of camp and the manias of ridicule. The Labor Day Telethon clearly belongs to the latter genre, vomiting up 22 hours of nonstop vanity and stupendously riveting self-aggrandizement. Jerry and his side-kicks, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Tony Orlando, form a kind of shimmering trinity of outrageous schticksterism, oozing with every show-biz cliché, every bad dream of what it might mean to be an “entertainer.” But while Sammy has grown a bit wiser with time and Tony more tolerable simply because he’s never around, Jerry just keeps on keeping on. From the show’s lunatic beginning (an insane rendition of the Rockettes gigging in Tiananmen Square) to Jerry’s trademark sign-off (his faux-human go at “You’ll Never Walk Alone”), the entire production is marked by the distortions and distractions of the old schlockmeister himself.

From shedding his first telethonic tear at precisely 9:33 EST, to holding little Ashley, the Muscular Dystrophy Association National Poster Girl, like a hand puppet, to swabbing the sweat off his face as he stalks the stage for the next human who’ll obsequiously grovel at his feet and give him money, to sliding millions of dollars worth of corporate checks into his pocket as his face locks into a failed imitation of humble thankfulness, to wheeling down a supermarket “Aisle of Smiles” with one of his “kids” stuffed into a shopping cart, Jerry is out to prove just how great his greatness can be. It’s a campaign of sorts, emblazoned with a truly spectacular spew of self-testimonials: “I don’t need cue cards. I could just speak my guts out and it sounds terrific.” “I remember things, I’m good with numbers.” “Winston Churchill said ‘I’m a simple man, I like the best of everything.’ I’m like that too.” Dozens of these blatant self-tributes litter the telethon like tiny pellets of shit waiting to be bronzed. It appears that Jerry really is campaigning for something he believes he dearly deserves, like a Nobel Prize perhaps, or a cabinet post.

But watching this megalomaniacal lunge for the brass ring is obviously made a bit more complex when joined to the charitable function of the telethon. It cannot be denied that this frantic vanity production has raised hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 24 years to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and that’s no joke. In a country with the most minimal government support for health care, where millions are uninsured, where getting sick can mean total economic ruin and premature death, it is estimable that a private effort con raise so much money for care and research. One’s taste in comedians should not obscure the lives that are touched and the issues raised by an event like this. Any effort that enables people to live fuller and longer lives should obviously be supported. But something more complicated is afoot here.

Despite raising huge sums, despite doing a great deal of good, these attributes are undoubtedly secondary and tertiary concerns on the Lewisian agenda. And that’s what makes the telethon so compelling a travesty and so riveting a pastime. Because what’s primary to Jerry is Jerry. Barking out his abilities, flaunting his peccadilloes, and taking charge with a kind of incessantly bullying mean-spiritedness, he is nothing less than a shark on a spree. And when you really think about it, there’s an elegant sense of symmetry to it all: a neat tale of salutary penance. Jerry Lewis’ career was motored by his blatant characterization of physical affliction. Whether he was a Melvin or a Marvin, he was the stereotypical portrait of ingratiatingly kind disability, which dared not speak its name. Arms wildly gesturing, legs akimbo, constantly yelling “waaaaaaaaaaah!,” he was the apotheosis of what Jerry could never be: naive and good. So not only is Lewis a singer, a dancer, a comedian, an auteur, an orchestral conductor, a philanthropist, a writer, and a good memorizer. Perhaps, most importantly, he is his own best Poster Boy.

Barbara Kruger is an artist who writes. Her column on television appears regularly in Artforum.