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ONCE AGAIN, ALL EYES WILL BE ON LEWIS AND HIS TELETHON, A LABOR OF LOVE

What is the most-watched nationally televised show next to the Super Bowl?

Answer: The Jerry Lewis Telethon.

That news in a press release from the Muscular Dystrophy Association might be a bit of a surprise to some people. It was to me.

Now for the commercial. The telethon will be on WGRZ-TV starting at 7 a.m. Labor Day. It will run to 7 p.m. and will showcase some wonderful entertainment.

One day last week, a person said, "How about clearing up some misconceptions about the Jerry Lewis Telethon, which is so riddled by them?

The big question posed every year is, "Why does Jerry Lewis do it when no one he loves or is related to has muscular dystrophy?" Lewis won't say why muscular dystrophy is his "favorite charity" except to reiterate, "I have one unfulfilled goal --to cure it."

To those who argue about the "favorite charity" designation, I commend the millions of dollars Lewis has collected for the charity. And it is the most widely telecast telethon ever, with its show now broadcast live to 750 million viewers.

When the question about why he does it every Labor Day came up some years back, one reader said, "The reason is because Jerry Lewis played a lot of characters with physical faults in movies. He wants to apologize to those people he has offended." That is not the official answer, but it is one of the best to come in.

Another oft-asked question is, "How much is Jerry Lewis paid for this gig?" Nothing. It's a freebie.

Another misconception is that the MDA deals only with neurological diseases. It also has achieved breakthroughs in other diseases, such as AIDS, Alzheimer's, cancer, cystic fibrosis, Huntington's and Parkinson's.

Naturally, I wasn't surprised when it was stressed to me that a newcomer to show business was flattered to be on the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Later, I was told, "The big shots also fight for the chance to be on. That's one reason why Ed McMahon joined Jerry and has been doing the show for 31 years," That is also how long WGRZ-TV has been running it.

I have watched the show (to many people, it will always be a show) for years and marveled at how the producer keeps an eye on what appeals to the public. Among the highlights this year will be Celine Dion doing her bit from "Titanic" that has broken sales records.

Another coup was getting Jerry Seinfeld to perform with Lewis. As was Tony Bennett, who is so popular with the younger set these days.

Among others in the show will be Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Drew Carey, "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher and Louie Anderson, who will coordinate the likes of impressionist Gordie Brown, Jeff Foxworthy and Comedy Central's Ben Stein and Bob Zany. They will receive backup from more than a dozen comedians from Yarmy's Army and the Improv Comedy Club.

That release mentioned before uses the line, "round-the-clock entertainment." And who can argue with that contention when the list includes Billy Joel, Gloria Estefan, Kevin Meaney and the cast of "Fosse: a Celebration in Song and Dance."

In 1996, the American Medical Association gave its AMA Lifetime Achievement Awards to Jerry Lewis and the MDA for "significant and lasting contributions to the health and welfare of humanity." It had never gone to a non-profit agency before.

But it was not always thus. In 1994, some dissidents, including a few poster children who labeled themselves as "Jerry's Orphans" protested that Lewis used the "pity approach" as a tool. They especially objected to the designation of them as "Jerry's kids."

I don't know how that insurrection was put down. But I do know that a show business expert in 1994 told me, "Try to name another telethon with a celebrity's name attached to it."

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