What Was the Telethon?


This weekend marks the first time in forty-nine years that the Muscular Dystrophy Association will not air its Labor Day Telethon. This might be a passing thought for a sizable portion of the American viewing public who knew the telethon only as what was on in the background of their long weekend celebrations. But as a fixture of the American mediascape over the latter half of the twentieth century, the telethon should be remembered as a singular media format that holds up a mirror to many important aspects of American culture.

The funnyman face of Jerry Lewis will come to mind for those who remember watching the annual program in their younger years. It was Lewis’s unique theatrical styling that characterized the telethon’s overall aesthetic, alternatively hokum and hangdog as some of Hollywood’s biggest acts shared the stage with poster children and MDA-funded biomedical researchers. It was this alternation that made the telethon such an arresting media event, an occasion for emotional release that viewers felt was in service of something larger and good.

Jerry Lewis loses his composure in an emotional segment during the 2010 telethon, his last appearance as the program’s host.

The telethon as a media format is a relic of the midcentury television landscape, one that now must cope with increasing market fragmentation and new avenues for content delivery that prevent the stunning audience ratings of the telethon decades ago. But the telethon also set in motion a constellation of American values about charity that endure today.

When comedian Milton Berle appeared on NBC in 1949 to announce the very first “television marathon,” he mentioned the motivation for the event only briefly. “Here in America,” he said, “we are very, very concerned about our great health.” Audiences needed little further explanation, it turned out, because the many telethons that later studded the television landscape were very often related to causes that pledged to improve America’s health.

It’s not surprising, then, that the telethon often attempted to model good “health” in the very form of its broadcasts. The MDA telethon was the most successful to fashion itself as a mediated endurance test, “running” through the night to collect donations. “Show some muscle, support the hustle” was the oft-repeated tagline of one of the last MDA broadcasts. In the moments when Jerry Lewis was literally out of breath, having just tap-danced or comically chased a crew member around the stage, one got the sense that being out of breath is what the show was all about. The telethon was a physical but also moral test of stamina.

As the late historian Paul Longmore makes brilliantly clear in a soon-to-be-released book on the telethon from Oxford University Press, it’s not accidental that the telethon was rendered in terms of sport. Fever-pitched telethon hosts seem a lot like hoarse-voiced football coaches — or preachers. The telethon offers absolution for the American individualistic ethos that would otherwise threaten the common good if not for ritualized moments of what Longmore calls “conspicuous contribution.” What made the telethon so successful was the way it appealed to the American public to prove themselves as “givers,” offsetting American tendencies to turn everyone into avaricious “takers.”

The telethon is penance for America’s original bite into the anti-statist apple.

Seeing the telethon in this light throws into sharp relief a whole constellation of other charity “marathons” that gained momentum with the telethon: dance-a-thons, walk-a-thons, swim-a-thons, even, to cite a few from the past few months, a crawl-a-thon, bong-a-thon, and hot-tub-a-thon. Events that stage extreme tests of endurance, often expressly on behalf of those who cannot participate, continue to be wildly successful occasions for raising money.

And for an obvious but often ignored reason: -thons of all kinds enshrine able-bodiedness as a cultural ideal. Looking back at the many charity marathons that began with the telethon, we see that the most popular, the most resonant, and the most financially successful ones were staged by organizations that seek to aid disabled people.

The problem is that disability is not automatically pathetic the way the telethon had it. When anti-telethon activists began protesting the productions in the early 1990s, they drew important attention to the ways that the telethon portrayed disabled people as helpless and dependent, an assumedly invalidated minority upon which the telethon could stage its performance without ever considering that disabled people might not need help, that they lead meaningful private and public lives. Refusing Lewis’s claims that those affected by MD were “his kids,” these activists called themselves “Jerry’s Orphans.”

Jerry’s Orphans interrupt a local broadcast of the MDA telethon in Chicago. Two activists in wheelchairs are on the stage, behind them tiers of volunteers working the call center. One of the hosts is on one knee talking to one of the activists, Mike Ervin. Captions read: STOP THE TELETHON NOW.

For keen observers of the telethon, these problematic assumptions about disability were there all along. In a Parade magazine feature about the telethon from 1990 — just months after the landmark passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act — Lewis wrote a hypothetical first-person account of living with a neuromuscular disease. “I realize my life is half, so I must learn to do things halfway,” he wrote. “I just have to learn to try to be good at being half a person.” When pressed on CBS News in 2001 for his opinion of the activists who critiqued the telethon for presenting people with disabilities as pity props, Lewis shot off. “Pity? If you don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in your house!”

Mirroring Lewis’s personal views, the MDA telethon refused to see disabled people as anything other than an opportunity to find a cure, a tack that lauds biomedical research without giving much credence to a surer path to aid those with disabilities: reversing stigma and building a more inclusive world.

The MDA telethon might have raised nearly $2.5 billion since its inception. But what of the “awareness” that it and other civic organizations lionize as a curiously ill-defined feature of their efforts? The telethon’s “awareness” efforts have not affected the extremely disproportionate unemployment rates of disabled people, America’s largest minority. “Awareness” has not helped secure the wages necessary to keep personal care attendants in reliable supply. “Awareness” has not helped make readily understood that disability is a natural human experience and an identity category that affects us all.

The kind of “awareness” the MDA telethon sought might in fact be what prevents us from demanding that, like Black lives, disabled lives matter. Within the national conversation about racial injustice and police terror over the past year, few have paused to consider how Eric Garner’s asthmatic breath or Freddie Gray’s childhood lead poisoning or Sandra Bland’s epilepsy medication’s potential side effects might have affected their tragic deaths. American ableism — enshrined in forms like the telethon — is so strong that we have not begin to adequately investigate the ways that disability intersects with many forms of marginality.

When the MDA announced the end of the telethon in May of this year, it cited the success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge as proof of a changing environment for charity campaigns, one that now demands a sophisticated understanding of how social media propagate giving appeals. And yet, just a few weeks ago the ALS Association announced “Round 2” of the Ice Bucket Challenge, taking a page from MDA’s playbook by trying to inaugurate the campaign as an annual event. The ALS Association has taken many more pages out of MDA’s book, going so far as to erase the visible representations of disabled people from the very viral form that made the Challenge so successful. Perhaps the telethon is not truly over if so many new actors are ready to take the stage to perform the same script.

What was the telethon? A successful charity form, but more. It was a reflection of American ideals of ability, individualism, and autonomy. Let us look in the mirror that the telethon is — and describe that image for those who don’t see — so we can change what it tells us about ourselves.

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