Monday, September 7, 2015

The Labor Day telethon and the death of show business

Dino, Frankie, and Jerry in 1976: This is what real show business looks like, folks.

Goodbye, old friend!
It is my considered opinion that show business -- real, greasy, old-school, Hollywood Babylon-type show business -- died sometime during the 1970s. What killed it off? Oh, a bunch of things. On the music scene, emerging genres like punk rock, disco, new wave, heavy metal, and even rap (remember that "Rapper's Delight" came out in 1979) all took turns making jazz, swing, and crooning look positively obsolete. In movies, nerds like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas rose up with whiz-bang, special-effects-driven sci-fi epics which relied less on old-fashioned star power to sell tickets. In comedy, newcomers like Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman brought ironic detachment to the game, while George Carlin and Richard Pryor tested the boundaries of what could be said on stage in public. On TV, family sitcoms, once a bastion of wholesomeness, got grungier and more controversial (thanks to Norman Lear), while traditional variety shows were gradually phased out in favor of the sharper, often nastier National Lampoon-inspired humor of Saturday Night Live.

The last bastions of what I call "real show business," at least on television, were The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast and Jerry Lewis' annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Of course, Dino and Jerry had been a boffo socko comedy team, stars of stage and screen, in the 1950s before their acrimonious, greed-and-ego-fueled breakup in 1956, right in the middle of the Eisenhower years. Though they went their separate ways, Martin and Lewis stayed true to their established images for decades. Neither strayed far from the Las Vegas school of pseudo-hipness, right down to the tuxedos, the martinis, and the thoroughly Brylcreemed hair. The British Invasion and the subsequent counterculture of the 1960s didn't seem to affect them in the least. They were who they were, for better or worse.

Dean roasted his showbiz pals until 1984, then kicked the bucket in 1995. Jerry's still around, but for how much longer? This is the first Labor Day in my lifetime without a telethon. The MDA finally had enough of his politically-anti-correct rants and gave him the boot in 2010. The telethon limped on without him for a few years -- helmed, I think, by Ryan Seacrest or Carson Daly or some other lobotomized eunuch nonentity -- but was finally put out of its misery. Of course, one could say that the MDA telethon was a tasteless, exploitative spectacle which did more harm than good for people with muscular dystrophy. Indeed, many with MD hated the show. But I'll always retain some fond memories of this truly odd TV ritual, if only for infamous moments like the time in '76 when Frank Sinatra orchestrated a surprise reunion between Martin and Lewis, live on the air. As one TV critic put it: "Dean looked drunk, and Jerry looked like he was ready to kill."