He was among a dozen or so angry comedy stars who gathered in Hollywood Friday afternoon on stage at the Laugh Factory comedy club for a news conference in defense of Jerry Lewis.
The 85-year-old Lewis was abruptly dismissed Wednesday as the host and national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s annual Labor Day Telethon — “an event he helped shape, and was the face of, for nearly 60 years,” observed the Los Angeles Times.
Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada told reporters he was “disgusted” with the way Lewis had been treated.
“He’s done so much for the telethon, and he raised over $2 1/2 billion for the telethon, and what they did to him is a shame,” Masada told the news conference. “I can’t describe how hurt I am, how hurt every comedian is.”
Masada told reporters the purpose of the news conference was to rally public support to “see if we can get Jerry Lewis back on the telethon again.”
Among those taking the microphone were stand-up comics Paul Rodriguez, Larry Miller, Tom Dreesen, French comedian Mustapha El Atrassi and 83-year-old Norm Crosby, who co-hosted the telethon with Lewis for a quarter century.
Rodriguez said Dave Chappelle and Kevin Pollak were on the road, but had sent messages of support.
Crosby called the MDA’s actions “abrupt” and “cruel,” according to the Reuters news agency.
“If it was time for him to leave, that’s debatable. If he was cranky and nasty and difficult, that’s possible too,” Crosby told reporters.”But it was all because of the passion he had for these kids and the money they raised and for the telethon. Certainly there could’ve been a much more pleasant, easier way for him to go.”
Meanwhile, in a Forbes magazine commentary, “When writing on health care, one rarely expects to take on issues involving show business luminaries,” wrote Rick Ungar in his “The Policy Page” column.
“However, when an individual who is single-handedly responsible for leading an incredibly successful battle against neuromuscular diseases is unceremoniously stripped of his general’s stripes– an effort which has led to improving, extending and saving the lives of some of the one million people in this country who suffer from neuromuscular illness – it very much falls into a discussion of healthcare.
He admitted that “we do know that Lewis can be difficult, unpleasant, offensive and unruly. So what? It really does not matter if Lewis’ behavior was somehow the cause of his dismissal because there is literally nothing he could have done that would justify how he has been treated.”
Movie reviewer Rogert Ebert called Lewis’ removal “crude and graceless.”
Firing Lewis in this manner, Ungar wrote, “is a matter of sheer stupidity. Imagine how much money could have been raised had they decided instead to make a fuss about this being the last Jerry Lewis appearance on a telethon? Every single star and luminary in this nation and beyond would have been ready, willing and able to make an appearance to thank Lewis for his work over these many years.
“Anybody think that would have brought in a few bucks?
“What I do know is that when I am asked for a donation to MDA – one I have readily given over the years because I know the organization is effective and has used my money to great effect – only one face pops up in my head and that is the visage of Jerry Lewis.
“When you remove that image from my mind – and you do it in such a despicable way- you remove my desire to contribute.
“This is not the way Jerry should be leaving this organization that would never, in a million years, be what it is but for Jerry Lewis’ leadership.
Ungil quoted Dr. Rabi Tawil, co-director of the muscular dystrophy clinic at the University of Rochester:
We’ve come a long way. There has been an explosion of information about the genetic defects that cause muscular dystrophy and tremendous advances in treatment. When asked about Lewis’ contribution, Dr. Tawil said, “He has been instrumental.”
Instrumental, indeed, said Ungar, who went on to note:
It was not very long ago that patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy – the most common among dozens of types of the disease – typically died in their teens. Now many survive until their late 20s or early 30s.
If you think these extra years are somehow insignificant, ask the parent of one of the kids granted extended life thanks, in no small part, to Jerry Lewis. I think you will get an earful as to how much the extra years mean to these folks.
Lewis’ herculean efforts over the years have produced over $2 billion in raised monies that have, to date, been put to use easing the lives of the afflicted while cracking the genetic mysteries behind many of these horrible diseases. What’s more, solutions to these heinous killers, such as muscular dystrophy and ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, appear to be getting closer all the time
Back at the Hollywood press conference, “We live with rejection. We know what rejection’s about. It’s part of our life,” said comedian Dreesen, who appeared on the telethon more than 20 times. “But if you were a major star and hosted a telethon that raised $2.5 billion, you at least deserve to go out in a gracious way.”
“We’re gonna host our own telethon,” quipped Rodriguez. “We’re trying to find a cure for disrespect and ingratitude.”