'Tis the (Telethon) Season : Don't Touch That Dial--It's Time Once Again for the Original Pay TV

ONE OF MY favorite canards about Southern California is, "There aren't any seasons out here." It's a plaint usually followed by recollections so rosy that they must have been colorized by Ted Turner.

But life moves in cycles even in subtropical deserts. For the horticulturally aware, there are highlights such as Jacaranda In Bloom Season, a short but vivid interlude with as much character-building debris cleanup as any Boston autumn.

For those of us who have more important things to do than look at trees, the year divides itself into even more noteworthy periods. There is Award Show Season, which stretches from January through April and includes every entertainment industry's pompous salute to itself, with the exception of the Emmys (it's standing out from the crowd this way that gives network television its characteristic edge).

What in other climes is regarded as summertime is marked out here as the season of Lucaspiel, a time when gargantuan, expensively mounted comic-book fantasies come lumbering weekly out of the movie studios like monster trucks out of the Coliseum's peristyle.

But this, right now, is my favorite season of the year. It's a time of looking ahead, when the air gets a little crisper (or does it only seem that way?), when the bounce returns to my step. It's Telethon Season.

Oh, sure, there are telethons at other times of the year--cerebral palsy in January, arthritis in the spring, United Negro College Fund in the dead of winter. But that's like saying we sometimes get heat waves in February or plays open on Broadway whenever a well-heeled fool can be parted with his money.

During Telethon Season, life is bracketed by the two most important events in the history of televised fund-raising: the Jerry Lewis telethon and the Chabad telethon.

The Lewis extravaganza, in its glory days, amply fulfilled the early promise of television as a window on the world. The world this window opened on was the realm of show-business excess, from a close view of Wayne (Widest-Belted Man in Vegas) Newton to long, satisfying vistas of Jerry's legendary attacks on the press.

This show was where all the Sinatra wanna-bes went to get their yearly ration of tube time, where praise went to reach new heights of giddy fulsomeness ("Our next guest literally reeks of professionalism"), where self-pity went to get a close-up.

Recent years have seen the Jerry Lewis telethon sink inexorably into the cardinal sin of telethons: television professionalism. Jerry still stays up all night, but the modern show is dominated by the routines of corporate sponsors, each of whom has brought a slickly produced film or tape documenting their companies' good deeds. What was once a lively, vivid, frightening glimpse of the human condition has turned into just another parade of well-executed roll cues.

To watch telethons, however, is to hope. This year, for the first time ever, Jerry is moving from Las Vegas to our very own show-biz oasis. That fact, plus the tabloid whispering that Lewis has been demoted from chairman of his own charity, and the likelihood of an exceedingly heartfelt and lachrymose farewell to Sammy Davis Jr., may inject some much-needed wildness into what has become an all-too-tame appetizer for the season's main course: Chabad.

Imagine a second-banana comic well into his second ripeness. Team him up with a behind-the-scenes entertainment mogul and a messianic rabbi straight out of Woody Allen's nightmares. Well, somebody has already dreamed up this troika, and it hosts the telethon for Chabad, a charitable organization so steeped in Old World orthodoxy that women aren't allowed to sing on the show.

Jan Murray, Jerry Weintraub and Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin have wrestled the crown of Telethonia from Jerry's head simply by providing more of the crucial ingredient: replayability. One has to watch again and again, often in slo-mo, to savor the subtleties of body language as Weintraub and the rabbi struggle for control of the microphone, as Bob Dylan and Harry Dean Stanton sing "Hava Nagila," as the rabbi runs across the stage to keep Jan from kissing a starlet who's just asked for pledges, yelling as he approaches, "No, no! Hasidic, Hasidic!"

Let me state for the record that Lewis' charity does appear to help a lot of people. So does Chabad. But the Israeli Labor Party's last attempt to form a government failed by a handful of votes, two of which came from rabbis voting on orders from the Brooklyn-based head of Chabad, a man who has never been to Israel.

All that's beside the point. Anybody can raise money. Life manifests itself in meaningful cycles, even here, and it is time to celebrate the season. So let's take a look at the tote board.


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