My Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon Memories

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It’s been 4 years since I worked on The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day telethon… Well, technically 5 years since my last show without Jerry.

And even though I’m still in Sydney, being that today is Labor Day in the US, it feels strange to not be awake for 24+ hours.

The first year I wrote on the telethon, an unknown contestant on a brand new show was singing in the parking lot next to our production trailer at CBS Radford. Her name: Kelly Clarkson.

I then went on to write the telethon for 10 years.

And I was still one of the new kids.

Many people had worked on the show for decades upon decades. For some it was their remaining connection to Hollywood, for many it was their passion project and for others it was their family. Literally and figuratively. Wives worked alongside husbands and their kids.

I always felt like a loner on the show. Like I didn’t belong or fit in with anyone. But the show’s Executive Producer, Lee Miller, always made me feel welcome and beloved. And while two of his daughters and his son-in-law worked on the show, he still made me feel like family.

He believed in me. He believed that a recent college grad could write talent intros, show bumpers and make people laugh throughout a 21-hour live show.

The first few years I had the privilege to write alongside comedy veteran, Sam Denoff. I got to hear stories about his time on That Girl and The Dick Van Dyke Show. I would chat with regular guests like Norm Crosby and Charo (who, by the way, is more than just “cuchi-cuchi…” She is an extraordinarily talented flamenco guitarist who just happens to enjoy low cut dresses and saying “cuchi-cuchi” – oh. and she also tried to set me up with her son once) and of course being around Jerry himself. I really got a feel for the golden age of television. Yes, Jerry yelled, yes he always wore his signature color “red,” and yes, he actually said, “Hey, Lady!” But he always wanted to put on the best show possible. I don’t want to make any claims that I knew him very well. I didn’t. I don’t. I doubt he’d know my name now. And yes, I’m well aware of what he has said about women in comedy. And yes, it’s sucks. But I have no doubt that if he didn’t want me working on the show… I would have been gone.

JL (as he’s often referred to) had two assistants and the octogenarians worked on typewriters that were only about a decade their junior.
No computers.
No printers.
No email.

“Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk… DING! Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk… DING! Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk… DING!” Over and over and over again.

As mind-numbing as the sound was at the time, it remains one of my favorite memories now.

Jeffrey Tambor was one of the kindest hosts. He came by to host some of the middle of the night hours alongside The Muppets. He was there at 2AM to play straight man to a felt prawn. And he did it perfectly. And this was in the middle of his time on my favorite show, “Arrested Development.” He was sweet and warm and wonderful.

Shawn Parr was probably the most fun host. Also someone who hosted in the middle of the night, but additionally, he was our announcer throughout the show… hard working, upbeat (on AND off camera) and pleasure to work with!

My favorite guest was a man who played a turkey baster. He was so thrilled to be a part of the show and yeah… He played the frickin’ turkey baster as a musical instrument.

The middle of the night novelty acts were always my favorite… the plate spinners, the hackier magicians, and eventually the Jessica Glassbergs.

After five years of writing for the show, I finally gathered enough courage to ask if I could perform on the show. And five different times, I got to be a part of the middle of the night crew performing my 5 minutes on nationally syndicated television.

Jerry’s kids have always been the heart of the show.

I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t get to know them better. I went to listen to their speaking engagements and was in awe of their strength. And it wasn’t that I didn’t chat with them because of the muscular dystrophy, or because of their wheelchairs. It was because, to me, they were celebrities.

And just like I didn’t chat with most of the celebrity hosts and guests on the show because I wanted them to have their space, that was how I felt about these kids and their families. This was THEIR show. This was their time to talk, to share, to read their poetry, to sing or play an instrument. They were the biggest celebrities in the studio and I didn’t want to bother them. But I also didn’t get to thank them.

So now, years after the fact… I thank all of the families who opened themselves up and shared their stories on the telethon.

I thank everyone who I got to work with in production, even those who were unkind to me… You helped me grow a thicker skin… But especially those who made me feel welcome and most especially Lee Miller who made me feel like family.

Thank you to every performer who donated their time and talent to the show. For many it was year after year.

Thank you to the married man on the crew who would send me extraordinarily inappropriate emails for letting me know that there is no place safe from jackasses. Not even a fundraising telethon.

Thank you to everyone who tuned in to the telethon and donated.

Thank you to everyone who tuned in to the telethon to watch me perform in the middle of the night and donated.

Thank you to everyone who thought it was a good idea to allow me to perform stand-up in the middle of the night. Even if the audience consisted of multiple homeless and/or drunk people. An audience is an audience.

Thank you to my parents and (now) husband for flying out to Vegas to watch me perform in the middle of the night. And to my family and friends who were in Vegas and stayed to watch the show.

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Thank you JL for putting yourself, your name and your reputation into this cause that was always very important to you. And while the show was very public, you kept your reason for doing it very personal.

Thank you all for letting me be a part of this history.

Happy Labor Day!

More to come,

Jessica

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