End of the line for the Labor Day Telethon

Stick a fork in the Labor Day telethon for Muscular Dystrophy.

“The decision to end our beloved telethon was not made lightly,” said MDA President and CEO Steven M. Derks said in a new release this afternoon. “In the last few years, the show was adjusted to reflect changes in viewership and donor patterns, and last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge once again affirmed for us that today’s families, donors and sponsors are looking to us for new, creative and organic ways to support our mission.”

Who knew the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge would kill off the Telethon?

It’s a reflection on us. We’re just not that in to TV anymore.

For more than 50 years, of course, the Telethon was Jerry Lewis’ baby. He’d stay on the air for nearly 24 hours.

But then the MDA and Lewis split; he didn’t even get the opportunity to say goodbye, Time.com said at the time.

To be sure, dealing with Lewis, now 86, has never been a walk in the park. His annual Labor Day orgy of sentiment, self-regard and showbiz schmaltz was for many years something of a punch line. (“You know why they love Jerry Lewis in France,” a comedian told me not long ago. “In France, they don’t get the telethon.”) Still, he raised an estimated $2 billion for “Jerry’s kids” over more than a half-century with the MDA, and a well-orchestrated, celebrity-studded farewell to him on the telethon might have been a fundraising bonanza.

MDA officials continue to maintain that Lewis simply retired. “We honor Jerry Lewis, we admire the work he’s done for us, and we respect his decision to retire,” says Valerie Cwik, the MDA’s interim president. (She replaced Gerald Weinberg, who was reportedly behind Lewis’s ouster and who stepped down as president last December, after 54 years with the organization.) And she insists that the changes in the telethon are part of a necessary evolution in fundraising strategy, to put less emphasis on the once-a-year event. “It has to change because the American audience has changed,” says Cwik. “A 21.5-hour show doesn’t fit in a 140-character world.”

Like the Rat Pack itself, the Telethon didn’t hold up to the test of time.