Stretching the definition of "charity": Colonie home's "Extreme Makeover" (left) and recently usurped MDA Telethon host Jerry Lewis.

Today I read two instances of entertainment in the guise of charity gone awry that deserve our notice.

Over on the Places & Spaces blog (the TU’s Real Estate blog – why it’s not just called “Real Estate blog” or something else less vague is high above my pay grade which has plateaued at $0/hour) , reporter Chris Churchill updated a story about a house that was constructed as part of the ABC feel-good reality television series “Extreme Makeover.” The two-floor home, which occupies 3,700 square feet and includes five bedrooms, has been sold for an undisclosed sum (pending contract approval). The listed asking price was slightly above $400,000. The original blog post is here. As with the vast majority of other Times Union blogs, your best bet is to avoid the comments section entirely unless you’re some kind of intellectual masochist hellbent on ruining your own day.

Mere minutes before I came across the blog post, writer and film critic Roger Ebert tweeted a link to a blog post from Jon Wiener of The Nation about how some Muscular Dystrophy advocates (as well as other areas of the disabled) are breathing a sigh of relief for the departure of Jerry Lewis from his famous MDA Labor Day Telethon. It’s quite a read, chock full of affirmation of Lewis’s mythic condescension: references to children with MDA as “God’s goof,” incredibly rude comments about reporters who ask about the ethics of promising funds going towards a cure that doesn’t exist rather than stating and promoting the true purpose of the telethon (to provide services & care), and the fact that many who have MDA take issue with being referred to as “Jerry’s Kids” since they’re competent adults and don’t care for the portrayal of all with the disease as hopeless miscreants who need to be saved by the aging comedian’s generosity.

The two stories share a commonality: good intentions gone awry.

Well, kind of.

Invariably, a funny thing happens whenever ego or profit gets involved with charity. It distorts what could be a wonderful thing and a boon to others and instead exploits the recipients or does only a temporary good for the whole of the cause. In the first instance, regardless of what frustrated Delmartians will spit from their keyboards, we have a program that takes people in dire financial and emotional circumstances and puts them into a house which, no matter what farcical measures are taken, in the long run simply aren’t sustainable given their finances and personal situations. In the case of Jerry Lewis you have a man who, yes, raised a lot of money for an organization, but did it with such brazen ego and condescension as to potentially do actual damage to the cause and people he was (in his own supremely dysfunctional way) trying to help. Now he’s been uprooted from the program and like Pyotr Petrovitch in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, has walked off in a huff noting the same black ingratitude Pyotr did for having his relentless commandments, demands, and poor attitude spurned by those who designed himself as saving, while promising to himself and others that either they’ll take him back or be sorry they parted ways.

It got me to thinking about the endeavor that myself and two friends, along with many others, are partaking in to raise money for the Special Olympics of NY. As a side note, our deadline has been extended – so please if you haven’t already, give a little to the cause! I’m fully aware and conscious of using my name, which isn’t “well known” but has an audience of anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 unique readers a week if not more via this blog, to endorse or promote a charity. Some have leveled accusations of vanity against me for doing so, and though I counter with the idea that it’s all being done to raise funds, the same attitude and offenses could be applied towards me that I and many others have taken with Lewis over his antics during, before, and after the telethon in recent years.

Yet, still, I am conscious that a bit of it does rear its ugly head. It can’t help but seep through when you participate in a program like Over the Edge, which encourages local personalities to use their own notoriety (however small it may be such as in my case) to raise funds in a unique display of bombasticity. Yet, with this and all other charities I lend my name, voice, and words too, I promise you that I am forever conscious of the very real possibility that as human beings we are constantly tempted and swayed by our own inherent narcissism and self-interests. I want you all reading this to know that self-interest is not my intent in this or any other charities that I lend myself to. Not now, and not ever. Never has or will a demand or request be levied in exchange or as a qualification for my participation or support. Nor will there ever be expectations of such.

It needs to be said because, as in the examples cited above and others I’ve had dealings with first-hand, that is unfortunately not always the case despite our best interests and intentions.

Charity is more than just saying or giving support in some manner. It’s doing so without asking or expecting anything in return, ever. Not from the organizations, recipients, donors, fellow attendees, or anyone that would even be tangentially associated with it. It is always good practice, though, to at least ask yourself first what you’re giving to and what the motivations are for those who say they’re giving it or giving their time towards it. Because sometimes charity isn’t charity, but rather entertainment co-opting a cause to the detriment of the latter. Any good that comes of that is almost always, without fail, accidental. And temporary.

7 Responses to Extreme Makeover, Jerry Lewis, and the folly of entertainment as charity

  1. Rob Madeo says:

    You’d have to look long and hard to find anything more exploitative than Extreme Makeover. It plays on everyone’s emotions to the max — all the while raking in big bucks for the network.

    I hope this lady makes a ton of money selling that house. Whatever she gets won’t be enough to make up for what she’s been subjected to since “winning” her home improvement project.

    The worst example:

  2. A. says:

    ABC is pretty disgusting as a whole. Their “news magazine”-type shows, or shows which feature their “news personalities” often make me scratch my head. They’re all about being exploitative and pushing the envelope.

  3. A. says:

    And why do we need to know the nitty-gritty of this woman’s life? All the he-said, she-said? Does anyone really give a carp? Does anyone with half a brain think that if you give a family like that a boatload of materialistic garbage, it can fix their lives? Are any of us surprised? I don’t think they should waste paper and ink on her story.

    If people are dying to help someone, there are plenty of people in need in nearby Schoharie county. These people don’t need a half a million dollar house…They need helping hands and elbow grease…Cleaning supplies and work gloves…And eventually, for the most unfortunate, a bed and a place to put it.

  4. Cihan says:

    I never understood how poor or troubled families were expected to keep current on the property taxes of their suddenly pimped out properties. I always figured they’d have to sell for that reason.

    Also how absurdly staged it was, with models being the “carpenters” and whatnot.

  5. Ann says:

    Wow. I’ve never liked Jerry because his humor is very simple, which is why he is so well liked by the French, which is why I do not watch French movies unless they have non-French directors, writers, etc.

    I just didn’t realize how abusively offensive he is until reading the link! What a number 1, first class a-hole! Those poor “kids” having to put up with that jerk for so long! Yeah god goofed on him!

    Re Extreme Makeover: Of course they sell the house! They’re not poor because they don’t have a house, they’re poor because they don’t have money! How many years of college would that house pay for? The feel good crud is for the audience and the volunteers and they do feel good.

  6. A. says:

    Regarding Jerry Lewis, I think if you look at things on a micro level, we see situations like this in our daily lives. People do good things for others, when maybe they don’t quite have pure hearts. Maybe they like to do good things for how it fills them up, and not how it makes others feel…Or, maybe they think of the people they help as pathetic, worthless, and undignified…Possibly even unable to obtain anything for themselves (I believe that our gov’t often treats people this way). Or MAYBE, they are doing good things because they think it will get them into heaven. I think we see this all over in life. It is to the point where as long as good things are accomplished, you can’t really look at the morals or the agenda of the people who are performing the actions.

    How many people help others JUST BECAUSE they see them suffering, and want to help put an end to it?

  7. A. says:

    Grr…I need to shut up.

    I have also learned that different people have different ways of rationalizing why some children are born…less fortunate. I and KM were raised with Catholic values, and were taught not to think of any child as a mistake. But, A LOT OF PEOPLE just don’t feel that way. A LOT. And they’re vocal about it. And then there are others who, deep down, feel the same way. I have met so many people with different values from my own that I am feeling like I cannot judge others who were raised with different philosophies. Of course, I’m not religous, and I don’t attend church, so maybe I cannot fully adopt the “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks/does, you know what is right” kind of philosophy.

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