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Giving takes a new form but still exciting

As kids, my sister and I looked forward to the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon.

We didn’t know much about the Muscular Dystrophy Association or the disease. But we knew Jerry Lewis. His movies were one of the entertainment highlights of our childhood. “The Nutty Professor,” “The Bellboy” — whether the movie featured Jerry Lewis or the tag team of Lewis and his partner Dean Martin, we were hooked.

We were captivated by the telethon. We gave, if only by hounding our parents to call in and pledge. We loved to watch the “tote board” flip the ever-increasing dollars pledged by viewers during the telecast. When our parents gave, we felt proud, like we were part of history.

We also watched to see the stars.

Lewis often assembled the Hollywood elite for the telethon each year. Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Woody Harrelson, Howie Mandel, Jerry Seinfeld, Betty White… Too many to list here.

The musical acts were equally impressive. Stevie Wonder, Elton John, The Bee Gees, Garth Brooks, Gloria Estefan, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Dolly Parton, Tina Turner… Heck, even the Spice Girls made an appearance one year.

These days, the MDA telethon isn’t the full-day marathon it once was. The newest iteration of Lewis’ telethon features another entertaining comedian, Kevin Hart. And like the rest of the world, Hart and his friends rely heavily on a social media audience to tune in and pledge.

Creators of these modern-day telethons have learned a lot from Jerry Lewis and past MDA Telethons. I had the opportunity to see one play out online last week, with the bevy of YouTube stars and gamers who gathered to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Just as my sister and I anticipated the MDA Telethon, my children had the date for this particular “telethon” circled on a calendar that hangs from our refrigerator door. Of course, I had no idea what it was, but if it was important enough to add to the family calendar, I thought “opportunity to engage in a conversation with my kids.”

It featured the co-founder couple of the popular YouTube channel “Game Theory,” Matthew “MatPat” Patrick and Stephanie Patrick. Like Lewis did over four decades of the MDA Telethon, the Patricks served as co-hosts for the 10-hour marathon, sharing stories and encouraging their audience to give.

Like Lewis, the Patricks welcomed some of the best-known YouTubers to help raise money. Big names like Mark Rober (one of my favorites), MrBeast, Pokimane, Markiplier, Game Grumps and other content creators joined the livestream.

My kids quickly handed over some badly damaged cash from their allowance stash and asked me to donate. I had a flash back to “little Adam” pleading with my parents to “call Jerry” and “give something.”

I watched for a bit. While I didn’t know all the players, it was entertaining. As the money rolled in, donor names and amounts flashed on the screen.

Game Theory kept a running total at the bottom of the screen, similar to Lewis’ tote board.

We cheered when they hit $1 million. When they reached $3 million, my kids let out a final cheer, just like my sister and I did when Lewis rolled the board one last time to reveal another record-breaking telethon.

Dr. Adam Earnheardt is a professor of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn and on his blog at www.adamearn.com.

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