Tony Orlando gags? OK. Gay jokes? Not OK

It’s only been two days since Jerry Lewis’ much-publicized gay-slur slip, but already mainstream media appears to have lost interest. That doesn’t fit recent...

It’s only been two days since Jerry Lewis’ much-publicized gay-slur slip, but already mainstream media appears to have lost interest. That doesn’t fit recent patterns, and here’s what makes Lewis even more of a derogatory-comment anomaly: His monologue misjudgment –- and the way he handled its remarkably moderate backlash –- may have bolstered Lewis’ image rather than harmed it.

When kidding around with a Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon staffer the weary, woozy comedian used an offensive synonym for “homosexual,” he immediately realized he’d made a mistake. The moment the word left his mouth, in fact, Lewis cut himself off with a loud “no!” turned away from the camera, and hurried across the stage as if to outrun his big mouth.

But using gay slurs on national TV (even inadvertantly) is more than not cool – it’s absolutely “unacceptable,” according to Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) president Neil G. Giuliano. Not surprisingly, the organization was quick to condemn Lewis’ comment, and call on him to make amends to the LGBT community and everyone else he upset.

Lewis’ language “feeds a climate of hatred and intolerance that contributes to putting our community in harm's way,” Giuliano said in a statement. He called for the media to hold Lewis accountable, and said GLAAD reps wanted “to sit down with him, help him understand why these words are so hurtful.”

Within hours – and apparently minus the assistance of an overpaid crisis team -- Lewis had issued an apology “to anyone offended … Everyone who knows me understands that I hold no prejudices in this regard.”

Though most everyone is a target for 81-year-old Lewis, he doesn’t need a sit-down with GLAAD (or a trip to "rehab" ) to understand why his language was potentially hurtful. As a Vegas-via-the-Borscht Belt comedian, he’s keenly aware of the real-life effects of being an outsider: Lewis claims he was kicked out of high school for punching the principal because the principal made an anti-Semitic comment. He helped Sammy Davis Jr. break racial barriers, and he knows something about breaking disability boundaries, as well. Still, anyone familiar with Lewis' irritating/trendsetting comedy knows that few subjects are off-limits.

Fortunately, Lewis gets it. "That something like this would distract from the true purpose of the Telethon pains me deeply," he said in a statement. "I accept responsibility for what I said. There are no excuses. I am sorry."

Even more fortunately, GLAAD has accepted Lewis’ request for forgiveness. And though organization reps may not feel ready to plan any "MDA Telethon 2008!" bashes, they can at least focus attention on celebrities who don’t get why using certain words can be wounding.

As for Lewis, perhaps he’ll consider issuing one or two more apologies while he’s at it: Is there any excuse, for example, for Hook, Line and Sinker?

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