'Stand Up to Cancer' telethon brings out the stars but feels contrived

An impressive array of recording artists, actors and athletes took part in the Stand Up to Cancer concert on Friday, Sept. 10. The fundraising event was broadcast live without commercial interruption on all major networks and several cable stations.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010

Stipulated: I don't like cancer and I don't want anyone to get it. It has tested, and even taken away, some good friends -- and I miss them. Tell me when the next triathlon is, and I'll click the "donate" icon right now.

But having said that, I don't always warm to the endless pop-cultural and commercially inspired fixations we have around the disease, and to the ways we've overcompensated for all those years when "cancer" was a word barely whispered.

So I occasionally squirm through something like Friday night's "Stand Up to Cancer" one-hour global telethon, which aired live on all the networks as celebrity actors, pop stars, news anchors and others donned especially shiny halos and implored the world to give more to the cause. As always, the cancer movement's message is that we are so close to a breakthrough. Reese Witherspoon, with her perfect blond tresses cascading over her "Stand Up to Cancer" T-shirt, urged us: "The dishes can wait. Pick up the phone."

Where, of course, a random bevy of celebs answered your calls and waited for their camera shot. "Hold on a second," Mark Harmon told his caller, so he could look at the camera and tell us to call now.

The "SU2C" telethon was started in 2008 by the domineeringly named Entertainment Industry Foundation. The first one aired live in 170 countries and raised a reported $100 million; organizers say every cent goes to research funds.

Disease -- talking about it, raising money for research to cure it -- is the last thing left in American society that transcends politics, gender, race and popular entertainment. Cancer is sad. But, weirdly, cancer is happy and makes us strong! It validates us, and often kills us. One in 2 women will get some form of cancer, we were reminded again and again. (And 1 in 3 men.)

Cancer is a terribly important -- yet terribly neutral -- topic that we can all discuss without fighting or calling one another names. Therefore it must act not only as a disease but also as a proxy for what might be our last remaining shared civic value: We the people are standing up against cancer. No less an authority than Gwyneth Paltrow decrees it so.

Curing cancer is the possible dream, our new lunar landing, a mission with which no one disagrees. So what else is there to say?

Plenty. Although it's telling that not one word was said about America's unsolved (incurable?) health-care crisis -- a subject no TV star or pop singer in his or her right mind would touch, anyhow -- "Stand Up to Cancer" was an almost flawlessly choreographed extravaganza of stage blocking, camera cues and celebrity segue. Television production classes should watch it in awe; as should the students in Marketing 301; as should newbie celebrities still seeking to perfect that soul-eyed mix of cheerfulness and solemnity.

Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams and Katie Couric opened the show -- a nightly news Yalta -- and helped blur the distinction between heartfelt caring and science journalism. Much of the show was devoted to light-speed news clips that sought to inform viewers on some of the latest developments, made possible in part by the vast machine that raises money for cancer research.

But interspersed with songs, testimonials and light comedy ("The Hangover's" Ken Jeong stripping down behind a screen for a skin exam by his comely dermatologist -- "Isn't this better than the Jerry Lewis telethon?" he mugged), it was difficult to get a fix on the medical news. Something about how doctors are now talking to one another about research and findings that they used to hide from one another to protect their funding. (Wait. What?!) "Now they are focused on competing against cancer," instead of one another, Williams said.

"Cancer doesn't make headlines," Adam Sandler read from the teleprompter, in a short speech about how rarely it's in the news. Come on, now, that's not true. Cancer is a daily subject, the subject, not only in news but in movies and TV shows and everywhere else.

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