Oh, them Democrats! Their 17-hour weekend telethon, "Celebrate America," was enough to make a television viewer long for the sight of Jerry Lewis and his Vitalisized head. Telethons aren't judged according to ratings or critical reactions, however, but by how much money was raised, and as the laggardly production limped off yesterday afternoon, cohost Daniel J. Travanti was claiming that the show had drawn between $16 million and $20 million in pledged donations.

"We expect this to turn out to be the biggest fundraiser in Democratic Party history," Travanti trumpeted. He'd begun the show by saying, "We believe the next 17 hours are going to make history."

There was little if any reference to accumulated booty during the $6 million production, which aired on the ever-ailing NBC network. Instead, the program just plodded on aimlessly in a video void, without the usual hypey fervor or momentum; "Celebrate America" was mainly a long series of taped inserts, with Travanti and singer Leslie Uggams bridging the gaps between them. It played a lot like "The 700 Club," that marathon "religious" talk show whose host likes to lecture on Mideast politics and the U.S. economy and heap praise on the ridiculous James Watt.

It helps that "The 700 Club" exists because that means there is at least one TV program the Democratic telethon can proudly claim to have been not-as-bad-as. It was apparently not meant to be watched at great stretches because most of the inserts, featuring such stars as Mary Tyler Moore, Joseph Campanella, Mike Farrell, Jack Lemmon, Phyllis George (and, separately, her husband Gov. John Y. Brown of Kentucky), were repeated and repeated until one would have thought that either the tape would wear out or viewers would be sent into a state of shrieks.

Late Saturday night, Travanti and Uggams began telling viewers to redial the 800 number on the screen if they had called and found the lines "jammed." At the same time, the late-night ABC weekend news was explaining what Travanti was talking about. Democratic National Committee chairman Charles Manatt, who appeared at the opening and the close of the telethon, spent some of his time off-camera charging Republicans with organizing a sabotage campaign to jam the telephone lines with spurious, or even abusive, phone calls.

"I think it is pathetic that when President Reagan is playing host to the heads of nations at the Williamsburg summit conference, his party is being disloyal to the beliefs of this country," Manatt said yesterday. Later, he referred to the "dirty tricks" as "Telegate"--but not on the telethon, where all remained smiley. Indeed, the telethon was an inadvertent testimonial to the public popularity, logical or not, of Ronald Reagan. He was virtually never attacked by name during the issue-oriented "commercials" that kept interrupting the show (or was the show interrupting the commercials?). It was almost always "the Republicans" who were blamed for this or that outrage or disgrace.

Occasionally an anti-Reagan sentiment could be seen on a placard or banner during footage of protest demonstrations included in the show, but there were no denunciations of the president himself. Even comic Pat Paulsen restricted his ridicule to unnamed "billionaires." He told viewers that rain falls on billionaires "just like it falls on me," but at that point, a studio shower soaked Paulsen while failing even to moisten an actor playing a billionaire standing next to him.

There was little of a genuinely festive or jovial nature to the proceedings, however, despite the professed celebratory theme; it was all terribly embalmed. There were diatribes about unemployment, the plights of the elderly and minorities, the nuclear freeze, and environmental matters. Again and again viewers were entreated to "stand up and be counted" and "let your voice be heard," cliche's at least as old as politics itself. The use of television was pedantic and numbing, not inventive. The program opened, after a chirpy-bouncy statement by Mary Tyler Moore, with a credit sequence that was not only unreadable but physically alienating.

No Democratic function would be complete without a tribute to John F. Kennedy, and at 10:40 Saturday night, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) appeared on tape to deliver, quite effectively, a well-written one that began, "Today John Kennedy would have been 66 years old" (since it was still Saturday, Teddy was a few hours early). He was followed by film clips of the Kennedy era, including "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" and an excerpt from the 1960 "Great Debate" with Richard M. Nixon. There was no Camelot mush. It was quite dignified.

But it was followed by "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which, even as sung by Leontyne Price, remains a dreadful, militaristic musical atrocity, the kind of thing to be buried away in a forgotten room at the Smithsonian. What a terrible, oversung song it is (indeed, Dottie West would sing it again on the telethon less than an hour later). This hideous, hoary old thumper makes the national anthem look like Beethoven's Ninth.

Jane Fonda made her first appearance just before midnight, sitting on a porch swing, wearing a red flannel shirt, looking all warm and woodsy and appearing finally to have developed some character in her face. She told the story of labor leader Mother Jones, now the name of a left-wing magazine, and spoke of "the basic values of life," on which she is no doubt quite an authority.

Candice Bergen read from E.L. Doctorow, Ed Asner for some strange reason recited from "All the King's Men" (in a white suit and a black-and-white polka-dot bow tie, making him look like the new Will Geer, much as Jane Fonda looked like the new Jeanne Moreau). And Dennis Weaver told a little girl a heavy-handed bedtime story called "The Ultimate Weapon." Some TV evangelists actually are rather subtle by comparison.

Every now and then the spoken tedium was interrupted for some musical tedium, a chorus of jolly jump-up dancers who sang out "Get in shape, America," the way commercial jinglers are always telling "America" to buy this or that deodorant spray, and then pranced through some choreographed calisthenics. It was the kind of thing a media-hip Mao in a modern-day totalitarian state might air each morning in order to fine-tune the populace into a master race.

On-air fluffs and goofs were minimal, but then, most of the show came fresh from one can or another. At one point Travanti could be heard telling a crew member in the wings "Don't go too far" and at another, momentarily stranded without cue cards, he told viewers, "They don't want to give me anything to say. You thought I was making this up as I went along, didn't you?" But he and Uggams remained remarkably smooth and cool throughout an otherwise all but unendurable ordeal.