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- For the 1977 television movie, see Telethon (1977)
A telethon is a live special or series, usually a variety special, in which celebrities and performers request donations for some type of charity. Most telethons intercut the entertainment with documentaries about the charity.
The word "telethon" is a portmanteau of "telephone", "television" and "marathon" - "telephone" because, prior to the invention of the Internet, most of the donations raised by telethons were raised over the telephone (to this day, donation phone calls for some of the larger telethons are often answered by celebrities); "television" because it airs on television; "marathon" because many telethons last several hours or even several days.
The most famous telethon is the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, which is hosted by comedian Jerry Lewis. Held since 1966, it airs on Labor Day weekend, runs for 22 hours, and benefits the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which is dedicated to researching and curing muscular dystrophy and other diseases of the central nervous system. The telethon Comic Relief—inspired by a British fundraiser which was not a telethon—began in 1986 and raises money for the homeless and other disadvantaged Americans. PBS is also famous for its annual pledge drives which resemble telethons—albeit without the star power frequently seen on other telethons—although these pledge drives do not air as a single special, but rather as a days-long event interspersed with regularly-scheduled PBS programming.