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Jerry Lewis removed as MDA chair

After half a century of service, the Muscular Dystrophy Association has backtracked on its plans to retire Jerry Lewis gracefully from its telethon.

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Chris Farina/Corbis

The Associated Press reported on Aug. 4 that comedian Jerry Lewis has been ousted as the national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. This just months after the joint announcement that Lewis would not be overseeing this year’s annual MDA Labour Day telethon, an event he has hosted since 1966.

Neither camp is explaining this latest development in Lewis’s long association with the non-profit group. In a statement (titled “Jerry Lewis completes run as MDA national chairman”), Rodney Howell, chair of the MDA’s board, called Lewis “a world-class humanitarian” and expressed the organization’s gratitude to the entertainer, adding, “We will not be replacing him as MDA national chairman.”

When the MDA announced earlier this year that the 21-½ hour telethon would be reduced to six hours for 2011 and would not feature Lewis as host, it seemed determined to retire him with dignity, allowing him to close this year’s show with his signature song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and stating that he would remain its national chairman.

If Lewis and the MDA have a complicated relationship behind the scenes, it’s understandable. As we reported in our recent Ode to the Jerry Lewis-era telethon, although Lewis has been an untiring supporter of the organization for half a century—from small local fundraisers on New York television to 45 years hosting the national telethon, raising a career total of nearly $2.5 billion to might muscular dystrophy—his on-screen unpredictability and sometimes vulgar demeanor have also been a source of embarrassment to the MDA, frequently offending talent, sponsors, supporters and viewers.

At a July press lunch during the Television Critics Association press tour, Lewis berated the television industry, specifically criticizing reality television. “The industry has destroyed itself,” he told an assembled crowd. It’s unlikely there’s a direct connection between this outburst the MDA’s recent decision, but it’s also possible someone saw it as a reminder of the cost one pays having Jerry Lewis as your spokesman and weighed their options accordingly.