Comic Relief Was Comedy’s Answer to ‘We Are The World’
The Greatest Night In Pop, the new Netflix documentary about the making of “We Are the World” has everyone nostalgic for those 80’s music team-ups to benefit good causes. That song was itself inspired by “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” a similar gathering of UK pop stars to aid starving people in Africa. “Tears Are Not Enough” was the entry from Northern Lights, a Canadian rocker supergroup. Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Bob Dylan organized Farm Aid to benefit farmers. And American comedians got in on the action with Comic Relief USA.
HBO’s Chris Albrecht credits Andy Kaufman co-conspirator Bob Zmuda for bringing the idea to the table, according to oral history Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers. Over dinner one night, “(Zmuda) said, ‘We should do Live Aid, but instead of musicians, we should use comics.’” The idea was a natural for HBO, known for its stand-up specials with the country’s biggest comedy stars. Albrecht put together a mid-80s dream team of comedians to host an hours-long funny fundraiser: Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams.
“The homeless problem was becoming a national disgrace,” said Crystal. “They brought Whoopi, Robin, and me in for a meeting and said, ‘We want to unite the comedy world, like Live Aid, and get every stand-up we can.’ It was an audacious idea.” But Comic Relief pulled it off, enlisting Gary Shandling, Harold Ramis, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Michael Keaton, George Carlin, Gilda Radner, Jon Lovitz, Howie Mandel, Bobcat Goldthwait, Dennis Miller, Eugene Levy and John Candy for its initial outing. Comic Relief was one of college student Judd Apatow’s first comedy jobs, producing local benefits to raise money for the cause.
“They had us go to different shelters and we started to see the severity of the problem,” remembers Goldberg. “Then they had us go down to Washington and talk with important figures in politics. It was an amazing awakening for the three of us. This problem was much bigger than anybody thought, and we wanted to bring some dignity back to folks.”
The initial event, more or less a telethon, lasted for more than five hours. But it only took minutes into the hosts’ opening bit before the phones began ringing. “Robin, Whoopi, and I started crying,” remembers Crystal. “When the money came in, (we) traveled around the country delivering checks in person. Whatever came in, the charities got. That was pretty extraordinary.”
Eventually, the Comic Relief fundraisers ran their course in the United States (although their U.K. counterparts are still going strong). The HBO efforts raised about $75 million over the years that the cable giant ran the Comic Relief specials.
“We were so naive as to think that we would do it, raise enough money, and wouldn’t have to do it again,” remembers Goldberg. “That clearly didn’t turn out to be the case. Now I’m quite sad because we stopped and no one else has picked up the job. I thought the younger comics would, but I haven’t seen it.”