“Pick up your phone and make a contribution! If you can’t get to a phone … later, well? The show will give you an address where you can mail your contribution, and if you’re psychic, they’re sending it now.”
Comic Relief USA, 1986 (Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams), Home Box Office
The mid-’80s was a time of worldwide celebrity charity causes. Band Aid (founded by The Boomtown Rats’ Bob Geldof) begat USA for Africa which begat Live Aid in London and the U.S.A. Hands Across America (of which my mother was a member) raised $15 million. Artists United Against Apartheid and the song, Little Steven Van Zandt’s “Sun City” raised a million dollars in 1987. Hear ‘n Aid assembled 40 heavy metal musicians and raised more than $3 million dollars for famine relief in Africa. Farm Aid, organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young raised over $9 million for American farmers. Comedians and celebrities of the time joined together to appear in HBO’s Comic Relief USA, itself a spin-off of Britain’s Comic Relief, created by Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry (still in operation today).
The ’80s were a time of unparalleled prosperity in the United States, but homelessness was becoming an enormous problem. This staggering contradiction inspired Bob Zmuda and HBO senior vice president, Chris Albrecht to gather some of the hottest comedians and celebrities of the 1980s to appear in a special one-off charity event broadcast on HBO on March 29, 1986. I remember it being a big deal to get so many names under one roof outside of the Academy Awards, as well as to get those names to check their egos at the door and perform for charity.
Oddly, very little information is available about the first Comic Relief USA show. The stage is grand and decorated with large boxes stenciled over with the Comic Relief letterhead. The show was a combination of sketches and stand-up routines from the likes of George Carlin (and his “a place for your stuff” routine), Sam Kinison, Louis Anderson, Bobcat Goldthwait (who takes a shower on stage), Garry “How’s my hair?” Shandling, Buddy Hackett, Richard Belzer, Harry Anderson (doing magic tricks), Howie Mandel and his rubber glove gags, Joe Piscopo playing drums, Paul Rodriguez, Steven Wright, Henny Youngman, and Dennis Miller.
Gilda Radner (seven months before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer), Sid Caesar, John Candy, and Eugene Levy (as SCTV’S Shmenge Brothers), Madeline Kahn (as Lili von Shtüpp from Blazing Saddles), Jon Lovitz (as Tommy Flanagan), Harold Ramis, Catherine O’Hara, and Martin Short (as Ed Grimley in a sketch about workplace harassment), Jerry Lewis, Mary Gross (doing her Ruth Westheimer impersonation), ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, and Martin Mull appear in live sketches. It’s amazing to me how many incredibly talented comedians were working in 1985. It makes me feel kind-of old.
After an assemblage of gags, a prominent celebrity would appear on stage to present a video clip about homelessness in America. These celebrities included Dick Gregory, Penny Marshall (whom I remember chiding the audience because they were expecting a comedic piece), Richard “the dog is dead” Dreyfuss, Michael J. Fox, Rob Reiner, Estelle Getty, and Steve Allen. Michael Keaton appears, but rather than offer up another lecture, he does his own stand-up routine. So we have the counterpoint of humor (a good deal of it R-rated) and the ultra-serious lectures from celebrities about homelessness.
This schizophrenic mélange is held in check by hosts Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams, who also contribute to several live sketches. The ultra-hyper Williams is balanced by Whoopi’s observational humor and Crystal’s impersonations. There are some notable absences from Comic Relief, namely Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy. Comic Relief USA would continue, on-and-off, for several years until 1998 (did homelessness end in 1998?) but then re-appeared in 2006 as a fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Curtis and Henry’s UK Comic Relief is still in operation and has raised more than £1billion worldwide in charity proceeds. Comic Relief USA was a brave stab at an impossible problem.
Next week, Vintage Summer kicks into gear! I’ll be looking at teen sex comedies from the ’80s that received heavy play on cable television.