Comic Relief USA

Comic Relief USA
Comic Relief
Founder(s) Bob Zmuda
Type charity
Tax ID No. 501 © (3) non-profit
Founded 1986
Location Los Angeles, California, United States
Key people Bob Zmuda and hosts Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams
Area served United States and occasionally other parts of the world
Focus Food, housing, health care, and other assistance for the homeless
Mission Raising money to combat homelessness
Method comedy
Revenue Donations from Americans
Motto "Where there's laughter, there's hope."; "Comic relief: It's no joke."

Comic Relief, Inc. is a non-profit charity organization whose mission is to raise funds to help those in need—particularly America's homeless. It has raised and distributed nearly US$50 million toward providing assistance—including health care services—to homeless people throughout the United States. Although Comic Relief's charity work is continuous, its actual events are held and televised at irregular intervals—and primarily by Home Box Office (HBO), with comedians Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg as the hosts each time. They—along with many other comedians, celebrities, and occasional politicians—perform various segments—both general-purpose and specific to homelessness—of standup comedy, sketch comedy, speeches, live music, and impressions of persons and characters—all in order to entertain and enlighten. There are also documentary segments dealing with real-life problems of homeless people, in order to raise awareness of not only the grim realities but also how many hard-working "ordinary" people can wind up or grow up homeless. In exchange for contributions exceeding certain key amounts, T-shirts, sweatshirts and other merchandise are typically for sale.


"Where there's laughter, there's hope"

Based on the Comic Relief charity in the United Kingdom and dedicated to the memory of comedian Andy Kaufman, the American organization was created in 1986 by comedy writer, producer, and actor Bob Zmuda—who is described on the charity's website as follows:

He knew funny. He saw the world. And he sought change. Zmuda envisioned a world where comedy was not only career, but also a cure. Clowns were brought to hospitals to elevate the moods of patients. Sayings like 'laughter is the best medicine' were being tossed around. So why not build on that idea? Why couldn’t you use laughter to raise both money and the consciousness of the American people? And, with the help of a few friends, Comic Relief was born.

The idea seemed second nature, but pulling it off was going to need a little more muscle. Since it was only right that a full 100% of the proceeds would go directly to the cause, Zmuda would have to cook up a way to fund the logistics of the operation. Enter Chris Albrecht, HBO Senior Vice President during the time of big hair, loud music, and even louder shirts. Albrecht embraced Zmuda’s vision—also being a convenient catalyst for Zmuda’s desire to prevent comedic censorship. It was a match made in Hollywood. [1]

The 1996 book, Comic Relief: The Best of Comedy for the Best of Causes, details how Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg were chosen to be co-host Comic Relief's 4-plus-hour maiden fundraiser, with punchlines hitting "a politically edgy bull's-eye. 'How would you describe the homeless?' Whoopi asked. 'Judging from the present [ Ronald Reagan ] administration's policy of trickle down,' Billy answered slyly, 'I think they're being pissed on.'"

[In fact, it was Robin Williams who made the trickle-down/pissed-on analogy on the live televised debut event—while performing his classic William F. Buckley, Jr. impression. Comedian Bill Maher has also made that analogy—on and off of Comic Relief.]

"Michael Keaton, Richard Dreyfuss, and Penny Marshall made heartfelt pleas of greater awareness" of homelessness,[2] and there was—doing their greatest bits—an eclectic variety of comics—ranging from Bob Goldthwait to Howie Mandel to Minnie Pearl to George Carlin—the latter who voiced a concern everyone was having: "Is anyone going to watch?"

Given that "helping the homeless wasn't the hippest charity in town, nor was it the most politically correct"[2]—combined with the show's comedic and uncensored format—they feared that the audience would be like "two drunks and the bartender, waiting for closing time". An hour into the show and their fears were "erased", with Billy Crystal exclaiming, "The phones are going nutso! We're getting $10,000 a minute!" By end of their very first show, they netted US$2.5 million.

And from that rookie year ... more than $50 million was raised to create programs tailored to help those in need—making Zmuda’s vision not only a success, but a true movement. Comic Relief has become the honorary charity of the comedy community.[1]

Indeed, almost every successful or up-and-coming comic has been on Comic Relief at least once—and the charity itself has become a household name.

Chronology of events

Year Event (see "Notes" below) Televised By Description/Highlights[3]
1986 Comic Relief HBO Debut event, March 29. Featured Mary Gross as Dr. Ruth Westheimer; Jon Lovitz as Tommy Flanagan, The Pathological Liar; Sid Caesar as Ludwig von Knowitall; Robin Williams as William F. Buckley, Jr., commenting on the effects of "trickle-down economics" on the homeless; George Carlin describing a house as "a place for your stuff."
1987 Comic Relief '87 HBO Featured Elaine Boosler on surrogacy and the Vatican; Dudley Moore as a one-legged man auditioning to play Tarzan; Penn and Teller doing card tricks and "cat tricks"; "men on the street" describing the Olympics; a song on the "Black Monday" stock-market crash, in parody of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot".
1989 Comic Relief III HBO Debuted the song "Mr. President"—written by Joe Sterling, Ray Reach and Mike Loveless, and sung by Al Jarreau and Natalie Cole. Featured Jim Varney as Ernest P. Worrell; Catherine O'Hara smoking between bites of food and drink; Arsenio Hall on women with plastic surgery; Woody Harrelson talking to an "audience member" (Shelly Long) who, when asked if she wached "Cheers", said, "Not that much."
1990 Comic Relief '90 HBO Featured Joan Rivers on exercise and swimmers; Dana Carvey doing his "Lady I Know/She's Choppin' Broccoli" song from Saturday Night Live; Steven Wright asking, "What's the youngest you can die of old age?"
1991 A Comedy Salute to Michael Jordan * NBC In honor of basketball player Michael Jordan.
1992 Hurricane Relief * Showtime 9-hour marathon event to bring relief to areas of Florida, Louisiana, and Hawaii in the wake of Hurricane Andrew's devastation. Featured singer Gloria Estefan[4] singing The Isley Brothers' "Shout", backed up by a choir.
1992 Comic Relief V HBO Featured Rosie O'Donnell on aerobics; Don Rickles describing the cause as "to find you [ Whoopi Goldberg ] work"; Bob Goldthwait juicing vegetables and squid; a clip of Bob Einstein as Super Dave Osborne, playing piano on a bus; Billy Crystal telling Robin Williams to "do your 'dick stuff'"; George Foreman in a pie-eating contest with Billy and Robin; Jim Carrey on drinking and cops.
1993 Baseball Relief * Fox Featured comedians and baseball players.
1994 Comic Relief VI HBO Featured appearance by a representative of Housing and Urban Development from the Bill Clinton administration; Brett Butler on Rush Limbaugh and "Schindler's List"; Billy and Robin doing a duet on sex in old age; cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation playing the Enterprise crew—"researching" Comic Relief, and comparing "Hoo-pye Goldberg" to Guinan (a character who was played by Whoopi); Dave Chappelle on terrorists and the apparent lack of "black hostages"; Robin on John and Lorena Bobbitt; Paul Rodriguez on the 1992 Los Angeles riots; Bill Maher on America's culture of victimhood.
1995 Comic Relief VII HBO Featured Margaret Cho on racism; Chris Rock on white people and Colin Powell; Fran Drescher on Princess Diana; Jon Stewart getting "beat up" by kids at Universal Studios; Queen Latifah singing "in the house for Comic Relief", asking people to buy Comic Relief T-shirts; a "Blues Brothers" song, sung by John Goodman, Dan Aykroyd, and Jim Belushi.
1996 American Comedy Festival * ABC Comic Relief's 10th anniversary. Featured Gilbert Godfried playing a "dirty dummy" with David Brenner as "ventriloquist".
1998 Comic Relief 8 HBO Featured Chris Rock on "picking up women at a pro-choice rally" and the Clinton impeachment; Kathy Griffin comparing a Jerry Springer talk show tape to a profane "Music Man" outtake (with "Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little" becoming "Fuck-A-Little, Cunt-A-Little").
2006 Comic Relief 2006 * HBO, TBS Fundraiser for those affected by Hurricane Katrina[5]—held at Caeser's Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada, on November 18. Comic Relief's 20th anniversary. Featured Billy, Whoopi, and Robin doing a parody of "When the Saints Go Marching In"; Ray Romano on being able to curse after "9 years of Everybody Loves Raymond"; Rosie O'Donnell on Barbra Streisand; Bill Maher envisioning Vegas' losers "joining the ranks of the homeless shortly"; Bob Zmuda talking about the slowness of home-rebuilding efforts—and Comic Relief's work on behalf of rescuing pets and animals;[6] Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert doing their "Daily Show" and "Colbert Report" bits on Katrina; Bill Clinton thanking Comic Relief on behalf of his Katrina efforts with George H. W. Bush; Entourage's Kevin Conolly, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Adrian Grenier, & Jeremy Piven cursing and donating money into a "curse jar"; D. L. Hughley on general politics, race, and cops; Lewis Black on government's alleged sharp attention to nuclear weapons abroad but not to the domestic hurricane; Fred Willard with "Pussycat" (Catherine O'Hara) and "Fur" (Jennifer Coolidge), promoting Comic Relief T-shirts; Roseanne Barr on being on stage with "other big former stars" and "Kirstie Alley's yard sale."
2008 Comic Relief: The Greatest...And the Latest * (DVD) Two-disc video compilation—featuring Comic Relief's greatest material and most recent material, up to 2008. Disc 1 ("The Greatest") features Comic Relief to Comic Relief 8 (1986–1998); disc 2 ("The Latest") features Comic Relief 2006.
2010 Comic Relief 2010 HBO Featured Benefit Album and Katrina Orchestra—"The return of Tony Clifton and his Katrina Kiss-My-Ass Orchestra with a bevy of beauties."[1]
2011 Comic Relief WILD: The Concert for Animals * HBO, TBS, CNN (TV); AOL, MTV (On-line) Worldwide event to combat animal habitat destruction.[1]


  1. * indicates a special event, or a compilation.
  2. Italics indicates a formal Comic Relief show.
  3. There has also been an A&E Network series, The Best of Comic Relief.

Following the money

Generally, HBO and other sponsors pick up all (or most) of the costs of Comic Relief events, so that every (or nearly every) penny raised or contributed goes to the cause. Also, the hosts and other performers of Comic Relief events often get involved personally in projects run or supported by the charity. As Comic Relief's March 29, 1986 debut event approached comedian Paul Rodriguez joked that "Whoopi called and said, 'Do the show or you're finished in the business,'"[2] then he added a "serious, compelling reason":

My parents were migrant workers. We moved around a lot. I've known hardships. It's nice to give back to people you can see.[2]

In 1987, Louie Anderson—who had been one of eleven children growing up in a housing project—admitted that "one of his brothers might be living on the street. 'But for a stroke of luck, it could be any of us,' he said."[2]

When Robin [Williams] showed at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles, a homeless man said, "You sure didn't find no new jokes today." At the privately funded House of Ruth, a shelter for women and children, Whoopi [Goldberg] offered hope for mothers and babies. And at a shelter in Seattle, Washington, Billy [Crystal] listened to factory workers, Vietnam veterans, parents and children describe how a factory could close, related industries could move to other states and how seemingly overnight, a few hundred homeless could turn into a few thousand. "Tell them we're not all bums," one young man said to Billy. "Tell the people we're not happy in this situation."
Comic Relief: The Best of Comedy for the Best of Causes, 1996

Notable success stories

  • In Denver, Colorado, Paul Rodriguez helped open a medical facility made possible by Comic Relief funds; a woman holding a baby approached him, saying, "If it wasn't for Comic Relief, this child wouldn't have been born."[2]
  • In Chicago, Illinois, Comic Relief founder Bob Zmuda went to the Firehouse Annex of Chicago, Illinois—a home for alcoholic and battered women—and learned how, using Comic Relief funds, they were able to "take in a violent, alcholic woman, slowly give her responsibilities and self-esteem, until she cleaned up and got a regular job."
  • Another person who found her way off the streets is "Peggy", who became homeless after losing her factory job.
Peggy was one of the lucky ones. She built a shelter out of plywood and plastic. ... Still, she couldn't imagine herself there. [emphasis theirs]

"Me, a normal person," she said. "I lived there."

Every day was a struggle for survival. Not just for food, warmth, and protection. But also for her life.

... "I was raped, beat up. Most of the time you just walk and walk and walk, because you're too scared to sleep because you don't know if you're going to wake up alive."

During her third year, [when] Peggy gave up hope, ... Comic Relief reached out to Peggy. ... She got the support ... she needed to rebuild a brand new life. And today Peggy is a mother, wife, and college student.
Comic Relief: The Best of Comedy for the Best of Causes, 1996

"Peggy" credits Comic Relief for giving her back her "self-esteem", "hope", and

the sense of direction that I can doing anything as long as I put my mind to it.

Now I have my own home. ... We are normal people again. ... And it's because I was treated like I was somebody.[2]

Health Care for the Homeless (HCH)

Comic Relief distributes most of its funds raised to Health Care for the Homeless (HCH), which has project sites in 85 major cities. This network of providers "was originally selected for start-up funding by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Memorial Trust" after a year of review and assessment in 1985,[1] was "co-sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors", and works annually in all 50 states with thousands of homeless children.

HCH projects are created and run by their 104 organizational members in local communities. Since July 1, 2008, 202 HCH guarantees of the federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) have been providing social services to "more than 740,000 clients" every year, combining HRSA funding with other revenue to provide a wide array of services.[1] Comic Relief board member Dr. Pedro Jose "Joe" Greer, Jr. was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by President Barack Obama, on account of his "lifelong efforts to improve medical services for the homeless and uninsured."[1]

HCH projects include the following[1]:

  • Advocacy—securing services for and protecting the rights of clients, ensuring that "the local service delivery systems .. better meets" their needs, and changing policies "that cause, exacerbate, or create obstacles to resolving extreme poverty and homelessness."
  • Case management and client involvement—carefully involving their clients in the developing of "realistic plans."
  • Comprehensive services—"understand[ing] that basic needs are interrelated and striv[ing] to address each individual’s needs holistically"—integrating Primary Care with the treatment of mental health disorders, and working to secure "food, housing, entitlements, and jobs."
  • Outreach—with physicians, nurses, social workers and others—many who have "experienced homelessness themselves"—skilled at connecting to homeless people, working to bring care to the homeless and impoverished wherever they are—be that "in encampments, under bridges, on the streets, in jails, at soup kitchens, or in cars."
  • Sensitivity training—understanding "the unique circumstances and stresses" that come with homelessness and poverty—a process that often involves overcoming "fear and suspicion" with a "patient, nonjudgemental, persistent approach."
  • Transportation—routinely provided to and from their service locations, specialty providers, Social Security or food stamp offices, and shelters.

Peripheral causes

Comic Relief is expanding its reach to non-human homelessness as well—in particular, endangered species and habitat destruction around the world. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina (2006), Comic Relief made a point of rescuing pets and animals—and returning them to their owners when possible.[6] Now a new event, Comic Relief WILD: The Concert For Animals, will be televised live on HBO, TBS, and CNN, "from its 'home base' concert stage in Los Angeles, in front of an audience of 6,000",[1] with comedy and music hosts performing—and with satellite footage of other superstars "performing in front of similar sized audiences" around the world.

"Comic Relief Wild: The Concert for Animals" will be the world’s largest gathering ever of international entertainment superstars, who will perform live via satellite from major cities on all seven continents. This will be the "Live Aid" of comedy.
—Comic Relief's website

America Online (AOL) and/or MTV International will capture all of the performances in their entirety—roughly 21 hours—making them available on-line for at least "4 to 6 weeks afterwards".[1] The "great majority" of "well-known" performers will be in Los Angeles; however, "a handful of others" will host from the other cities—with the remaining participants consisting "entirely of [each] particular [hosting] country’s well-known celebrities and top entertainers." [1]

Pre-recording video appeals will be used both for raising funds and educating the public "as to the reasons wildlife is endangered and how they can help [emphasis added]"—with donations being made on-line "at Comic Relief’s website and through established toll-free telephone numbers worldwide."

All in all, it is billed as an "unprecedented live event" with "a worldwide audience of over one billion [1,000,000,000] people"—who will view it on HBO, CNN International, AOL, and MTV's website—as well as "local market broadcasts via television and radio throughout the globe." It is expected to be "the largest fundraiser for animals ever." [1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Comic Relief, Inc. Website:
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Comic Relief: The Best of Comedy for the Best of Causes, edited by Todd Gold, 1995; Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 96-22851; ISBN 0-380-97391-X
  3. ^ Unless otherwise credited, material covered in the "Description/Highlights" column of the chronology is from the 2-DVD box set, "Comic Relief: The Greatest...And The Latest"
  4. ^ "Miami Spells Hurricane Relief G-L-O-R-I-A",,,20108793,00.html
  5. ^ "'Comic Relief' Returns to HBO". 6 September 2006.,0,1080956.story?coll=zap-news-headlines. Retrieved 2 February 2007. 
  6. ^ a b Of 50,000 pets in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, some 12,000 were saved. One of the rescued pets, "Lassie", was brought out on stage. (The Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act was a result of the New Orleans pet tragedy.)

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