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Comic Relief's Canny Comedians Trade Yuks for Bucks to Help the Nation's Homeless

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Humor and homelessness don’t mix, except at the annual Comic Relief fund-raiser hosted by Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal. This year’s yukathon, Comic Relief III, boasted 43, count ’em, 43 comics and raised $4.2 million in donations solicited during the show’s HBO cablecast. For audiences, the draw was the comedy, from the redhot stand-up routine of Bob Goldthwait—who performed while walking on a bed of glowing coals—to the deft, nuanced stylings of Penn Jillette, who placed a cage of live rats over the head of his partner, Teller. For the performers themselves, a big part of the draw is the backstage shmoozfest that has become comedy’s answer to Shriners conventions. “It’s great to run into everybody—it never happens except here,” said Elayne Boosler. More importantly, observed newly named New Newlywed Game host Paul Rodriguez, “it’s an opportunity to ask Joe Piscopo if he really does use steroids.” Angstmeister Richard Lewis, unsettled by flashbulbs and a backstage lineup that ran the gamut from Charlton Heston to Martin Short, pronounced the scene “a madhouse. I thought I was in some sort of Bar Mitzvah acid flashback.”

Crystal says Comic Relief succeeds because “we say we’re going to deliver the money in a short period of time, and we do it.” The first two shows raised more than $4.8 million, which was distributed to 23 projects nationwide. Fortunately, and unfortunately, there will be a Comic Relief IV. Vowed Goldberg: “We’re doing this as long as it takes to make a dent in the homeless situation. If it takes Comic Relief 55, we’ll do it.”