Backstage at Comic Relief

It was a few hours before curtain time, and the mood backstage at HBO’s Comic Relief was relaxed and festive. Admittedly, Richard Belzer was twitching about like an exposed nerve, kidding the goyim that “only the Jews will be getting close-ups.” But funnyman turned health nut Dick Gregory had taken Robert Guillaume aside and was talking up his Bahamian Diet powder, and over in the corner America’s favorite magistrate, Harry Anderson, was kicked-up at a table, trading gags—some of them coarse—with Not-Necessarily-the-Newsies Danny Breen and Stuart Pankin. Anderson: “Did you hear about the first restaurant on the moon? Great food, no atmosphere.” Pankin: “A man went to a doctor. The doctor said, ‘Okay, I’ll need urine, semen and stool specimens.’ The man said, ‘Fine, you can have my shorts.’ ” Anderson smirked. “You might say this is the Jonestown of comedy.”

You might indeed. In fact, some TV critics across the country who caught Comic Relief said as much. The L.A. Times found the four-hour-plus live benefit for the homeless (to be re-shown in 90-minute segments on the cable channel a number of times in coming months) to be sometimes “a trial.” The New York Times said that the telethon suffered from a “split personality.” On the one hand, the show featured the likes of Pee-wee Herman playing doctor in his lewd and winking way with a lady volunteer from the audience; on the other hand, it showed poignant minidocumentaries of the homeless—old men and young, women and children, struggling to survive on the street and in abandoned buildings.

The nation’s cable-TV viewers evinced more capacious sensibilities than the critics. The show was a smash, drawing an enthusiastic audience of more than 6,000, paying up to $100 a head, to L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre; HBO unscrambled its signal to make the show available to cable viewers across the country. That certainly was a relief to co-host comics Whoopi Goldberg, 36, Robin Williams, 33, and Billy Crystal, 38, who had donated three intense months to the project, and to producer Bob Zmuda, 34, comedy writer for the late Andy Kaufman, who had conceived the whole shebang and gotten 60 comics to throw away their best lines. All had fretted that Comic Relief would bomb. “It could be like the Comedy Club, where people sit for three hours and don’t buy drinks,” worried Williams. An hour or so into the proceedings, an astonished Crystal was announcing, “The phones are going nutso! We’re bringing in $10,000 a minute!” The first airing of the show raised nearly $2.5 million, which organizers expect to grow by several million dollars after subsequent showings and the release of a Comic Relief book, record and videocassette. The money will be distributed to provide medical care for the homeless in 18 designated cities.

If the people at home liked what they saw on the small screen, they would have loved what was going on backstage—and doubtless winced, too. The talent began arriving at the cavernous theater about 10 Saturday morning, eight hours before the telecast. Belzer, peering out through shades, and Ghostbuster Harold Ramis were in the first wave, along with Saturday Night Live’s ultimate nerd, Martin Short.

Pretty soon Steve Allen, 64, was there. “Hey,” he said, stretching a hand to Short, 35, across several generations of funnymen, “I’m a great fan of yours. Good to see you.” Arriving together were Sid Caesar, 63, and Carl Reiner, 64, who had paired up in the ’50s to make the Golden Age TV classic Your Show of Shows. Laraine Newman, pencil-thin as ever, chatted about PMS with SCTV’s Catherine O’Hara. Paul (Pablo) Rodriguez joked that his was a command performance. His pal Whoopi Goldberg had said, “You will do this show or you’re finished in the industry.” Rodriguez’ parents had been migrant workers, so he knew something about the suffering of the homeless. But he figured Whoopi just wanted him to flesh out the Hispanic quota. “It was either me or Julio [Iglesias]. I’m always picking up what he turns down.” The Whoopster, meanwhile, was out in the parking lot when 80-year-old Henny Youngman arrived. She returned wearing on the lapel of her blazer a gift from the King of One-Liners, a “diamond pin”—or, more accurately, a dime-on-a-pin, soldered on, no less.

As the comics were donating their services gratis, event organizer Zmuda saw to it that their every whim was satisfied. The food, served buffet style at 4 p.m.—salmon mousse, mussels on bamboo sticks, guacamole with chips, etc.—was catered by the trendy Melrose Avenue eatery Tommy Tang’s. Limos brought the stars to the theater and canopied carts took guests to the post-show party at a nearby hotel. What’s more, each comic was assigned a personal gofer wearing a 5 by 7 glossy of his or her comedian bearing the words, “I belong to—.”

Most of the funnymen became attached to their minions. Weird Al Yankovic queried his girl, Maggie, “When does this end? Am I to go home with you?” The flirtatious Tony Danza hugged his buxom female assistant after the show, allowing, “I couldn’t have done this without you, really. If I can ever do anything to help you, let me know.” The young lady responded, “Well, if I have any trouble getting into the party afterward, I may call on you. But otherwise you won’t be hearing from me. I promise.”

One match-up went wildly awry. Bob Goldthwait, who does a decidedly brain-damaged routine that includes showering onstage and screaming at the audience, found his assistant, struggling actor Jason Stuart, 27, his hair moussed to stand straight up, too much to take. Goldthwait pleaded for privacy and eventually fled the theater by car, saying, “He’s been driving me out of my mind. I don’t need anybody. I’ll show up on time, I promise. I’ve been taking care of myself all my life. Just leave me alone!”

By 6 o’clock everyone was present, including the beleaguered Goldthwait. Comics who were not onstage or in the wings watched the show on color monitors in the large, amply provisioned greenroom. Howie Mandel admitted to being nervous. He’d been away from stand-up comedy for six months—most recently making an MGM movie titled Bobo. Mandel had been doing his own stunts in the movie and had managed to break three teeth biting into a tennis racket. He said he had no idea what he was going to do onstage. As he and his wife, Terry, watched the show, Terry leaned over and whispered in his ear. Mandel smiled his jack-o’-lantern smile. “Now I know what I’m going to do,” he said. His shtik turned out to be, among other things, inflating a rubber glove and wearing it as a hat. Nor were nerves relegated to the youngsters alone. After he finished his “professor” sketch with Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner said, “I was very, very nervous before I went out there. But once we got going, like Sally Field, I realized they liked us, they really liked us.”

Once Whoopi and Michael J. Fox had done their welfare-lady-meets-the-glib-young-honky-in-the-park routine, once Minnie Pearl, 73, had plied through her best cornpone and Joe Piscopo had finished hammering his drums, once L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley had presented a congratulatory scroll to Zmuda, the entire cast, clad in red Comic Relief Sweatshirts, gathered for the spoofing of the We Are the World anthem. One of the singers, John Candy, was so big around that they had to split his sweatshirt up the back.

As the cast posed for a photograph for the Comic Relief LP and videocassette, the celebrities in the audience poured backstage: John McEnroe with Tatum in tow; Barry Diller, head of Fox Studios, slugging a beer; Lesley Ann Warren; Rhea Perlman, and more agents and managers than seemed healthy for anyone’s sanity. Looking out on this scene, an exhausted Billy Crystal declared himself content. “It was,” he crowed, “one of the greatest experiences that I’ve ever had performing. What can I say?”

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