Comic Relief: The Greatest…And The Latest
Starring Lewis Black, John Candy, George Carlin, and Jim Carrey
Available Feb. 5, 2008
Laughing At Tragedy — 20 years of Comic Relief
There is very old cliche: “Laughter Is The Best Medicine.”
Laughter as a cure for social ills was the mission of Comic Relief, a charity originally established in America in 1986 to help the homeless. For several years, comedians Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal hosted a live benefit performance, featuring some of the greatest comedians of several generations. Their efforts raised millions to help the needy.
After an absence of many years, they reunited on November 16, 2006 to hold a Comic Relief benefit in Las Vegas for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and to help rebuild flood-ravaged New Orleans.
Now, some of the best Comic Relief performances are available on a two-disc set from Shout! Factory.
The first disc offers a “best of” compilation of the early Comic Relief performances, while the second disc features the entire 2006 Comic Relief event.
Disc one contains chunks of great material from many extraordinary comedians. There are pieces of George Carlin‘s “A Place For Your Stuff” routine and some great one-liners from Gary Shandling, Chris Rock, and Steven Wright. Dave Chapelle and Martin Short offer the kind of material that made them famous. There are even clips from Drew Carey, Rosie O’Donnell, Bob Saget, and Dennis Miller back when they were actually funny.
One of the most amazing things about the first disc, is realizing the sheer number of legendary comedians who have died in the last 20 years. There is a great skit featuring the Gilda Radner frantically trying to answer dozens of Comic Relief call-in pledge phones all by herself. Steve Allen does a man-on-the-street interview that was one of his trademark comedy routines when he hosted The Tonight Show prior to Johnny Carson (I had heard about this bit, but it was long before my time and Comic Relief was the only place I’ve seen it performed). Part of Allen’s routine featured Don Knotts as a nervous demolition expert on vacation.
There are also bits from Alan King, Richard Jeni, Milton Berle, and wonderful skits by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, with Cook as a casting director and Moore as a man with one leg auditioning for the role of Tarzan.
There is an unexpected skit with a couple preparing to engage in kinky sex, only to have Jim Varney open a window, thrust his smiling face into the room, and begin one of his “Hey Vern” diatribes. The late John Candy (with Eugene Levy) perform as the Schminke Brothers polka band duo. It was great to see a lot of comedians again that I fondly remember and some that I genuinely miss.
The only real fault with Disc One is that too much is wedged into it. There is a clip of a hilarious routine performed by David Cross and Bob Odenkirk during their profoundly funny Mr. Show years. Cross convinces Odenkirk he has to be completely naked to do comedy improvisation correctly. An embarrassed Odenkirk returns to the stage (after a long walk through the audience), desperately trying to cover his genitals with his hands and trying to perform improvisations while (pretending to be) humiliated. This amazing bit of sketch comedy was condensed into a less than a minute.
Conversely, there is a routine that features most of the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation discussing Comic Relief t-shirts and other artifacts that were discovered. This entire clip was featured and only “comedy” was that Data couldn’t pronounce Whoopi Goldberg’s name and that Dr. Crusher remarked that Goldberg looks a lot like Guinan (the character Goldberg occasionally played on Star Trek: TNG).
The second disc, featuring the Hurricane relief program, has all the comedy routines uncut, but the laughs are hit-or-miss. Bill Maher, John Stewart, and Stephen Colbert‘s politically based humor remains funny. However, Rosie O’Donell’s shameless tribute to Barbara Steisand and Roseanne Barr shouting lame one-liners are not. The really funny stand-up comedy performed by Lewis Black, Dane Cook, D.L. Hughley, and George Lopez is, unfortunately, interspersed with less-than-amusing performances by Mike Epps and Susie Essman.
But the question is not whether Comic Relief was sufficiently funny to raise millions for charity, but whether it’s funny enough for you to drop your hard-earned cash to buy the discs and support the effort.
While it may be fashionable to sneer at the manic Williams, the opinionated Goldberg, and the overly-sentimental Crystal these days, when these performers were at the top of their game, they were as funny as funny gets.
Does Williams do too many penis jokes? Absolutely. Does Goldberg alternately display black indignation followed by black stereotypes? Sure. Does Crystal like to remind everyone that he’s Jewish? Of course. But remember: these people gave their time, talent, and energy freely to try and help others.
When was the last time you saw Lindsay, Paris, or Britney trying to help the needy?
It is important to support efforts like Comic Relief so that (as Cheech Marin once truly remarked) laughing through the tears won’t become our national pastime.
Comic Relief is a good cause that offers some good laughs. It’s a success not only as a benefit for worthy causes, but also a triumph of energy, style, and ingenuity.