Charity org's first big telethon in eight years will benefit New Orleans

Twenty years after its founding, and eight years since the org’s last big HBO telethon, nonprofit operator Bob Zmuda brings Comic Relief to The Comedy Festival in Las Vegas this week. This year’s battle cry: rebuild New Orleans.

Zmuda volunteered in Thailand right after the tsunami hit. On the very day he flew back to the States, he bumped into his longtime friend, HBO chair and CEO Chris Albrecht, at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. Zmuda had been on morgue duty in Thailand, and public service was once again on his mind.

“Chris was very moved by my stories. Right then and there he committed we’d do Comic Relief again,” he says.

Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams — the face of Comic Relief since ’86 — will resume their starring roles, this time from the Caesars Palace Colosseum in Las Vegas. Integrated into HBO’s second annual Comedy Festival, the show airs Saturday on both HBO and TBS.

Coverage is broader, but challenges remain, Zmuda says.

Organizers may have to contend with so-called Katrina fatigue. A year after the disaster, have people moved on? Second, they’ve got to grab cable viewers’ attention eight years after the last big Comic Relief event.

“Chris thought, ‘Hmmm, how do we make Comic Relief bigger? How do we bring this back and put a spin on it like never before?” Zmuda explains. “The idea was to join the Comedy Festival in Las Vegas and to tie in TBS. This is great for us because it opens up the viewership twice as much. Comic Relief is a good brand, but it’s always smart to bring a brand back new and improved.”

Zmuda believes the org’s brand recognition remains strong among the people who grew up with it. “I meet people and they still know it — I know they’re behind us from word of mouth,” he says.

As they’ve done in previous years, Zmuda and his team at HBO have secured a cast list designed to please every key demographic, 18-34 and beyond.

Roseanne Barr, Lewis Black, Cheryl Hines, Lewis C.K., Bill Maher, Ray Romano, Rebecca Romijn and Sarah Silverman are among this year’s players. From New Orleans: Wayne Brady, Tom Arnold, Aisha Tyler and others will perform via a live feed.

“The brand is dependent on the passion of the people behind it,” says Bob Crestani, CEO of the Comedy Festival and exec producer of Comic Relief. “I think Bob Zmuda’s a very passionate guy. And I think Comic Relief has always had phenomenal draw.”

Since its inception, Comic Relief has raised more than $50 million to aid homeless Americans — and more than $2 million to benefit Hurricane Andrew victims alone.

The eight HBO telethon years have been the highest earners. But this $50 million figure represents more than 80 broadcasts, the live HBO years, and nontelethon programming on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, Comedy Central, for which the org earned sizable licensing fees.

Zmuda kicked off his giving tradition on May 16, 1985. Inspired by Bob Geldof’s Live Aid, he organized a show at the Comedy Store in Hollywood — Zmuda played Tony Clifton, the beloved character he’d helped his good friend the late Andy Kaufman create; Williams and Goldberg volunteered standup — and the place sold out. Proceeds went to the American Cancer Society.

“About six months after that, Chris Albrecht had just gotten his job at HBO,” Zmuda says. “He had to come up with programming — he thought he was going to lose his job any day. I said, ‘Chris, how would HBO like to do the Live Aid of comedy?’ And he said, ‘Zmuda, that’s not a bad idea.’ ”

The first HBO telethon in 1986 raised more than $2 million. Zmuda’s next step: to convert the concept into an actual nonprofit organization.

HBO covers Comic Relief’s overhead.

Nearly all of the money raised for homeless Americans has been put into the National Healthcare for the Homeless program established originally by two giving trusts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Memorial Trust.

“HBO picked up the cost of the telethon, and every penny went for the charity,” Zmuda says.

This month, the org aims to rebuild housing in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Funds will benefit an agency called Operation Comeback.

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