If ever there was a moment when the comedy industry needed a helping hand, it’s been this year, when the Covid-mandated closures of comedy clubs, improv troupes and live events cut off the most vital lifeline from countless working comedians. Fortunately, there was one organization that was uniquely positioned to help.
The nonprofit Comedy Gives Back started off simply. Back in 2011, industry veterans Zoe Friedman, Amber J. Lawson and Jodi Lieberman met up at L.A.’s The Improv one night, and got to talking about how they could best draw on their respective rolodexes to organize benefits for various causes. Their plans began to take shape quickly, and before long the nascent organization was hosting successful, star-studded fundraisers for charities like Malaria No More.
And then, two or three years ago, the three women started thinking about a change of focus.
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“We realized that all these comedians had been very willing to help these causes that don’t necessarily relate to them directly, but we realized that no one was really out there taking care of standup comedians,” Friedman says. “Musicians have MusiCares, and actors have the Actors Fund, so shame on us for not having something similar to take care of comics.”
The three then set about reorganizing the structure of the org. They assembled a board, and applied to become a 501c3. They planned out several areas to tackle, from mental health and addiction to health insurance troubles. The group’s annual benefit showcase at the Improv went swimmingly last December, and the org had panels planned for various 2020 comedy festivals to help get the word out to the industry at large that they were there to help out comics in need.
Then Covid struck.
“If you were talking to us back in February, our goals for what we wanted to do in 2020 were extremely different from how it turned out,” Lieberman says. “But then the pandemic hit, and we were lucky that we were set up enough to be able to help and handle what we handled.”
The group sprang into action and quickly organized an April livestream dubbed Laugh Aid: featuring contributions from more than 90 performers, including quite a few bold names, the virtual benefit show raised more than $400,000 dollars for a Covid relief fund for comics, and attracted around 2.5 million individual impressions. Most impressive, says Friedman, was the fact that contributions came from such a wide range, with more than 4,000 people chipping in. “We assumed [contributions] would mostly be coming from more successful comedians taking care of the younger comedians,” she says. “But what happened was that this show was able to put the plate forward to everyone.”
Starting the day after the show, Comedy Gives Back began awarding individual $500 grants to comics who lost income due to the pandemic, and they have since given out hundreds. As Lawson notes: “The testimonials that came back [from grant recipients] were outstanding, but even more than that was the sense of the community coming together and feeling supported. These comics who are road comics, who worked on the cruise ships, who are up-and-coming, and they got to see that so many of their heroes – people like Adam Sandler, Ray Romano, Bill Burr, Jimmy Fallon – really gave a crap and that they cared for them. That these people who are celebrities and might seem so unreachable are in their corner.”
Per Lieberman, there are plenty of challenges that Comedy Gives Back needs to tackle in the immediate term – “our emergency relief fund could certainly use some replenishment” – and the org is planning a celebrity golf tournament in 2021 to help keep the coffers full. But they’re still thinking about big ideas for once the world, and comedy, returns to something like normal.
“One of our long-term visions is that we want to establish an old folks’ home for comics,” Lawson says. “I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall at a place like that, sitting around hearing Lord knows what types of inappropriate jokes would be happening all around?”