Comic Relief: An HBO Tradition : Comedians Weave Laughter Into Plea for Homeless at Amphitheatre

Times Staff Writer

Backstage notes on HBO’s Comic Relief:

It seemed a bit suspicious the way Billy Crystal and Robin Williams were suggestively diddling around with Whoopi Goldberg on the TV screen Saturday night. But in a short time the indiscretions were explained away: Goldberg wasn’t really on the Universal Amphitheatre stage with them. Her image was being beamed in from New York.

It was important that last year’s team be kept intact for Home Box Office’s Second Annual Comic Relief telecast to benefit the homeless.

Show biz likes its instant traditions, and Crystal, Williams and Goldberg--and a roster of other comedians--had raised a reported $2.6 million. This year there were about 50 comedians. (A couple evince surprise that last year’s benefit didn’t take care of all the homeless in America; so much for professional skepticism.) When Goldberg faded away, Williams said: “She’s gone but it’s still warm here.”

So many comedians were booked, in fact, that there were two green rooms and two “holding rooms,” a vaguely penitential phrase describing the place where performers had to check in before actually going on. There were so many dressing trailers along the backstage wall that the amphitheater seemed more the site of an all-star Hollywood blockbuster movie than a benefit.

Elayne Boosler came on first with a pointed routine that ricocheted between condoms and religion: “The Vatican says: ‘No surrogate mothers.’ It’s a good thing they didn’t make this rule before Jesus was born.”


That drew a big laugh from observers in the first (and largest) green room (which was actually a tent), the ambiance of which was a mix between a party and a nightclub, where the TV set, instead of a rock band, drowns out conversation.

Norman Lear came on with an earnest message about the homeless (“The life of a homeless child is marked by fear and suffering”) during which the volume of vocal indifference in the green room rose appreciably, a presage to Robin Williams’ later remark: “Enough comedy. It’s time to get serious. . . .”

A man looking alarmingly like Pope John Paul II walks in, dressed in a complete replica of the Pope’s white silk outfit, including the skullcap. No one pays attention. His name is Eugene Greytak, and he said he was born in Connecticut and sells a “pre-legal service.” He became a professional impersonator with one image in his repertoire after “I saw the Pope and I said: ‘Oh Jesus!’ ”

Dudley Moore and Peter Cook went onscreen doing their routine about the one-legged man who wants to audition for the role of Tarzan (Moore plays Tarzan, and Cook as an agent tells him: “I have nothing against your right leg; unfortunately, neither do you”). A man named Karl Mitchell kept a tight leash on a 9-week-old tiger cub named Maharajah in the first holding room. Mitchell is an animal trainer who wanted to slip Maharajah surreptitiously into Penn & Teller’s act later in the show. The white kitten originally hired kept the job. In the meantime, the inquisitive Maharajah was the hit of the holding room, drawing playful women like a feline Warren Beatty.

Young men and women employees of college age came and went, carrying clipboards and dressed in red sweat shirts, in the front of which dangled signs such as “I belong to Don Knotts,” or “I belong to Richard Belzer.” They were personal escorts for performers, whose pictures draped over their chests like photos of the missing on milk cartons.

David Leisure, a.k.a. Joe Isuzu, who made several appearances in the course of the show, was put on standby alert in the holding room. “OK, my personal slave is waiting outside for me,” he says.”

Onscreen, Bob Goldthwait told a joke about his wife having to submit to a Caesarean operation for the birth of their child. “In my mind I said: ‘Oh great, I went to Lamaze for nothing.’ ” Goldthwait shyly repaired to a corner of the holding room afterwards. He’s losing his hair, but he still has a moist post-pubescent look, as though he’s looped in a personal time-warp.

Steve Allen, the only person to show up in a tux, sat in the crowded green room watching a monitor with single-minded absorption. Dick Gregory made his way to Allen’s side, shook hands and said hello. “Hello,” Allen said. “You’re terrific.” He turned back to the monitor. Gregory left.

Onscreen, Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara enacted an episode about two single women who are supposed to trumpet their freedom, but are in fact miserable without a man.

Paul Rodriguez got up to say “War is God’s way of teaching us geography.” O’Hara, looking very svelte, made her way into the green room and kissed two male friends, one so passionately that she nearly fell over his chair. Steve Allen sat next to them. He didn’t look.

Judy Tenuda stood on the press platform in an outfit that looked like a cross between a peignoir and a maid-of-honor outfit and said: “The Pope’s a fashion plate. He’s playin’ hard to get. That’s why he has the Popemobile. . . . You live here?” she asked the reporters in the front. “You’re the same guys who were here from MTV.”

“We’re homeless,” a reporter said.

Much of the press looked a bit seedy, like spiritual descendants of those old fight reporters who left cigar butts in the press room while they rushed off to file their stories (one young woman asked every comedian his or her preference in sports).

Out front, in the packed amphitheater, Richard Belzer interviewed President Reagan (as impersonated by Jim Morris). “I saw myself on the news. I must’ve done something today,” the President said. “I’ve said it before, and Ed Meese has said it before, the homeless choose to live where they live, just as I choose to live in the White House.” No one laughed as hard as people were laughing at such material five years ago. The twilight of the Reagan Administration is palpably at hand.

“I don’t know what the percentage of the homeless is,” Arsenio Hall said. “I live on Kings Road in Hollywood. A nice gay, artsy neighborhood. I’m not gay. Five hundred feet away from my house there’s a woman who lives on a bench and uses an area nearby for a toilet. I don’t wanna give up the limo, but I do feel a responsibility.”

Later in the evening, after Marsha Warfield told the press that she conceives of her role in “Night Court” as that of “a black Eve Arden,” and after Tom Poston, Don Knotts and Bill Dana followed with comments on being together again (Steve Allen was a no-show for the press), Paul Reiser told the TV audience that the $2-million mark was reached. Not as much as last year--yet.

Williams and Crystal signed the show off. At 10:14 the stage manager pleaded with everyone who wasn’t a performer to get off-stage so the cast photo could be taken. Outside, the sleek limos drew up as softly as Nile barges, and the four-car tram filled up with people ready for the post-performance party.

“This is our only charity cause,” said Seth Abraham, HBO senior vice president, standing in the cool night air while the crowd surged past him. “It cost us $1.5 million to put on, but we don’t think of that sum as a loss. We get positive feedback from the show business community, but it’s also an expression of our involvement with comedy, which goes back to the early ‘70s.”

The tram clanged away; the limos softly unmoored. The lights of the Valley below looked like a glittering carpet in which the lives of the homeless, or any human suffering for that matter, were hidden away.