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COMEDY REVIEW : A Record Night for Comic Relief . . .

Times Staff Writer

Comedian Paula Poundstone called it “the ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ of comedy.” About 90 minutes into the Comic Relief benefit at Universal Amphitheatre Saturday night--beamed nationwide via HBO--Whoopi Goldberg called for a break so that the Doc Severinsen band could blow. “If I hear one more joke, I’m outta here,” she said.

Four hours is a long time to sit for jokes whether you like them or not, but the Comic Relief benefit for the homeless played engagingly well and demonstrated that comedians--born anarchists of the spirit--are the most effective of any class of artists when it comes to promoting a cause.

This was the third annual benefit and it was the smoothest and most familial so far. All of these comedians have been around long enough by now to have established careers which make them less frenetic (unless, like Richard Lewis or Bob Goldthwaite, playing frenetic is their stock in trade). The pitches for donations seemed heartfelt. (Paul Rodriguez cut his act short to tell us he was the youngest of 12 children of Mexican parents and knows what it feels like to sleep in a car.) They were often ingeniously delivered as well (Louis Anderson was very sly in the way he challenged our conventional attitude toward the homeless, as though they were vermin, or non-persons).

The roster of comedians was large enough to afford us an anthology of contemporary stand-up topics and approaches, so that even the casual viewer could get a rundown on the state of the art. We could see that many comedians still work with one foot in the toilet and that tastelessness is still often confused with candor. We could also see, beyond the many poleax hits delivered on John Tower and Dan Quayle, that comedians and audience (the place was packed) share a disaffection with government so deep that here it felt like total resignation.

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The show played like a huge rent party, where everyone was out to have a good time and lend some help. Garry Shandling talked about his dead dog, Ernie. Elayne Boosler, still one of our most refreshing comedians, took a reading of sexual mores in our time (as did many other of the performers) and observed that condom use has required every woman in America to get rid of her wicker wastebasket.

A film clip showed Robin Williams presenting a Comic Relief check to Mayor Tom Bradley and asking him for two forms of identification before he’d hand it over. (Bradley came on to declare this week as Comic Relief week in Los Angeles.)

Impressionist Jim Morris did George Bush: “Some of the homeless choose to live in the street. I choose to live in the White House. That’s the way it is in this great land of ours.” Billy Crystal did a sketch on a legless, homeless vet. He is missed in comedy, but he prefers movies right now. (He was in top form all night.) Whoopi Goldberg declined performing in favor of playing a congenial hostess, which she did well. Having become king of Baron Munchausen’s moon hasn’t gone to Robin Williams’ fulminating head, but you could see how the job, or at least the address, suits him. (The latter three hosted the show.)

One of the highlights was the appearance of Laker coach Pat Riley, who has become an authentic America star without ever having acted. (The crowd almost stopped the show to cheer him taking his seat.) Bob Zmuda, Comic Relief’s organizer, may have been a bit disingenuous in thanking the comedians for working for free (national TV exposure is a pretty good trade-off), and should we be thankful that Shelley Long visited Washington for the cause and didn’t once talk about herself?

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His enthusiasm was understandable, and palpably shared by the performers. No one could be unmoved by the many film clips of homeless of both sexes and all ages. Shots of homeless kids were particularly distressing. They had the effect of chilling a noisy room for a minute with the silence of recognizing a grim dilemma, one of the ghastly epidemics peculiar to the ‘80s. It was a good party.


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