Phunny Philanthropy: The Funny Bone Connects to the Wallet at the Holidays

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Jaguar PS /

December 22, 2014; USA Today

The American comic Jerry Lewis was a pioneer in using his status as a comedian to raise money for charity. From 1951 to 2010, he lent his name and stardom to the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He turned many people into couch potato philanthropists through his annual Labor Day telethon. Lewis has estimated that he has helped raise more than $2.6 billion for the charity through his non-stop variety show. However, the tradition of comics and actors actually doing comedy to raise money may have a more recent history.

Since the dawn of Comic Relief in the United Kingdom on Christmas Day in 1985, comedians and philanthropy have been inextricably, and some humor-challenged folks would say inexplicably, linked. The inaugural Comic Relief event supported charities working in both the UK and Africa. A version of Comic Relief launched in the United States a year later, with Billy Crystal, the late Robin Williams, and Whoopi Goldberg as the co-hosts.

This year, the tradition of mixing comedy and philanthropy during the holidays continues. Recently, an NPQ Newswire reported on TV talk show host Conan O’Brien’s accidental philanthropic effort. A fake infomercial led to the sale of 100 wooden emoji for charity. These sold out in minutes and more were ordered, and then more. The final tally, reported on December 20th, was 2,074 sold for $100 each, with all proceeds after production and shipping going to the Children’s Defense Fund. Perhaps even more fun (and funny) than the actual $100 emoji carved from two-inch-thick solid pine is the Certificate of Reluctant Philanthropy, signed by O’Brien’s sidekick Andy Richter, that each proud new owner receives. It reads: “This document hereby acknowledges that the proceeds from your purchase of a solid wood emoji are being donated to the Children’s Defense Fund, against my express wishes. I wanted to use the profits to buy a boat.”

The latest entry into this year’s comedic holiday charity effort are the characters of Downton Abbey, the wildly popular costume drama produced by the ITV television network in the United Kingdom. While American audiences wait impatiently for the debut of Season 5 on PBS’s Masterpiece on January 4th, they can enjoy the stuffy Downton Abbey characters poking great fun at themselves on behalf of the Text Santa campaign, a fundraising event for charities supported by ITV. Unabashedly borrowing from the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, Lord Grantham, who seems to have once again lost the family fortune, wishes he had never been born in this comedic send up. An angel grants him the opportunity to see what would have become of Downton without him. The result is a laugh-out-loud funny parody with many surprises, including cameos by George Clooney and Jeremy Piven. The effort by Downton Abbey characters and cast seems have been successful, as Text Santa has raised a record £5,503,065, approximately $8.5 million in U.S. dollars.

Comedy seems to be a winning strategy for charities. Could it be made even better if it were combined with, say, a bucket of ice water? Imagine! Lady Mary approaches Lord Grantham in the library with a bucket in her hand…no, please, enough already, let’s not. Happy holidays all!—Tom Klaus