Comedians plan 3-hour TV benefit for homeless

In the tradition of ``Live Aid'' and ``Farm Aid,'' the nation's comedy talent has mobilized to present its own star-studded event to help America's homeless, estimated at somwhere between 300,000 and 2 million people. Comic Relief is the title of the live, three-hour cablecast being presented this Saturday (9 p.m. to midnight, check local listings) by Home Box Office and offered to all cable viewers, whether or not they are HBO subscribers.

The extravaganza will be hosted by Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, and Whoopi Goldberg. Also slated to appear in person or in prerecorded segments are such comic talents as David Letterman, Madeline Kahn, Bette Midler, Dick Gregory, Gilda Radner, Martin Mull, Bob, Hope, George Carlin, Sid Caesar, Dick Van Dyke, Henny Youngman, and Jerry Lewis. More names are being added every hour.

Top comedy writers, such as Norman Lear and Murray Schisgal, are contributing material written especially for the show.

``Comic Relief'' president Bob Zmuda says the funds raised by the show will be disbursed to Health Care for the Homeless projects in 18 major United States cities.

``Comic Relief'' will be seen live in the East, as it is performed before an audience at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles, and on a tape delay in the West.

By unscrambling its signal for the show, HBO will make ``Comic Relief'' available to a potential 39 million homes, rather than only 14.6 million households that subscribe. HBO recommends that nonsubscribers call their local cable companies to be sure the program is scheduled, and, if it isn't, to request scheduling.

The show's three hosts all believe the comedy benefit can indeed help improve the plight of America's homeless.

Robin Williams says: ``If you actually look at these missions [for the homeless], you'll see that it's pretty rough.'' He quotes a man from the Union Mission in Los Angeles, who told him, `They're good people; they've just been through tough times.' '' He adds, ``That doesn't mean they're totally a lost cause. . . . They can be recovered.''

Says Whoopi Goldberg: ``I'm looking forward to being part of something that's going to make a dent, even if it's not going to solve the problem.''

Billy Crystal says: ``We're all there to be funny. My statement -- and what I feel most of the comics's statements will be -- is to be funny. We're going to do the best show that we possibly can and let the whole evening dictate what it's about.''

Why is ``Comic Relief'' airing on cable rather than network television?

Bridget Potter, a senior vice-president at HBO, tells the Monitor, ``Bob Zmuda came to us rather than the broadcast networks because he didn't think it was possible for performers to be creatively free on the networks. . . . There is certainly a possibility that there will be adult material. We are not censoring.''

Describing the reasons for HBO's interest in the venture, Ms. Potter says, ``We care about the homeless, just as I am sure you do. And we want to make certain that HBO is involved in the comedy event of the decade.''

The show will also give millions of non-HBO households the opportunity to sample the cable service and perhaps sign up for the future.

HBO plans to repeat 90-minute highlights from the show on April 6, 9, 15, and 25. Commercial stations are also beginning to request permission to air portions of the show.

Viewers will be able to contribute to ``Comic Relief'' donations via a 24-hour, toll-free telephone number (800-528-1000) or by writing to PO Box 22008, ZIP code 90040 in Los Angeles.

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