Just over a year ago, the world was stunned to learn of the passing of Robin Williams. He was at once a gifted, Oscar-winning dramatic actor, and a frantic, over-the-top comedian with an inimitable style. While he was a perpetual entertainer, he also worked with a number of charitable organizations, donating both his time and money to help make the world a better place.
Serving as one of three hosts for the HBO mega-telethon Comic Relief, alongside his contemporaries Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, the charity quickly became synonymous with Williams’ name.
Comic Relief got its start in the UK in 1985, founded by comedy writer Richard Curtis and performer Lenny Henry. Its primary goal is to help children in poverty nationally, as well as famine-stricken parts of the world. Its first broadcast was on BBC1 on Christmas Day of 1985.
In 1986, Bob Zmuda, a comedian and former partner to the late Andy Kaufman, decided to start a version of the charity here in the U.S. in the form of a massive telethon, taking his inspiration from Farm Aid. Working with then HBO programming chief Chris Albrecht, Zmuda knew he would need a giant in the world of comedy to attract the number of acts that would be required to fill such a massive amount of stage time.
He first looked to Williams, whom he had worked with in their early days in L.A.’s comedy club circuit, for two reasons. The first, he was a dynamite performer who could cleverly improvise, and whose charisma would serve as the magnet to draw in more talent. The second, Williams revered Kaufman, appearing in disguise at Kaufman’s 1979 Carnegie Hall performance, once saying that he “traveled at the speed of life,” and would support a cause done in his late friend’s name.
There was only one thing missing was the cause to rally around. As it turns out, it was Williams who would decide the organization’s cause in the U.S. should be to fight homelessness. “Nobody was more adamant than Robin that it should help the homeless,” Zmuda explained to the L.A. Times, citing Williams’ privileged background as his primary motivator. “Robin was a silver-spoon guy. He came from a well-to-do family and he always felt it was important to give back.”
Held in honor of Kaufman, Williams, along with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, were given hosting duties for the first of many four-plus hour telethon. Some of the first broadcast’s performers were Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner, Henny Youngman, Martin Short as Ed Grimley, and Gilda Radner.
While its intentions were praised, the first broadcast was criticized as being uneven, with video segments showing the real-life plight of homeless men, women and children in between stand-up and sketch comedy routines. “Comedians are resilient performers,” noted the New York Times after its initial air date. In the end, Zmuda called it a success, saying that “the world of comedy has come together as never before.”
Not long after Williams’ suicide in 2014, Judd Apatow recalled getting an internship when his was 18 just to be near him. Along with the culmination of talent from generations of comedians, Comic Relief has gone on to raise more than $50 million since the first broadcast in 1986. Their idealism was strong, too. Goldberg herself told CNN years later that they “thought, in the first year, we were going to be able to get everybody off the streets” after the first broadcast.
Zmuda readily credits Williams as the driving force behind Comic Relief, not just in choosing the cause, but because, in his words, Williams was “a true performer.” He explained to E! why Williams on-stage charisma was so strong:
“Robin had no social skills whatsoever. I knew Robin for over 35 years, and yet he could not handle being one on one with a person. He would freeze… It was like being with a total stranger in an elevator. That’s why he was so good, and why his psychological imperative in life had to be to perform. This is why he was so good at it.”
Not long after Williams’ death, Crystal appeared on The View, co-hosted by Goldberg, to discuss, among other things, their incredible dynamic as co-hosts of Comic Relief.
“He was such an amazing person. He was the most brilliant performer you could ever imagine. His physical presence on a stage was amazing. Many times, we’d be together on stage, the three of us, and Whoopi and I were like his parents. It just became so sort of magical to work with him and it was just the greatest.”
Goldberg added that the three of them had “aged together, grown up together. There was nothing that we couldn’t do together. There was nothing we couldn’t do.”
Goldberg herself would make an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, discussing the almost exhaustive nature of his rapid-fire improv. She said that trying to keep up with him was “really hard,” but, in the end, “it made me better, because you didn’t want to disappoint him and be, like, a dud. He was remarkable.”
Despite his introverted nature off stage, Williams’ generous spirit existed outside of the famed HBO telethon. In 2004, for example, Williams held three comedy shows in Seattle, then donated all of the money to a Seattle Food Bank without any prior notification. He did the same in 2007 and 2008, and would spend time volunteering, as well. Despite being an introvert, when performing, he was always frank about his own personal history with sobriety substance abuse. He’d also perform stand-up routines on USO tours for troops stationed around the world, speak out for online gaming equality, and champion animal rights.
Outside of Comic Relief, he was also heavily involved with The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, an organization dedicated to developing treatments and cures for those suffering from spinal paralysis. Williams was Reeve’s roommate when they’d studied together at Juilliard, who once said, “Robin is a person who gives to people 24 hours a day. The gift of joy, the gift of laughter. Just to be in a room with Robin Williams is a privilege. He’s a gift to the world.”
In 2006, to celebrate the 20th anniversary, Williams, along with his former co-hosts, announced they’d be doing another Comic Relief benefit, this time to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, as well as their pets. When interviewed about it, Williams would, on the surface, appear his vibrant, explosive self, making it almost impossible to imagine him as the socially awkward man off camera that was often described.
In May of 2015, almost a year after Williams’ death, Comic Relief also launched Red Nose Day in the U.S., a charity that has helped children in poverty in the UK for more than 30 years. Like its parent organization, Red Nose Day uses entertainment to help reach its goals, raising awareness through fun, and raising some $21 million in its first year in the U.S. Even though Williams is gone, his legacy of helping others remains.