Is comedy still funny if there’s no one there to laugh? That’s the question that many comedians have been struggling to answer over these past two months—and one that was put to the test on Sunday night during the Feeding America Comedy Festival, a two-hour tour-de-force telethon to benefit that organization’s COVID-19 Response Fund.
Former comic and current media mogul Byron Allen teamed up with Funny or Die to put together the night’s insanely stacked lineup, including co-hosts Tiffany Haddish, Kenan Thompson, and Billy Crystal.
The special kicked off at 7 p.m. ET with the customary noisy tribute to essential workers, featuring Will Smith, Jack Black, Will Ferrell and the rest of the night’s performers banging pots and shaking tambourines. What followed was an expectedly uneven, occasionally hilarious series of sketches shot from the comedians’ respective homes.
Among the early highlights were a music video about quarantine naps from Adam Sandler and his family and a brand new edition of “The Ladies Man” sketch, in which Tim Meadows took questions about the pandemic from fellow Saturday Night Live alums like Tina Fey and Seth Meyers. Others like Chris Rock and Kevin Hart opted for quick taped messages of support that were more or less devoid of laughs.
Russell Peters was among the few who attempted something resembling stand-up, enlisting his neighbor—and notorious germaphobe—Howie Mandel to come by his one-man audience. But he had some trouble hearing him from way more than six feet away. “I don’t know whose stupid idea this was to do stand-up without an audience,” Peters joked. Things got significantly funnier when Jeff Ross showed up to roast them.
“What’s up, Howie? You look like Joe Exotic’s seventh husband!” Ross said before adding, “Hey, Russell, wipe your forehead. You know the virus stays on flat surfaces.”
Andrew Dice Clay delivered his material from his garage and just piped in fake laughs to make it feel slightly more like a real live show.
The most successful bit of the night, however, came when Crystal attempted to one-up Brad Pitt with his own, more age-appropriate Dr. Anthony Fauci impression.
“Now I know you have not seen me at some of the task force press conferences and when I’m not there, rumors fly. Where’s Fauci?” he said from what appeared to be some sort of torture dungeon. “I don’t want anyone to think I get in trouble when I state some facts about the virus that someone,” he said with a wink, “and the little neutered ferret son-in-law disagrees with.”
“And I want to reassure the people that I am fine and I’m saying hi from my comfortable living room at home,” he continued, in what soon was revealed to be a hostage video. Electric shocks were used to force him to make coerced suggestions like “open the meat markets!” and “don’t wear a face mask!”
“So as America opens…to suicide, I want to wish you well and trust what the president is telling you, because he knows better than anyone else.” As he stood up, he revealed the back of his script, which read, “Help me!”
The night ended with what had to be an inadvertent tribute to the late Little Richard from Eddie Murphy, who debuted his soul-singing character named Murray Murray. As “Tutti Frutti” played in the background, Murphy said, “Little Richard got me started. I was young and wild. I did some things that fellas don’t usually do with fellas, let’s put it that way.”
Despite the high-caliber talent and the best of intentions, the special rarely captured the electricity that so many of these comics can generate when they are on stage in front of audiences. We can still call it comedy, but it’s not the same. At least it was for a very worthy cause.