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Supporting The People Who Make Us Laugh

April 13, 2011

American Comedy Fund LogoIn tandem with The Comedy Awards, which aired this weekend on MTV Networks, a consortium of organizations announced the launch of  The American Comedy Fund. To be administered by the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), this new financial resource will help The Actors Fund and the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF) provide social services and financial assistance to comedians who qualify. The American Comedy Fund is the first-ever charitable fund dedicated exclusively to supporting the comedy community in times of need, crisis or transition, and will help The Actors Fund provide much-needed financial assistance, health services and other resources for comedians across the country — many of which have no union support.

To further illustrate the need for The American Comedy Fund, the leaders of the three organizations overseeing it, Lisa Paulsen of EIF, Ken Sherer of MPTA, and Joseph Benincasa of The Actors Fund, penned the following Op-Ed, which was published by The Comic’s Comic (and subsequently picked up by The Huffington Post).

“Knights of Comedy: An American Dream or Impossible Dream”

From Bob Hope in the sixties to Steve Byrne and Ryan Dalton performing comedy for American service members over the Christmas holiday in a tent at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan, comedians have had a long history of donning Don Quixote’s “helmet of membrino” as their battle gear to perform on the front lines and entertain our troops abroad during wartime.

Comedians have also been the first in line to perform and to help raise millions of dollars for Americans in need back at home, from Comic Relief for the homeless to Hurricane Katrina.

For many of those who provide service in various capacities, from fireman to teachers and hospital workers — unions, guilds, pension and health plans provide financial help and health services in their difficult times.  But when comedians need help, who’s there for them?

In tough economic times, people in some professions struggle more than others.  Comedians are a case in point.  Okay, they don’t put out four alarm fires, but these talented writers, directors and performers have literally changed the laugh track of our lives.  They are pioneering legends and young performers who have calmed our collective consciousness through some of the more challenging times in American history.  They have educated us through their humor.  They have pushed boundaries; from the TV shows that we rushed home to watch, to the movies that are indelibly etched into our collective pop culture memory and the stand-up comedians that make us think while we laugh. And they deserve our support in times of need.

Comedians simply don’t have a national safety net when they are in crisis, whether it’s a need for housing, health care or other basic services.   Without a union, guild, or other protection (which many other entertainment professions such as film, television and theatre offer), comedians face unique challenges to succeed and survive.

The life of the comedian is very similar to any worker or independent contractor that moves from job to job to make their living.  Work is erratic, security is fleeting, health insurance and a respectable retirement is often just a dream.

To fill some of these gaps, entertainers have been able to turn to The Actors Fund www.actorsfund.org and The Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF) www.mptvfund.org.

For 90 years, the MPTF has had a rich history of helping performers in need on the west coast in providing care and support ranging from health care services to retirement housing.  Many of comedy’s great legends have turned to MPTF and their network of services such as Larry Fine, one of the Three Stooges; long-time comedic actor Louis Nye; Jerry Colonna, Bob Hope’s side kick; comedic actress Patsy Kelly; and comedian Pat McCormick.

The Actors Fund, since 1882, has served performing arts and entertainment professionals through programs that address their unique and essential needs.  Skilled nursing care and affordable housing, social, health and employment services are all part of how The Actors Fund helps from coast to coast. From Smith and Dale (the “Sunshine Boys”) to “Dr.” Harry Stanley (the “Master of Double Talk”), who both lived in Fund residences, many comedians of all ages have turned to The Fund at different times in their lives.

In a newly created, collaborative effort to provide more services exclusively for comedians, the Entertainment Industry Foundation http://www.eifoundation.org has joined with The Actors Fund and MPTF, along with Comedy Central and MTV Networks to host “The Comedy Awards,” –  the first-ever multi-network, multi-platform, annual event dedicated to honoring and celebrating the world of comedy, premiering on Sunday, April 10, 2011, simultaneously across MTV Networks’ COMEDY CENTRAL, Spike TV, TV Land and VH1.

The purpose for creating The Comedy Awards and this new collaboration is the establishment of The American Comedy Fund, which, through donations made by the public and others at http://www.thecomedyawards.com/fund, will become the first-ever charitable fund dedicated exclusively to providing financial assistance, health benefits and other resources for comedians that qualify across the country during times of distress.  The American Comedy Fund will be administered by EIF in collaboration with the MPTF and The Actors Fund.

A few examples of how The Actors Fund and MPTF have helped comedians illustrate what can be accomplished with this new collaborative fund.

Bill, a comic and comedy writer in his early sixties, was no longer able to work by the time he was in his early fifties due to diabetes and congestive heart failure.  Beset with memory impairments and confined to a wheelchair, he received Social Security disability, a small pension for some of his writing and sporadic financial aid for medical expenses. The Actors Fund helped Bill obtain in-home meal services and home health services – basic needs that were not being met by his income.

And there’s John, a 40-something comedy writer, who has been HIV+ since 1999.  Four years ago he was facing extremely difficult health issues that affected his ability to work. The Actors Fund provided financial assistance for rent and food, and when his health improved, helped him get sideline work. Three years later when his health declined again, The Actors Fund moved him into an affordable housing residence, cutting his rent costs in half.  As his health improved, he’s been writing again — webisodes, jokes for a late night network comedy show, and he’s been hired to write for several well-known comics. In a recent interview, John said:  “Having a dedicated service to people in the entertainment industry is a true godsend. The Actors Fund made a difference in my life. Today, my health has improved, financial stress has begun to leave me, and I am focusing more on my career endeavors.”

In 1998, comedian, veteran comedy writer and performer Pat McCormick was on his way to a show when he suffered a stroke causing his car to careen into a wall and explode into flames.  Bystanders saved his life, but the stroke left him paralyzed on his left side and unable to speak.  Although, as Pat would later remind his friends and fellow comedians — he could still hum!  For the next seven years the Motion Picture & Television Fund provided medical care and emotional support, and when needed, financial assistance.  Pat McCormick was Big Enos in Smokey & the Bandit, and he wrote more gags for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show for 12-years and many other comedians than anyone else.  When crisis struck, the generosity of an industry helped provide quality of life for seven years until his passing in 2005 at MPTF.

Through this new collaboration creating The Comedy Awards & The American Comedy Fund, EIF, MPTF and The Actors Fund, with extraordinary support from Comedy Central and MTV Networks, will utilize their resources and relationships in the entertainment industry to engage the public in raising much needed funds to expand the safety net for comedians.

“Caring for our own” throughout the history of entertainment, our community is often the first to come together for the betterment of those suffering wherever and whenever needed, and our community comes together to support each other from the days of vaudeville to Broadway and Hollywood today.  Through the Comedy Awards, we have found a way for our community, as well as the millions of fans entertained each year by men and woman who make us laugh in clubs, to support comics who need a helping hand.

The American Comedy Fund is a step forward, offering comedians the opportunity to attain what we all strive for and deserve in our lifetimes – a piece of the American Dream.

Lisa Paulsen, President & CEO, Entertainment Industry Foundation

Ken Sherer, CEO, Motion Picture & Television Fund

Joseph P. Benincasa, President, The Actors Fund

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