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January 09, 1994|MICHELE WILLENS | Michele Willens is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

In the early '70s, Bob Zmuda and Chris Albrecht were stand-up comedy partners, but eventually each got off the stage and went his own way. Until 1986, when Zmuda, deeply concerned about the homeless, sought out his former partner who was an executive at HBO. Was there a way of putting humor and homelessness together, Zmuda asked? Comedians and then-budding actors Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal shared a passion on the issue and Comic Relief was born.

The now-annual telethon airs this Saturday on HBO. After previous stints at the Universal Amphitheatre and Radio City Music Hall, it is being produced at the Shrine Auditorium for the first time. The three original hosts return, joined by a long list of those at the top of the comedy field. Alan Kind, Paul Rodriguez, Garry Shandling, Brett Butler, Paula Poundstone, Kristie Alley and John Laroquette will make the obligatory pitches for donations to the Comic Reief organization. That group has raised some $20 million since its inception with all funds going directly to homeless shelters around the country.

But in these times of everyone pitching for something, or pinching pennies, how to keep the issue urgent, the show fresh?

"In terms of getting the talent, it's actually gotten easier," says Zmuda, who became a comedy writer-producer and is now president and founder of Comic Relief. "In the beginning no one knew who we were. And while they're all in it because it's a good cause it's also a real comedy showcase. But hey, you can't keep doing the same show every year."

So, he is always in search of new concepts. This year, Comic Relief is organizing an on- stage reunion of the "Your Show of Shows" cast. In addition, the cast and crew of the syndicated "Star Trek: The Next Generation" will do a bit in which they look back on what all this was about. "What was homelessness?" they'll wonder. "What was Comic Relief?" "What was a Whoopie?"

Perhaps the biggest change over the years, according to the Comic Relief folks, is that Goldberg and her co-hosts have since become mega-stars. Yet they remain committed to the cause and the show (though not enough to do more than a few television interviews this year). "What's most remarkable to me is the fact that the hosts, who are more famous than ever and whose time is more valuable than ever, are still involved," says Chris Albrecht, senior vice present of original programming for HBO. "I think if they stopped doing it, they'd be hard to replace in terms of quality and credibility."

HBO has consistently stayed with the event and, according to Albrecht, "to finally decide we're not going to do it anymore would seem almost immoral." For the cable network, there is nothing in this but a good conscience.

"The show costs more every year to do," Albrecht says, "but after the first one, we were just amazed how good it felt to do it and we still feel that way." In fact, HBO opens up its signals to other outlets that night so, as Albrecht adds, "we don't even use the time to sell HBO. All you have to have is cable to see entertainment that is as good as it gets."

What HBO offers the performers is a place to reach millions with their humor--the uncensored variety. "Part of the attraction is it's not sanitized," says Albrecht. "We don't want to offend anyone so they turn off the TV," he adds, "but we certainly provide a great creative opportunity." With comedians, one can expect some profanity, but Comic Relief's organizers say it tends to get friskier as the night wears on and they schedule accordingly.

While clearly there are some performers who lend their services to the evening because it's the best showcase, not to mention the best party in town, many feel strongly that it's the right thing to do. Paul Rodriguez has done the show since it began and spends many quiet, camera-free hours every year visiting some of the shelters where Comic Relief's money has gone.

"A lot of these people I visit don't even know who we are. I mean, it ain't like they got cable," says the comedian. "But you'd be surprised how happy they can be with a little help, a few jokes, a pat on the back. I know that what Comic Relief does is just a drop in the bucket, but it's our bucket. I'm personally most concerned about mothers with children and when you look in the faces of these kids, you can't not help. Regardless of how they got there, those kids shouldn't have to pick up the check. So we can pay now or pay later."

Not only is this the first year for the Shrine, but it's the first time the event has been held so close to the holidays (done around the hosts' schedules). That scheduling could cut either way, the organizers say.

"People may be tapped out," worries Zmuda, "but overall it could be good because hopefully, they will still be in a compassionate and giving mood."

"It will be a tougher sell this year," adds Rodriguez, "mostly because there have been some well-publicized scams and people's hearts have been hardened. But you know, ultimately, we're not going to be judged by how many highway or golf courses we build, but by how charitable we were to our fellow Americans when they were suffering."

"Comic Relief" airs Saturday at 9 p.m. on HBO and other selected cable channels.

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