Comic relief has become an industry, its own self-justifying premise. In January of this year, BBC2 hosted its Great Comic Relief Bake Off. It had four million viewers, meaning that 16.3 percent of the audience was nabbed between 8pm and 9pm on one specific viewing day. The object of this bakeoff – raising funds for the indigent and needy – were the spectres of the moment.
Comic Relief’s origins were not necessarily intended that way. As its website tells readers, “Comic Relief was launched from a refugee camp in Sudan on Christmas Day in 1985, live on BBC One. At that time, a devastating famine was crippling Ethiopia and something had to be done. That something was Comic Relief.” The paternalist sting, that message of coming to the rescue is notable – the white British hope seeking to fill the impoverished, desperate black void. Assumptions are made: the need to save, the need to help, and the need to identify the suitable victim.
How that void would be filled would be through the deployment of humour, that great salve to encourage people to help the deprived and needy. In making people laugh, British comedians would raise funds to help the disadvantaged. They would coax money out of the moneyed to pass it on to the un-moneyed. “As well as doing something about the very real and direct emergency in Ethiopia, Comic Relief was determined to help tackle the broader needs of poor and disadvantaged people in Africa and at home in the UK.”
Then came the ubiquitous red nose symbol. Comic Relief had found its badge, its advertisement icon for the great push against poverty. The humanitarian clown was born.