Comic Relief thumbs its nose at the virus

Judi Dench: The 2021 event has been given the tagline: “Funny is power”. © Comic Relief

Do the best jokes come from the hardest times? Some people question the idea of holding Red Nose Day during the pandemic, but the comedians launching it insist it is just what we need.

The audience is lapping it up. Sir Lenny Henry is doing his act as Daniel, a British soldier in Iraq, based on conversations with veterans. “People are poor out here, you got no idea. In the hospitals they’re lying on slabs… there’s not enough staff, there’s no proper sewage system.” He pauses thoughtfully. “A bit like being at home, really!”

Henry is both one of Britain’s top comedians and – as co-founder of Comic Relief – one of its leading fundraisers for good causes. Yesterday the charity launched Red Nose Day 2021, with a video featuring stars including Benedict Cumberbatch, Judi Dench and Shappi Khorsandi. There were fears that the pandemic might derail the event, but Comic Relief has shown determination and ingenuity in keeping things going.

Last March, Sports Relief went ahead despite the imminent lockdown. In April, Comic Relief teamed up with Children In Need to present the Big Night In telethon. And at Christmas, it presented a Zoom pantomime, Cinderella, with Olivia Colman as the Fairy Godmother and cameo appearances by David Walliams, Daniel Craig and Sam Smith.

In the new video, Benedict Cumberbatch champions the idea of presenting comedy in dark times. “I think laughter is a panacea,” he says. “It has always been a national medicine… When you make light of something often, then it can just release the tension enough to breathe, to just have a moment’s respite from it.”

“Red Nose Day will be different this year,” adds Lenny Henry. “We know that it’s hard financially for so many people right now, but we’d love you to join us – even if it’s just to share a laugh. If we raise some money along the way, then brilliant!”

One difference is that, for the first time, the red noses sold to raise money will be made of plant-based material: the charity does not want to add to the world’s plastic waste problem.

People have always turned to humour to deal with trauma. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has Mercutio crack a joke even while he is dying: “Look for me tomorrow,” he says, “and you will find me a grave man.”

During the Communist era in Eastern Europe, there were lots of jokes about the awfulness of the regime, even though it was dangerous to tell them. One was about the White Sea Canal, constructed with slave labour. “Who built it?” asks a visitor. “The left bank was done by the people who told the jokes,” comes the reply, “and the right bank by the people who listened to them.”

“What did Communists use before candles?” goes another. Answer: “Electricity.”

Many of the jokes that Russians told about their leaders then are now told about President Putin. In one, Stalin appears to him in a dream. “I have two bits of advice for you,” he says. “Start killing everyone you can, and paint the Kremlin blue.” “That’s the most outrageous thing I ever heard,” says Putin. “Why would anyone want it to be blue?”

Do the best jokes come from the hardest times?

Taking pun-ishment

Some say, no: some events and situations are so awful that nobody with a scrap of sensitivity would dream of joking about them. Examples include the Holocaust, famine, murder and terrorist attacks. The best jokes come spontaneously when people are relaxing with their friends and family, as an expression of happiness and love rather than of desperation.

Others argue that jokes are the most effective way of dealing with dire circumstances. One Red Nose Day comedian, Joe Lycett, claims, “Literally every bad thing that’s happened to me in my life, I’ve been able to get round it with humour.” The pandemic has produced some brilliant jokes, such as a spoof video of the Grand National with Boris Johnson on a horse called Making It Up As I Go Along.

You Decide

  1. Comic Relief is asking everyone to put their favourite joke in the window for Red Nose Day. What is yours?
  2. Should there be laws against telling jokes about highly sensitive subjects?


  1. Visit the Red Nose Day website and decide on something you can do with your family or school to support Comic Relief.
  2. Write a comic sketch about life during lockdown and perform it online with a cast of friends.

Some People Say...

“Humour is something that thrives between man's aspirations and his limitations.”

Victor Borge (1909 - 2000), Danish-American comedian

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Comic Relief has been an extraordinary success, raising more than £1bn for charity since it was launched in 1985. Its live TV events attract millions of viewers, and all the money donated goes directly to good causes, with sponsors paying the administrative costs. The template has been followed in several other countries, including the US, Russia and Iceland. Its spin-off Sports Relief began in 2002, and last year raised £40,540,355.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether Comic Relief was unfairly criticised by people who viewed its presenters as “white saviours”. In 2017 MP David Lammy accused the charity of perpetuating the idea that Africans were dependent on outside help to escape poverty; the row became more intense after Stacey Dooley was filmed holding a Ugandan baby. Comic Relief’s fans argued that it would not be giving help unless it was needed, and involving celebrities was an effective way to do that.

Word Watch

Sports Relief
Featuring stars of sports and entertainment, its events have included David Walliams swimming the English Channel and Eddie Izzard running 43 marathons in 51 days.
A combination of “television” and “marathon”, it means a TV programme which lasts for several hours.
A small role played by a famous person. It is also a name for a small piece of carved jewellery.
A remedy for all diseases or difficulties. It comes from a Greek word meaning “all-healing”.
A close friend of Romeo, he is killed in a sword fight with Juliet’s cousin Tybalt.
White Sea Canal
A 141-mile canal connecting the Arctic Ocean with the Baltic Sea. Between 12,000 and 25,000 people are believed to have died in its construction, though some estimates are much higher.
The ruler of Russia from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953, he was responsible for millions of deaths through executions, imprisonment in terrible conditions and starvation.


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