Comedians with a Cause

Comedians with a Cause by Barbara Neal VarmaThey're known for raising laughs, but these three comedians have also raised funds and lifted spirits using the rip-roaring, restorative power of laughter. Whether performing a stand-up routine at the corner rehab clinic or a standing-room-only gig for a community hard hit by today's economic times, this trio of professional jokesters bring humor and hope to those in need.

Heeeere's Jay Leno!

When he's not Jaywalking or monologue-ing, Jay Leno is bringing laughter to communities hit hard by economic times. The leading late-night talk show host and consummate comedian launched his "Comedy Stimulus Plan" in "Motor City," Detroit, one of his favorite cities for his love of cars. Leno was reportedly inspired to share the mirth by the words of President Obama. "I'm listening to him say we all gotta do our part in these rough times, and I'm thinking all I can do is tell jokes," The Tonight Show host told People Magazine. "But if I can go and make people laugh, then that's great."

The late-night comic has been historically generous with his humor and charity, most especially with fundraising events that involve spiffed-up specialty cars and motorcycles. Automobiles are admittedly his passion, along with Mavis Nicholson, his classic wife of almost 20 years. In 2001, Leno auctioned off a Harley-Davidson motorcycle signed by some of his celebrity guests to help victims of the September 11 attacks. He repeated the gesture twice more: once to help victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, and again to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina, raising more than $2.5 million dollars for the three events combined.

Last December Leno announced a deal struck with NBC to keep him home on the network by launching a new comedy/talk show debuting this fall at 10 p.m/9 p.m. CT, Monday through Friday. NBC executives say this will be the first-ever entertainment program to be repeated across primetime on broadcast television. Leno's Tonight Show replacement is fellow comedian Conan O'Brien who took the helm of the late-night legacy in June.

Leno's philanthropic pursuits have also been put to the page. Among his author credits, which include two children's books and four compilations of too-funny-to-be-false headlines, he's produced Police Blotter, a book with humorous newspaper clippings about police stories. All of the Blotter proceeds go to various charities.

Leno has stated he'd like to keep the "Comedy Stimulus Plan" tour going, bringing the free laughs and uplifting of spirits to even more cities across the country. Because of the show's success in Detroit which drew in about 36,000 laid-off auto workers, plans are in play to bring the laughs out onto the open road - with Leno at the wheel.

Ellen DeGeneres's "Pet" Charity

When Ellen DeGeneres, along with her partner Portia de Rossi, won the Wyler Award from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) last March, it was the culmination of many years' advocacy for her four-legged friends.

Last April, DeGeneres, the unforgettable voice of "Dory" in the movie Finding Nemo, launched a charity auction to help raise funds for the HSUS by selling celebrities' clothes, including her own, on eBay. The "What's Ellen Sellin'" campaign proved popular with the two-legged crowd, too, no less the celebs who contributed to the paws cause. Many notables such as American Idol's Simon Cowell, Joan and Melissa Rivers, and Zachary Quinto (Heroes, Star Trek) autographed items for Ellen to add to her eBay auction.

But it was pregnant guest Heidi Klum who caused the most commotion by first offering to donate the silk Temperely dress she was wearing, and then beginning to peel if off with cameras rolling and audience members staring. At first DeGeneres held up a cloth napkin to cover the impromptu striptease but then modesty won out - not to mention the TV censors - and a screened partition was brought on stage for the Victoria's Secret supermodel to finish disrobing. (Cue the saxophone music.)

DeGeneres announced to any potential bidders in the viewing audience: "That dress is going on eBay right now - we're not cleaning it or anything." No doubt keeping the frock complete with the essence of Klum helped raised the selling price which quickly weighed in at more than $1,400 dollars.

DeGeneres's resume of charities and good causes she's supported over the years is a lengthy testimony to the sometimes controversial comedian's commitment to raise awareness on such issues as women's issues and gay rights, the fight against breast cancer, and the efforts to feed hungry children around the world. But it's the plight of all creatures great and small that reportedly tug most at her heart.

"Ellen and Portia stand up for their beliefs, and they have had a major impact in spreading the message about animal protection," said the president and CEO of the Humane Society, Wayne Pacelle, at the awards ceremony. No doubt Nemo's friend Dory would agree.

Craig Shoemaker says open wide and say "ha!"

Ever hear the one about the comic and the cancer patient? The comic walks into a chemo bar with his buddy who has brain cancer, and sees nothing but mind-numbing material all around: daytime soaps, a screaming Jerry "Who's Your Baby's Daddy?" Springer, and a med staff whose attention is harder to catch than a back-row heckler. "Who wouldn't want to pull the plug?" the comedian asks in all seriousness. For Craig Shoemaker, a.k.a. The Lovemaster, "that's a true story."

And one the award-winning comedian was inspired to change. "I believe in the power of laughter, and I saw first-hand what a difference it made in my friend's healing. The doctors said he had only three months to live." Yikes. But Shoemaker just laughs. "He's survived his initial prognosis by nine years now."

Ah, turned out the joke was on the doctors. Good one.

When we meet at his family-friendly home in a suburb outside of L.A., Shoemaker is eager to talk about the therapeutic effect of humor and positive attitudes - personal beliefs he's put into play with his Laughter Heals foundation, a private-turned-public quest to bring "the healing power of 'ha's" to those facing failing health and hard times.

Ever since Shoemaker burst onto the Philadelphia comedy scene more than two decades go, he has inspired enough gut-wrenching guffaws to be named Comedian of the Year by the American Comedy Awards on ABC, and have his half-hour Comedy Central show voted as one of the network's "Top 20" stand-up specials of all time. Then there was XM Radio's Big Schtick Award, one the comic can't resist to wink he's the most proud of, and more recently, Shoemaker's new DVD, The Lovemaster…Unzipped which claimed a spot on Billboard's Top 20 for six straight weeks.

But ho hum. These days, Shoemaker says, it's not the applause or accolades that makes his soul sing, but the people he makes smile during the most tragic of times.

Shoemaker and a few of his funny friends started Laughter Heals by first establishing a presence online, then performing planned acts of kindness at local medical and caretaking facilities. They donated TVs with built-in DVD players, each stocked with a hundred or so recordings of comedy films, classic TV sit-coms, and stand-up shows. The Laughter Heals team also performed at various cure and care institutions, casting a humor spell on the disenchanted so strong that even that day's rigorous rounds of treatment seemed nose-snorting funny.

Shoemaker is preparing to expand the program with the launch of a feature documentary called "Live to Laugh," a collaborative venture with Michael Beckwith of The Secret fame and producer Mark Harris (Crash, Gods and Monsters). "We'll take seven patients of various illnesses through the program and monitor the results. We'll see the healing take place right before our eyes."

Of course, none of this was even remotely on his mind many years ago when Shoemaker entertained his colleagues as a law firm clerk back in Philadelphia. His spot-on impersonations of coworkers and celebs - Jimmy Stewart, for one - was such a hit with the lunchroom crowd that one of them, a buddy in a band, asked him to do "some of that" at an upcoming gig. He did. "A few of my friends showed up, to see either something funny or an accident," he recalls.

After the law firm, Shoemaker bartended at a Philly bar where he hosted a weekly comedy night, tossing out one-liners as fast as he was pouring scotch.

More comedy jobs followed with rapid delivery but none of his growing notoriety had the momentum of his on-stage alter ego, the Lovemaster, a lusty guy with a Barry White-bass voice who brags about his impressive, um, equipment. Head back and eyes half closed, Shoemaker morphs into "the big L" in the salacious wink of an eye. "Baby, I can tap you on the shoulder from way up here…yeahhh. Let Pinocchio tell you a lie." One can't witness the sudden transformation without wondering where did THAT guy come from?

"From my nether regions," Shoemaker quips. But seriously, folks. "In high school I saw what the girls wanted and it wasn't a nice, funny guy like me. The Lovemaster gives them what they're looking for - the sexually confident macho lover." Shoemaker tried out the come-on character on a few of his comic friends before letting him loose on stage. "The response was huge."

No doubt.

Shoemaker says he was a believer in the restorative power of laughter long before his friend's bout with brain cancer. Humor was the balm to an otherwise bleak childhood that can best be described in a series of punch-to-the-gut lines: Daddy dearest leaving the family scene, Grandma growing marijuana instead of marigolds in the garden, and Mom belly-dancing at his high school graduation.

"When you can laugh at something no matter how tragic, you can turn it around, get in control of it," Looking back, Shoemaker says, "humor helped me cope."

Indeed, Shoemaker steadfastly believes that what the world needs right now is laughs, sweet laughs. "I'm at a point in my life where the only reason I want a career or notoriety is to spread the word about the power of laughter. The messenger. That's all I want to be."

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