In the past six years, Harvard hasn’t gotten lucky.
It has been on the verge though—Wyclef Jean, Jurassic 5, and Snoop Dogg were all scheduled to perform at Harvard, though all would eventually cancel due to poor ticket sales, logistical complications, and other road bumps.
In the wake of these flops, the Harvard Concert Commission was craving a successful show for Harvard students, but it seemed impossible to find one that could practically occur and also be generally popular.
But an opportunity presented itself in an unlikely form when, in Oct. 2005, about a month before Wyclef’s scheduled performance, a
7.6 magnitude earthquake ravaged Pakistan and killed over 80,000 people. International consciousness turned to South Asia, and a group of Harvard students founded the Earthquake Relief Coalition to raise funds for victims.
D. Zachary Tanjeloff ’08, with the other members of the HCC at the time, decided to merge his group’s goals with that of the ERC and student body at large to create a fun event that would also help earthquake survivors. Comedy for a Cause was born.
Seven comedians donated their time, the ERC took in $10,000, and Sanders was jam-packed with undergrads in search of a giggle.
“Everyone has a different taste in music,” says Tanjeloff, a comedy aficionado who still keeps in touch with past performers Judah Friedlander and Louis CK. “Funny is funny, hopefully, to everyone.”
In its three shows since, funny has indeed remained funny. While the comedy stays constant, the cause changes from year to year. In 2006, for example, the HCC donated the show’s proceeds to Deep Roots, a third-world scholarship organization. In 2007, HRC gave their earnings to Kiva.org, which supplies micro-loans to entrepreneurs in developing nations.
“By donating to smaller NGOs, we felt dollar-for-dollar that we were making a greater impact than if we were donating to larger, more established organizations like the Red Cross,” says Tanjeloff, the 2007 director of the HCC.
This year things went somewhat differently when Trojan Condoms contacted Fun Czar Jason McCoy ’08 over the summer about taking part in their “Evolve” campaign, which promotes sexual awareness via a comedy tour. McCoy referred Trojan to the HCC, and a partnership was made.
Though Trojan provided more money than past public sponsors and ultimately determined where proceeds would go, the HCC as still very much in charge and, unlike the other colleges on the Evolve tour, the Concert Commission charged students per ticket.
HCC Director Elizabeth F. Weiss ’10 outlines the comprehensive marketing campaign. “We try to get the attention of every student here through flyering, postering, a lot of e-mails.” The man power behind Weiss’ laborious advertising comes from HCC’s comp requirements, which mostly concern hyping the show and selling a minimum of 10 tickets each.
Word travels outside the Square as well. Corrie Reyes of Wentworth, Mass. bought tickets with her friends after seeing Comedy for a Cause listed on the events calendar of Boston.com.
Still, the most important publicity is simple word of mouth. Elizabeth L. Altmaier ’10, enjoyed the show very much and told her friends about it. “It’s hilarious,” Altmaier says. “People laugh until they cry.”
The tenor of the reviews, of course, depends on the quality of the comedians.
This year’s cast is smaller than those of past years. The 2008 lineup includes accomplished performers like Steve Byrne, who has his own Comedy Central Happy Hour special, Jordan Carlos, nationally recognizable as Stephen Colbert’s “black friend Alan,” and Julian McCullough, who regularly appears on VH1’s Best Week Ever.
When Trojan contacted Byrne, he had recently finished a similar gig with Camel cigarettes and says he would have preferred a call from a less polarizing company, like 1-800-FLOWERS. Byrne came around, however, to Trojan’s mission. “I think what Trojan did is just very positive. It’s a way to get kids in and enjoy the evening and get people to be healthy.”
Carlos, an alumnus of Brown’s improv comedy troupe “Improvidence,” says he agrees with the thrust of Trojan’s cause and was glad to come back to Harvard to do stand-up and distribute condoms. “I don’t know if it’s the economy or something, but people are just hoarding them,” Carlos says. “The weirdest thing was, MIT didn’t want any.”
McCullough, a stand-up-and-comer from New York, likened the gig to his promotional acts for Guinness, another cause he personally supports. “I would’ve worked for PBR too, but only for the money,” he says. “I hate PBR.”
But regardless of who’s putting on the show, McCullough mostly just wants to make people laugh. “The comedy comes first,” he says.
McCullough did indeed keep the comedy first, but did not forget to touch on the evening’s cause, using the colorful analogy of an everything bagel (with cream cheese) to remind students to consider their partners’ sexual health.
Carlos, the not-always-proud son of a gynecologist, showed off his medical knowledge by speculating on which members of the audience had STDs.
In the end, the fourth annual Comedy for a Cause was, as expected, a success. Handpicked audience members gave lap-dances on stage, raffle-winners took home prizes, and the somber statues in Sanders Theater frowned upon the irreverence of it all