News and analysis
May 18, 2015

Britain’s Red Nose Day Charity Special to Premiere in U.S.

Tasos Katopodis, Getty Images for Walgreens

Television personalities Bill and Giuliana Rancic stop for a Red Nose Day photo at a Chicago Walgreens.

A British charity is bringing its highly successful fundraising event across the pond — banking on laughs and heartfelt celebrity appeals to inspire support to reduce child poverty.

Since it was first held in 1988, Red Nose Day has raised more than $1 billion for charity in Britain. The biennial event was started by the British charity Comic Relief and Richard Curtis, the writer and director behind films like "Love Actually" and "Bridget Jones’s Diary."

The money raised during a three-hour telecast on May 21 will support programs that address the immediate needs of children and young people living in poverty in the U.S., Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Donations will be split among 12 charities, including United Way, Charity: Water, and Oxfam America. Though no donation goal was set, the most recent British event, held in March, brought in about $123 million.

The live benefit will feature sketch-comedy, videos produced by the website Funny or Die, and musical performances. Julia Roberts, Will Ferrell, Jodie Foster, John Legend, Reese Witherspoon, and dozens of other celebrities will participate.

Jack Black in Uganda

In Britain, people traditionally wear red clown noses as a way of promoting the event and its playful tone, a tradition that will carry over to the U.S.

While Mr. Curtis said the entertainment draws people in, it’s the honest appeals that motivate viewers to give.

"No one really watches a funny sketch and says, ‘I must give $20 to thank Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell for that joke.’ " Mr. Curtis said in a conference call. "I don’t think there’s anything disrespectful about trying to be as stupid and funny and entertaining as possible and then once every 20 minutes reminding you of our shared humanity."

Actor and comedian Jack Black traveled to Uganda to film an appeal that will air during the telecast. In a preview aired on the "Today Show," Mr. Black visits a Kampala slum and connects with local children, including a 12-year-old homeless boy who spends his days collecting bottles.

"It’s definitely the films like the ones that Jack’s made that eventually get [people] to give," said Mr. Curtis. "You’re not being lectured by someone who knows everything about all the charities and the politics, the economics. You’ve just got a human being reacting to other human beings, which is what we’re trying to do on the night — just make people identify with other people whose lives are hard and see if they can spare the money."

Not Just on TV

The event comes just weeks after the Muscular Dystrophy Association announced it would end its iconic Labor Day telethon, which Jerry Lewis hosted for decades, due to "the new realities of television viewing and philanthropic giving." The charity has plans to refocus its fundraising efforts on digital and mobile channels.

The Red Nose effort is not limited to television. There’s also an app that allows people to upload a photo of themselves, digitally add a red nose, and share the image on social media. will stream a related 24-hour benefit dance-athon hosted by Nick Cannon beginning May 20.

Red noses cost $1 at Walgreens and Duane Reade drug stores through May 30, with 50 cents from each purchase benefiting the Red Nose Day Fund.

"It’s as old as comedy and yet it still has some magic in it," Jack Black said during the call.

Other companies have come on board as well. For example, M&M’s, part of the Mars food company, has donated $750,000 to the fund and hopes ultimately to give $1 million. The company started the #MakeMLaugh campaign, asking people to make someone else laugh and share the moment with the hashtag. Every time it’s used until May 21, M&M’s will donate an additional dollar to the fund.

The live event will air Thursday, May 21, from 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern time on NBC.

Send an e-mail to Eden Stiffman.