Paul Vallely: The power of laughing until you cry

You can criticise Red Nose Day, but you can't avoid comedy's ability to change the world
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The Independent Online

I have to say I am ambivalent about the achievement of Chris Moyles, the Radio 1 disc jockey who, together with "Comedy" Dave Vitty, has just entered the Guinness World Records for broadcasting the longest music show on radio. Last time I tuned in to Moyles he was in hot water, if you'll pardon the pun, for soliciting calls from his female listeners about whether they urinated while they were taking a shower. I decided I preferred the curmudgeonly early-morning charm of John Humphrys on Radio 4.

But last week Moyles and Vitty remained on the air for 52 hours – raising an extraordinary £2,406,648 for Comic Relief in the process. They passed the £2m mark after Moyles promised listeners that his fellow DJ Fearne Cotton would present her show in a swimming costume if the cash kept coming in. It was a rather fetching black and white number in the event.

If I sound a little unconvinced about Moyles do not make the mistake of assuming that attitude extends to Comic Relief. Given the wide spectrum of activities encompassed by Red Nose Day you would be hard pushed not to find something to object to. Some of the celebrity presenters seem insufferably pleased with themselves. Others, as the night wears on, develop a pants-on-the-outside-of-your-trousers, just-back-from-the-pub hysterical humour which is as alienating as arriving sober at a dinner party when everyone else is several bottles in.

The more high-minded critics point up the paradox of drunken students going on a sponsored pub crawl to raise money that Comic Relief then spends on a charity to hire a specialist worker to "support young people to reduce the amount of alcohol they consume". And the most sour-faced – such as that professional dyspeptic Rod Liddle who once attacked Red Nose Day as a "fascistic smugfest" – simply object to everything about it.

But they should hold their noses, red or otherwise. It is not just that Comic Relief has done enormous good with the £650m raised since it was launched, live on BBC 1, from a refugee camp in Sudan on Christmas Day in 1985. The cash donated over the past quarter of a century has made a measurable difference to the lives of people in more than 76 countries, supporting tens of thousand of grassroots projects, mostly in Africa but 12,000 of them in the UK alone. Time after time in my travels across Africa over the past three decades, I have come across tucked-away little projects – schools, clinics, community centres and other schemes, transforming people's lives, unheralded – where a little plaque in the hallway records thanks to Comic Relief among others.

But there is more to the biennial Red Nose telethon than an opportunity to feel a warm glow from having done some bit of goodness on a dark Friday evening – which this year raised a record £74m and rising.

On the school run on Friday morning, with the kids in the car wearing something red and clutching their £3 for various Red Nose activities, we passed a woman in running gear, her face plastered in red make-up, carrying a large bucket as she tore through the streets into which passers-by tossed coins. In one office I heard of the workers climbing the equivalent of Mount Everest on the office stairs. In the church hall there was a cake-bake sale. In one school pupils did sponsored Scottish country dancing; in another the kids walked backwards for a mile. A beauty parlour organised a "waxathon". (You don't need to know.)

What it is easy to forget from watching the telly is that Red Nose Day is not about spectating but about participating. Behind each of the workplace donations flashed on the giant studio screens was a group of people who had interrupted their daily round to do something for someone else.

There are those who jib at the enforced workplace jollity of doing something funny for money or complain at the lack of seriousness. The writer Rhidian Brook had an answer to them on the radio on Friday. Serious and funny are not opposites, he said. The opposite of serious is frivolous; the opposite of funny is unfunny. But comedy is more than telling jokes. If tragedy is the inevitable, comedy is the unforeseeable. And laughter at times of tragedy is part of a healthy human response.

In previous years critics have complained that the films shown between the jokes on Red Nose Day are voyeuristic, mawkish or sentimental. But that is wrong. There was only joy in seeing a blind man dance when he was made to see again. And only pain in witnessing a little girl – who spends her days caring for a mother skeletal with Aids – say that if her mother dies she will get into the grave with her.

When we feel compassion at hearing about people like them we are not being manipulated; we are being given the privilege and responsibility of seeing a truth about the world that we had not previously truly encountered. Our hearts have been hardened if we can turn a blind eye to such situations and offer some specious intellectual rationalisation for being mean-spirited. Comedy brings the unexpected.

Part of the deep intelligence of Comic Relief is its self-awareness. That was demonstrated in a previous telethon with the sketch in which Ricky Gervais pretended to do a charity appeal in a slum codded-up in a BBC studio. Comedy knows things at a more profound intuitive level than rational discourse can admit. The genius of Comic Relief is that it expresses that through the zeitgeist, plugging into whatever is currently in vogue, with parodies of contemporary hits from Absolutely Fabulous and The Vicar of Dibley in the early years, through Ali G meeting Posh and Becks, and Tony Blair not being bovvered by Catherine Tate, to this year, Miranda, The Inbetweeners and Downton Abbey. We, here and now, out of our contemporary experience and understanding, can leave the world a little better than we found it, is the tacit message.

The public may not be able to articulate this but they comprehend it – even as they understand that, though Africa's problems may not be solved without good governance, economic growth and trade reform, a donation to Comic Relief can transform a few individuals' lives beyond measure. An action is required. That sense has brought the sea-change in attitudes which produced Make Poverty History and created the all-party consensus that led to the ring-fencing of the aid budget. On Friday night the Government matched spending pound for pound on parts of the money raised by Comic Relief.

A dispensation has been affected. That great showman Richard Curtis, Comic Relief's prime mover, acknowledged this on the radio last week when he reported his daughter's friend as saying she had her box of tissues ready for Friday night.

Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em give. It's a deal, and everyone is better for it – even the cynics, who at least have the chance to have a good moan. For the rest of us Comic Relief offers, at its best, a window in the everyday. Through it we can see to a different place, and see how we can play a part in making it a better one.

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