People always say that laughter is the best medicine. In reality the best medicine is actually, well, medicine. Thankfully there are some comedians who have parlayed their talent for inducing laughter into making the world a better place for people (and other living things) who need it. Here are seven comedians who moonlighted as humanitarians.
1. DANNY THOMAS
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is a world-class pediatric research and treatment facility in Memphis, Tennessee that treats approximately 7,800 patients every year—none of whom are charged for their care. Instead, the nonprofit’s $2 million daily operating costs are covered mainly by donations, and it’s all thanks to sitcom star Danny Thomas. The St. Jude website explains how the TV funnyman came to found a world-renowned healthcare facility:
Unsure of his life’s direction, a young Danny Thomas sought guidance from St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes. If the saint would point to the path he should take, Danny vowed to build a shrine in his name. Success followed Danny’s plea and soon after, the legendary entertainer set about fulfilling his vow to St. Jude. The result was St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
2. ELLEN DEGENERES
One of the only things that the popular talk show host seems to like better than dancing is lending her support to philanthropic causes. She is one of the most visible advocates for LGBT people, champions women’s rights, works with organizations promoting anti-bullying and kindness campaigns, supports African aid and poverty relief, has served as a member of the Pink for the Cure campaign for breast cancer awareness, lobbies passionately for animal rights, and donated time and money to disaster relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Even when she isn’t actively trying to give back, generosity seems to follow her: while hosting the Oscars in 2014, DeGeneres snapped an impromptu selfie with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, which subsequently became the most retweeted picture of all time on Twitter. As a result of all of the free publicity Samsung received for supplying the phone that took the picture, the company donated $1.5 million apiece to both the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and The Humane Society of the United States.
3. JERRY LEWIS
He’s known for shouting “Laaaady,” being beloved by the French, and for appearing all over your television every Labor Day. For more than four decades the frenetic star of The Nutty Professor—and one half of a legendary comedy duo with Dean Martin—hosted the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon and helped to raise more than $2 billion for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Lewis stepped away from his role with the event in 2010 and the MDA announced the discontinuation of the telethon in May of this year.
4. AND 5. JOHNNY CARSON AND SAM SIMON
These two serve as a reminder that someone’s ability to do good doesn’t stop when they slip away from this mortal coil: Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show for nearly 30 years before retiring in 1992. In 1989 Sam Simon co-created The Simpsons. Needless to say, both men had a lot of money.
Following his death in 2005, Carson’s estate donated $156 million to a charitable foundation established in his name. Simon was given only a handful of weeks to live when he received a cancer diagnosis in 2012, but still managed to keep up his fight before succumbing to the disease earlier this year. Before his passing, Simon made plans to donate his entire $100 million fortune to his personal foundation, which provides support to various organizations serving military veterans, children, and animals.
6. BOB HOPE
Between 1941 and 1991, legendary comedian Bob Hope headlined 57 different tours with the United Service Organizations (USO), traveling the world to entertain American service men and women in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and dozens of points in between. During his half-century of service to the USO, Hope is reported to have spent Christmas Day overseas with troops 48 times. As a result of his dedication to the cause, in 1997 the U.S. Congress officially made Hope the first (and so far only) person to ever be named an honorary veteran of the U.S. armed forces.
7. ROBIN WILLIAMS
When the Academy Award winner tragically took his own life last year, the world didn’t just lose a comedy icon, it also lost a tireless champion for social causes. Beginning in 1986 Williams teamed up with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal for many years to host annual fundraising comedy performances for Comic Relief USA, helping to raise north of $80 million to benefit homeless Americans. He completed at least six tours with the USO, supported the Livestrong Foundation, and served on the Board of Directors for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation to benefit paralysis and spinal cord research. And, in grand comedian tradition, Williams was a prominent supporter of St. Jude’s as well.