Richard Curtis: The True Superhero of Comedy Working to Eliminate Poverty

Richard Curtis is probably the most successful comedy writer in the world due to one of his many characters: Mr. Bean. He created the 15-show series with actor Rowan Atkinson and it has become one of the most successful British cultural exports in history with hundreds of millions of fans worldwide. 

He is also the king of romantic comedy, having written Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, the Bridget Jones movies, and Love Actually, featuring his other long-term collaborator, Hugh Grant. 

Richard Curtis: The True Superhero of Comedy Working to Eliminate Poverty
Richard Curtis (far right) on the set of Love Actually


Comedy writing is only half of his career, however. He co-founded Comic Relief in 1985, a British charity that has raised more than $1bn by getting famous people to do silly things and by encouraging others to wear clown red noses. 

 Despite his accomplishments, Richard said he feels a massive sense of imposter syndrome caused, in part, by the lightness of his comedy work compared to the seriousness of his charity fundraising and campaigning. “I was speaking at Google’s Zeitgeist about the Sustainable Development Goals yesterday,” he told Time in 2019. “And I was thinking, ‘Wait a minute…’” 

Richard Curtis: The True Superhero of Comedy Working to Eliminate Poverty

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James Lumley
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Richard Curtis is probably the most successful comedy writer in the world due to one of his many characters: Mr. Bean. He created the 15-show series with actor Rowan Atkinson and it has become one of the most successful British cultural exports in history with hundreds of millions of fans worldwide. 

He is also the king of romantic comedy, having written Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, the Bridget Jones movies, and Love Actually, featuring his other long-term collaborator, Hugh Grant. 

Richard Curtis: The True Superhero of Comedy Working to Eliminate Poverty
Richard Curtis (far right) on the set of Love Actually


Comedy writing is only half of his career, however. He co-founded Comic Relief in 1985, a British charity that has raised more than $1bn by getting famous people to do silly things and by encouraging others to wear clown red noses. 

 Despite his accomplishments, Richard said he feels a massive sense of imposter syndrome caused, in part, by the lightness of his comedy work compared to the seriousness of his charity fundraising and campaigning. “I was speaking at Google’s Zeitgeist about the Sustainable Development Goals yesterday,” he told Time in 2019. “And I was thinking, ‘Wait a minute…’” 

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‘Deep inside, there was a problem’

His charitable work is so onerous it has taken its toll on his family life. “All of my kids think I work too hard,” he said.

Once, on his birthday, his children gave him a comic book they had created for him: “It shows them going down a magic slide and arriving in a village in Africa and understanding why I'd been in a bad mood and worked so hard. They thought I'd love it. It was a beautiful object, but it was a hurtful one.” 

Richard Curtis: The True Superhero of Comedy Working to Eliminate Poverty
Richard Curtis addressing the UN about sustainable development goals in 2015

Although he rarely speaks about mental health issues, they are clearly a concern within his family. Appearing at a Public Health England conference in 2017, Richard revealed that his sister Belinda killed herself in 2009 after a 25-year battle with depression. "I was so privileged and we had so much money and so much access, and still couldn’t do anything," he said, the memory still bringing tears to his eyes. 

He has also been concerned, at times, about the mental and physical health of his daughter, Scarlett - one of his four children - who had a botched spinal operation that left her in chronic pain to the point where she “spent four years in her bedroom screaming”. 

Although Richard said he’s had a lifelong “obsession” with love, he never married and turned down a leap-year proposal from his long-term partner Emma Freud.)

His fascination with love stories began at age seven after he became infatuated with a girl who rejected him. He remained obsessed for two years. “I was always an absolute fool for love... somewhere deep inside, that is a problem," he said, adding. "Definitely, there was some psychological freakery there.' 

 

Richard Curtis: The True Superhero of Comedy Working to Eliminate Poverty
Richard Curtis and his partner Emma Freud

From New Zealand to Hollywood

 Richard was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1961. His father was Czechoslovakian refugee who’d settled in Australia as a child and grown up to become an executive at Unilever. Richard’s early childhood was spent on the move, with his father taking postings in the Philippines and Sweden before they settled in the UK in 1972.

The roots of his tireless war against inequality go back to those childhood days. He was deeply affected by seeing Manila’s poverty and slums.

“Perhaps it was something to do with spending three years of my youth in Manila where every day, as my driver took me back to my house with a swimming pool, I could see huge slums with people living under corrugated iron roofs,” he said in 2007.

He also grew up in a household that valued charitable work: “My mum canceled Christmas in 1968. No presents. No special food. We gave all the money to the Biafra appeal.

Richard Curtis: The True Superhero of Comedy Working to Eliminate Poverty
Richard wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, launching Hugh Grant’s career

The road to success

At 13, he won a scholarship to private school Harrow, where he excelled, and left as ‘head boy’. He also won a place at Oxford University where he became friends with Mr. Bean actor Rowan Atkinson and they worked together on Atkinson’s Edinburgh Fringe show.  

After graduation, Richard co-wrote the British comedy classic Blackadder, which ran through the '80s with Atkinson as its star. The program also cemented the comedy careers of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. 

In 1989, Richard wrote his first comedy movie: The Tall Guy starring Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson. By the ‘90s he was a big name in British comedy and an international celebrity when his low-budget movie Four Weddings and a Funeral became a runaway success. He followed that with the first Mr. Bean movie, then broke box office records again with the Julia Roberts and Grant movie Notting Hill (1999).

 The hits kept on rolling though the 2000s as he has worked with stars such as Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, and Dustin Hoffman.  

Richard Curtis: The True Superhero of Comedy Working to Eliminate Poverty
Julia Roberts in Notting Hill

 

Ed Sheeran featured in Richard’s Yesterday (2019) about a musician who wakes up from an accident to discover he’s the only person in the world who can remember The Beatles and becomes famous passing the songs off as his own. 

 “I’ve always felt that what I was trying to do as a writer was to feel like The Beatles in trying to bring people joy,” he said. “Even when you’re dealing with serious things, try and do it in a way which [has] a joyful context.”

He’s applied that model to his charity work as well. Comic Relief, a charity that started out by using comedy sketches to fund famine relief, is a major achievement. He co-founded it in 1985 with comedian Lenny Henry in response to the famines which blighted parts of Africa in the 1980s.

Richard Curtis: The True Superhero of Comedy Working to Eliminate Poverty
Richard Curtis, Martine McCutcheon, and Hugh Grant


The True Superhero of Comic Relief

Richard’s charity work started almost by accident. Like many others, he’d been deeply affected by Live Aid. “I happened to go to dinner and met a girl who ran a charity and was about to go out to Ethiopia,” he said. He went with her and found the experience ‘startling’.  

“I was there towards the end of the famine, but I saw things of such horror that I couldn’t stand by and do nothing. You’d have a situation where people were separated into different corrugated iron huts - one would have people who were going to die that night, the next would be people who were probably going to die - and the last hut was people who might just survive.” 

He never got over it. When he returned to London, he decided to do everything he could to make comedy contribute to aid - from stage shows, to TV, to merchandise,  as if he were the CEO of a business. 

 

Richard Curtis: The True Superhero of Comedy Working to Eliminate Poverty
Dame Judy Dench and Benedict Cumberbatch on Red Nose Day 2021

Red Nose Day

Comic Relief runs an annual televised fundraiser that has, since 1985, raised huge sums for charity. On Red Nose Day, people are encouraged to do “silly things for charity,” from bathing in baked beans to wearing a charity red nose to the office. The evening telethon is a festival of comedy and aid work, in which celebrity skits are shown alongside sometimes deeply harrowing films about the charity’s work. It inspired a similar US fundraiser that ran intermittently between 1986 and 2010, mostly raising money for the homeless. 

Comic Relief’s aim is to create a just world, free from poverty. That’s also the aim of the campaign group Make Poverty History, which Richard also founded. It’s a coalition of aid agencies and campaign groups that lobby to cancel Third World debt among other goals. He’s pointedly aware of the “slightly peculiar contradiction in my life between the Comic Relief side and the comedy writing side,” but has an explanation. 

“What we do on Red Nose Day is make things as funny as we can so that people can see the other side to all the sadness we show,” he said. “I suppose what we are fighting for is that everyone should have the privilege of leading a happy life and being able to laugh like the rest of us instead of being worried that their husband is going to beat them up or they are going to die of a mosquito bite.”

Richard considers Comic Relief and Make Poverty History to be his main priorities even at the expense of his personal life. “I help edit almost every appeal film we do,” he said in 2019.  “When I see a film about a child who hasn’t got a mosquito net, and the impact that makes, I’ll then write to Kiera Knightley and ask her to do something to help us scale the impact.”

He is continuously inspiring others to join his charity crusade even if they can only contribute a small amount: “To keep going, you have to be obsessed with every pound, because even £2.50 ($3) makes a huge difference.”

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