‘Red Nose Day Special’: Executive Producer John Irwin Interview

John Irwin
John Irwin, President of Irwin Entertainment

Since launching in the UK 25 years ago, Red Nose Day has raised more than $1 billion to help out kids in need. In 2015, the annual fundraising event made its way to the United States, with NBC airing the first American-based Red Nose Day Special on May 21, 2015. The first-ever U.S. Red Nose Day brought in $23 million and according to executive producer John Irwin, President of Irwin Entertainment, the goal set for the 2016 broadcast is $30 million.

Airing on Thursday, May 26th at 9pm ET/PT, the 2016 Red Nose Day Special will be hosted by Craig Ferguson and will feature appearances by celebrities including Elton John, Julia Roberts, Will Ferrell, Blake Shelton, Ellen DeGeneres, Jack Black, Tracy Morgan and Kobe Bryant. Also set to help raise much-need funds for designated charities are Paul Rudd, Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Jay Leno, Celine Dion, Anna Kendrick, Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Bono, Ellie Kemper, Blake Griffin, Connie Britton, Mel B, Bill Gates, Tyler Perry, Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Vince Vaughn and Sarah Silverman. The list of celebrities on board is incredible, with the talent including Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Kristen Bell, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Rose Byrne, Chloë Grace Moretz, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, and Adam Devine donating their time to help raise money for kids in the U.S. and in the poorest communities in the world.

For more information or to donate visit rednosedayusa.com

John Irwin Exclusive Interview:

How did you initially become involved in Red Nose Day?

John Irwin: “I became involved because I’ve been doing quite a few things for NBC recently. I do the New Year’s Eve show for them every year. Then, I did the Burrows tribute with the cast reunion. Then they reached out to me, NBC did, to get involved in Red Nose Day and of course I met with Richard [Curtis] and hit it, and that’s kind of how it came to pass.”

Your schedule is loaded. Was it a tough sell to get involved in a special this big?

John Irwin: “No. Here’s the thing, to be able to work on something that, literally, the hope is that we are going to raise north of $30 million this year to help kids across the country. I don’t know how you’d say no. That’s something for me to get behind; something like that is amazing. The fact that it is combined with comedy, which is obviously one of my passions, it’s kind of a dream job.”

$23 million right off the bat from the US version’s first year is a huge number. Of the $30 million you’re hoping to raise this year, how much of that is actually brought in by sponsors ahead of time and how much of that will come from the public donating while being entertained during the broadcast?

John Irwin: “Well, Walgreens does a huge nationwide campaign. You can walk into any store and they are selling red noses and all kinds of stuff. They are definitely a big driving force behind helping to raise money. Then there’s quite a few other sponsors out there. But we’ve got a really, really powerful show this year. It’s got really good comedy with really big names. I mean we’ve got Tracy Morgan, who is doing a piece, Key & Peele, Sarah Silverman, Jack Black, Margot Robbie, and then we’ve got Bono, Will Ferrell, Julia Roberts, and Ludacris. Julia went to Phoenix and Ludacris went to Atlanta to do appeal film pieces. It’s a really jam packed show with a lot of celebrities and a lot of funny comedy and a lot of really moving pieces. Based on that, I feel like it’s going to be hard for people watching not to want to make some kind of contribution.

The thing that I think for me which got me really excited about this project is that I think we are trying… I think one of the hard things for people is understanding where is the money going. We have really this year tried to spell out to the American public some the various things. One of the things we do is helping kids get meals. There are kids across the country who on the weekends literally have no food. It’s a pretty grave situation that we all who are privileged, and that’s most of us, don’t really think about.”

When you are putting together a special like this, how difficult is it to find the right balance? You’ve got to entertain people, you’ve got to give them some things to laugh at, but you also are putting across a very important message while raising funds for charities. How difficult is it to find that balance?

John Irwin: “I mean, it has been very difficult. I think that really is the goal, is trying to find the balance. Obviously, the other piece of it is the transition from comedy to the moving stuff. You know what I mean? It’s what we’ve spent most of our time working on, quite frankly. Like you just said, we want a show that’s going to entertain people. You don’t want to get too dark or too depressing that you have to turn the TV off, so that’s the biggest challenge. Then, there’s that coupled with the fact that we’ve got 11 comedy sketches – pre-taped comedy pieces – in the show. That alone is a challenge, to get funny comedy. But it’s all kind of coming together magically. It’s all very exciting.”

At this point, do the celebrities just pretty much line up and volunteer to be involved? I would imagine you don’t have to beg people to be on the show.

John Irwin: “They really have. It’s been an amazing experience. It’s just a great thing. I think that’s really kind of what the show represents, that this is Hollywood getting behind and trying to help. Everybody is doing it for free. We’ve got Craig Ferguson and, Paul Shaffer. Craig is hosting and Paul’s the house band. We have Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis who literally have said they just want to do the phone bank. They didn’t want to come on and do a comedy piece, they really just wanted to take phone calls. It’s stuff like that where you just think, ‘My god, it’s so amazing.”

Craig Ferguson Red Nose Day
Craig Ferguson (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

Why is Craig Ferguson the perfect host for this year’s show?

John Irwin: “That’s another big challenge is trying to find a comedic personality. You need a comedic personality who knows how to host, who can handle the business of a live show, who has comedy chops, and who also has heart and can go from funny one moment to very sincere the next. I think that’s really what Craig brings. In working with him, he’s amazing. He takes this stuff very seriously. We are just so lucky to have him. And Paul – I think Paul’s going to be great. Paul’s a legend.”

How many months in advance have you been working on this?

John Irwin: “We started working on it I would say in January, just from the standpoint of staffing and stuff like that. It’s a pretty massive endeavor because there are so many moving parts. You’ve got the comedy pieces and then setting up these appeal films and coordinating Julia Roberts going to Phoenix to go meet with different families and Ludacris. That’s like a whole endeavor in of it itself are these are shorts they’re doing.”

That’s a lot to put together logistically. How are the charities chosen? How do you select who’s going to receive the funds raised from Red Nose Day?

John Irwin: “The Red Nose Day Group which has obviously been in existence for north of 30 years, it started in the UK. They have a huge initiative that for years they have been [handling]. That is something I have been less involved with because they are really the ones who know how to properly get the money out and make the right connections. When the show came to the US, they plugged into additional charities and they’ve got a great program in place for that.”

Do you believe the Red Nose Day special will continue to air annually on NBC? Will it stick around the way it has in the UK?

John Irwin: “This is the second year and I think with the help of NBC and Walgreens, definitely more and more people are getting to know about it. My hope is this becomes our Jerry Lewis Telethon. You know what I mean? It goes on and on and on because it is such an amazing cause. That’s why it needs to go on. I think it’s our job to do whatever we can to make it entertaining so that it sticks here.”

I think one of the surprising things was that it was solely in the UK for so long and it finally came to America. It seems like it was a natural fit for American audiences all along.

John Irwin: “Yeah, it’s so true. That’s a good question and I don’t have the answer to why did it take so long to get here? Who knows? Just the fact that they raised north of $20 million last year. In my mind, if we can get to 30, that will be a huge milestone. God knows, in a couple years hopefully it builds to over $100 million. The thing that’s crazy is you realize that for a dollar you can feed a kid. Like, the money that people are giving makes such a huge impact. That’s the part that’s so staggering. The smallest amount of money can really change things.”

Is that the part of all this that surprised you the most is the actual impact on the people that you are helping out?

John Irwin: “Oh my God, 100%. Last year, Jack Black went abroad and did a piece where he met this kid, Felix. Because of Red Nose Day and what they did last year, Felix is now in a totally different situation and we have a follow up on him this year. To see it actually working, I think that is fantastic. Our biggest initiative this year has been to be really help educate people as they are watching the show to understand, “Okay, I see that you raised $20 million. What does that mean? Where is it going?” Also, for them to understand that a couple dollars can make such an incredible difference for kids. That’s something that I didn’t realize. I’ve always felt like problems were, to a certain extent, insurmountable. We’re trying to spread the message out there that we are talking about lives and kids who are literally dying. An expensive meal out for somebody can change a kid’s life for months.”