Imagine if the passing of simple breeze, chewing a bite of food, even receiving a kiss on the cheek could trigger a pain so intense it felt like electrical volts were coursing through your face. That’s life for the 400,000 people in the U.S. suffering from trigeminal neuralgia, a debilitating facial nerve disorder that is all too often called the suicide disease.
The illness is no laughing matter—yet when WGN-TV Morning News Sports Anchor Pat Tomasulo wanted to plan an event to raise awareness and help fund research, his priority was to ensure the night would leave smiles on everyone’s faces.
“I wanted to do something fun, nothing too serious [or] too somber,” recalls Pat. He was inspired to plan the fundraiser to benefit the Facial Pain Research Foundation (head-quartered in Gainesville, Florida) by his wife Amy, who has suffered from the disease since 2001. The couple settled on a comedy theme that “fit my skill set and her interests,” he says. While Amy has always been a comedy fan, Pat has moonlighted as a stand-up comedian in Chicago clubs for a number of years.
They named the night the Laugh Your Face Off fundraiser, which took over Chicago’s Laugh Factory comedy club on January 15. The sold-out event, featuring sets by Tomasulo, his colleagues Ana Belaval and Mike Toomey, Pat McGann of Late Night with David Letterman and a number of local comics, was a smash hit. In total, 300 attendees raised more than $130,000, including $65,000 in donations and a dollar-for-dollar match by a genetics research program.
The turnout was even more impressive considering that planning the event was no easy task. Although the Tomasulos regularly attend charitable events, they’d never actually organized one. “From the beginning, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing,” admits Pat. “We had no idea when we should start each task,” such as knowing when to solicit sponsorships or when to secure a venue, among other important items.
So, to get up to speed, the two met with friends at the helm of successful charities, including Paula Fassea, chair of the no-kill animal shelter and welfare group PAWS, as well as the founders of Cal’s Angels, which grants wishes and financial support to families of kids fighting cancer.
These meetings “were extremely helpful” in creating a blueprint for Laugh Your Face Off, says Pat, and key to “staying organized and staying on top of our lists”—especially since he and his wife did most of the legwork in planning the event, though they did have some help throughout the eight-month process.
An early supporter was Jamie Masada, owner of the Chicago location of The Laugh Factory, a club where Pat has performed since it opened in 2012. “She not only gave us the space but donated everything,” from fully staffing the venue to waiving deposits and cancelling the club’s late show, says Pat.
John McCartney, owner of Blast! Marketing and PR, also helped by promoting the event and bringing in one of his local clients, Delightful Pastries & Café, to cater the evening. Guests sampled the family-owned bakery’s sweet and savory European-style bites during the pre-show cocktail hour while enjoying the rich vocals of John Vincent, a regular performer at Ditka’s Restaurant. This hour also allowed attendees to meet with people like Amy suffering from trigeminal neuralgia as well as learn about the foundation’s research plan and purchase raffle tickets to win concert suites and Chicago Blackhawks packages, all to benefit the foundation.
From the get-go, the Tomasulos were resolute that “every single dime” collected would go towards finding a cure, says Pat: “I’ve been to fundraisers where you question how much of your donation dollar is actually going to the cause.” He was even prepared to cover over- head expenses himself, but thanks to generous sponsors it wasn’t necessary.
Based on its success, the comedy night fundraiser “will definitely be an annual thing,” assures Pat, relieved that organizing next year’s show will be much simpler with the experience they now have. “The only challenge now is growing it and improving it, and maybe trying to get some nationally known comedians to expand the reach of the event.”
Facial Pain Research Foundation Trustee Michael Pasternak, Ph.D., already sees that in the near future: “This Comedy Show was very successful and with the Tomasulos’ leadership there will be more events in Chicago and hopefully elsewhere.”