Brad Garrett, Melissa Etheridge

Wahng! Chk, chk, chk, chk, chk. Yep, that’s the sound of the ’70s, when rotary phones and telethons were all the craze. Luckily, Stand Up to Cancer, an hour-long, commercial-free fund-raiser set to air today — simultaneously on NBC, CBS, and ABC — is avoiding that old-school approach. Instead, SU2C will take place in front of an audience at LA’s Kodak Theatre, home of the Academy Awards, and will feature musical performances, comedy, and of course, dozens of celeb appearances, including Meryl Streep, Josh Brolin and Scarlett Johansson answering phones. EW spoke (separately) with former Paramount chair Sherry Lansing and Spider-Man producer Laura Ziskin, who are putting together the event, as well as a few shiny faces you might recognize: Rob Lowe (Brothers & Sisters), Brad Garrett (‘Til Death, pictured, right), Mekhi Phifer (ER) and cancer survivor Melissa Etheridge (pictured, left). Below are some excerpts from our chats:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did SU2C come about?
Lansing: This is a really wonderful story of seven women who came together. We were all advocates working on cancer in different ways and had all been touched by cancer in different ways. I lost my mother to cancer when she was 64 and I was 40, and two of the committee members have cancer. At first we thought we [could] get one network to give us an hour of commercial-free time. Then we thought, why don’t we get all three?
Ziskin: I’m a cancer survivor, and when I produced the Oscars a couple of years ago it was the year of An Inconvenient Truth, and I saw how that movie tipped the conversation in this country about global warming. I thought, I need to use the mediums I understand to tip the conversation about cancer. Fifteen hundred Americans die every single day from cancer. That’s just an unacceptable number at a time when the science is really exploding and we’re really on the brink.

EW: Other than Katrina and 9/11, which were rapid responses to disasters, there really hasn’t been a recent telecast like this. How difficult was it to get all three networks on board, going into an important TV season following the writer’s strike?
Ziskin: In a certain sense this disease is a disaster. Everybody [is] aware of how important this is. Jeff Zucker is a cancer survivor — I know that’s not a secret. The ABC family has really been touched by the loss of Peter Jennings, [and] Robin Roberts is going through treatment.

EW: So was it a no-brainer for the networks?
Lansing: I don’t think it’s a no-brainer, I think it’s brave. They gave us the time. It’s huge.
Ziskin: We were really so grateful for the time that we didn’t quibble about the date or the amount of time. Do I wish I had two hours? Maybe. But we’re getting our feet wet and hopefully if we succeed, we’ll do another one next year.

EW: By including music and comedy, are you trying to appeal to a younger generation?
Ziskin: A little bit. We’re trying to say it’s a universalissue. I’m a breast cancer survivor, but my daughter who’s 25 wentthrough the experience with me. So it’s certainly a big part of herlife. Christina Applegate’s going to be on the show. Good for her forcoming out and telling her story. When you go through something thisserious and this scary, your life is threatened. That’s really,really terrifying, and there is comfort knowing that others have gonethrough it and survived.

EW: What have you been told you will have to do during the telethon?
Lowe: They say that everybody’s going to work a phone bankobviously. And very cryptically and sort of interestingly, everybodywill have a moment.
Phifer: I don’t know totally what I’m supposed to do, but I’lldo whatever they need–if I need to speak or you know, sing. No I’mjust kidding about the singing.
Etheridge: I’m actually going to sing the song that I hadwritten after my diagnosis called “I Run For Life,” but on this nightI’m going to sing “I Stand For Life” and we’re going to change thewords a bit and make it more inclusive. We’re going to bring somepeople in to help sing it.

EW: You also recorded a single for this event, titled, “Just Stand Up,” with several other women, including Beyoncé Mary J. Blige, Leona Lewis, and Mariah Carey, is that right?
Etheridge: Every woman who can sing to the rafters is on thattrack. It’s unbelievable, every single one of them sang at the top oftheir game.

EW: Brad, I hear you’re doing some sort of prostate exam.
Garrett: If you’re going to do a prostate exam on TV, who is more fit for it than me? I guess. Which is terrifying.

EW: Seriously?
Garrett: That’s exactly what’s going to happen. It’s a skit thatreally takes us through it. And I’m looking forward to it. Of courseI’m not. But I am. Hopefully it will be gentle. They want to have avery realistic view on prevention. Homer is doing a colonoscopy.
Lowe: [laughs] Now, can I pay money to not see that?

EW: Mekhi, any chance you’ll be, uh, performing the exam?
Phifer: [laughs] Yeah, I’ll be like an evangelist. I’ll cure it live.

EW: Were you apprehensive about making cancer funny?
Garrett: It is a fine line. But to be honest with you, I thinkhumor is really a wonderful way to take the fear out of anything.Regardless of what people tell you, I don’t think there is a guy whohas gone through a prostate exam who didn’t think in his mind, “Oh boyI hope he takes me to a movie and dinner after this,” or “I hope he’snot wearing a Zorro outfit because I can’t see.” These are things thatgo through a guy’s mind anyway. Humor is a great equalizer.

EW: Have you been affected by cancer in your own life?
Garrett: Unfortunately I lost my father in November to cancer.He had a very long bout over the years with different various cancers.It’s been in my family or with my father unfortunately for quite awhile, and we were just about as close as a father and son could be. Soit’s been very, very difficult obviously.

EW: Melissa, do you mind talking about how difficult it was for you to undergo treatment?
Etheridge: The thing is chemotherapy has not changed in 30years. When they told me, “we’re going to pump you full of this poisonthat’s going to kill every dividing cell in your body with thehope — let’s cross our fingers — that it will also get the cancer.” Really? That’s it? I was out for 10 weeks. It was horrible.

EW: But then you came out onto the Grammys and did a badass job of that.
Etheridge: There you go. The universe gives me incredibleopportunities and I had to take that one. That really was a specialmoment in my life.

EW: Are you hoping to get the ear of the presidential candidates on this issue?
Lansing: Yes, yes, yes. If you think one out of two men, one outof three women… this is the largest voting bloc. So if I was runningfor president, I would pay attention and I would make finding a cure ormaking cancer a manageable disease one of the top things on myplatform.
Lowe [who’s lost his great-grandmother, grandmother and motherto breast cancer]: The fact of the matter is on [Sept.] 5th all threenetworks are devoting free time to this issue and one would hope thatthe press would really pin both of the candidates down to ask what areyour goals and what are your thoughts on this issue. That would begreat. I would love to know.