It was a night of honor and laughter, freedom and fortitude, heroes and schmucks (Jon Stewart’s words to describe himself, not mine), high-priced auctions and dirty jokes. This was the eighth annual Stand Up for Heroes event, organized by the Bob Woodruff Foundation and sponsored by the 2014 New York Comedy Festival.
Some brief background: Bob Woodruff is a television journalist who was badly injured in Iraq in 2006 after an IED hit the truck he was traveling in. Following extensive surgery, which included a 36-day medically induced coma, Woodruff made a full recovery and went on to create a foundation that helps take care of returning veterans. Since its inception, Woodruff’s organization has invested more than $20 million for care of U.S. soldiers. A chunk of the money they raise each year comes from the benefit, which attracts a laundry list of top comedians, musicians, and other media personalities to pitch in with something that, frankly, the American government does a piss-poor job of: treating injured soldiers returning from battle.
While the event certainly hit the emotional watermark––calling out military personnel in attendance, bringing soldiers on stage to discuss their stories and struggles, showing promo videos of dogs assisting vets––the focus of the evening was geared towards comedy and performance––and that includes Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey singing a rousing rendition of “New York, New York” midway through the event.
After a performance of the national anthem and a brief introduction from Woodruff and his wife Lee, Daily Show host Jon Stewart kicked things off with a short standup routine that touched on everything from Jersey, Judaism, and politics. One riff included a joke about Halloween and his son’s insistence on wearing a blow-up sumo-wrestling outfit. Another centered around the previous night’s election results and the shellacking the Democrats received at the hands of the Republicans. “I don’t want to say the Republicans won as much as they skull-fucked Democrats,” said Stewart to laughs, along with a few hoots from the conservative-leaning folks in the audience.
On the other side of the late-night political satire spectrum was former Daily Show correspondent and current HBO host John Oliver. Since launching Last Week Tonight this past April, Oliver has transformed from a funny bit player on Stewart’s show to a major force in the ever-growing world of fake (“fake”) news, with persuasive riffs on everything from beauty pageants to civil forfeitures. There was nothing quite as creative from Oliver on Wednesday night, but he did have plenty of outstanding one-liners, from the difference between British and American culture––in a recession, Americans spend hundreds of millions of dollars on Halloween costumes for their pets––to the magic of the phrase “aquatic humanoids,” which was once used in a press release by the U.S. government regarding the non-existence of mermaids (true story). “If you’ve ever used the phrase” in conversation, said Oliver, “then you have done fucking well with your life.”
The audience was also treated to what turned into a Battle of the Fat Jokes, featuring comedians Jim Gaffigan and Louis C.K., in separate sets. Gaffigan’s gags were solid as always, but Louie was the definitive winner, particularly after he showed his actual belly on stage. Overall, Louis C.K.’s routine balanced the same raunch and smart humor he’s known for. Only he would have the audacity on a night that featured heart-tugging, tear-jerking emotional moments to talk about “reallocating noises” (the noise he makes when orgasming he now uses when peeing), watching rats fornicate on a subway platform, and his daughter’s impending sex life, while still making it all devastatingly funny. (“This is getting really fucked up,” he said by the end of his set, chuckling to himself.)
One of several powerful moments of the night occurred later on, when a soldier who had been injured in combat and paralyzed from the waist down walked out on stage thanks to a technology called ReWalk, which consists of motorized leg braces that are controlled by the user. The appearance certainly inspired the audience donations that were made later on, which included $50,000 each from Louis C.K. and Gaffigan.
And then there was Bruce. Springsteen played an acoustic set, while the audience sat attentively––and, bonus points, mostly cell phone-free––through reworked versions of “Dancing in the Dark,” “Growin’ Up,” “Working on the Highway,” and––personal favorite––a stripped-down Bluesy rendition of “Born in the U.S.A.” The scene had the feel of an old folksy Dylan concert––quiet but powerful, fun but engaging. It all culminated in a live auction of an electric guitar Springsteen picked up and played at the end. The Boss even threw in an hour of guitar lessons, a lasagna dinner, and a ride in the sidecar of his motorcycle for good measure. The offer garnered two separate $300,000 donations.
Not only was it the perfect high note to end on, the donations were a reminder that despite the jokes and the performances, the most important aspect of Stand Up for Heroes was making sure America’s veterans were getting the care they need and deserve. As Bob and Lee Woodruff state in the program for this year’s festivities: “We have honed the ability to cut through the noise to find, fund and shape innovative programs that have touched the lives of millions of [veterans]. This night makes that happen.”