Springsteen -- who just completed a book tour, fielding question-and-answer sessions, shaking hands, and posing for pictures with fans who purchased his new memoir, Born to Run -- looked relaxed and relieved to have a guitar in hand again. He began his performance with an acoustic version of “Working on the Highway” from Born in the U.S.A., and told his first dirty joke of the night -- about an elderly couple in an alley up against the fence, and "they’re screwing like crazy.”
“The wife says, ‘You didn’t screw me like that 50 years ago!’ The man says, ’50 years ago, that fence wasn’t electrified!” the singer quipped.
He proceeded to perform two songs off his 2007 record Magic, “I’ll Work for Your Love” and “Long Walk Home,” the latter a song with political overtones that includes the lyrics “Your flag flyin’ over the courthouse/ Means certain things are set in stone/ Who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t.”
He wrapped in the usual way, with his 1984 smash “Dancing in the Dark" -- as several audience members tried to prompt a sing-a-long of “oh-eh-oh,” which is apparently best left for stadium shows -- and two more off-color jokes, one involving a hand-job, and a cute one about an old man at a gym trying to figure out which machine would help in getting a young lady’s attention. The punch line: an ATM.
Speaking to Billboard on the red carpet, Caroline Hirsch, founder of the New York Comedy Festival and owner of Carolines on Broadway, praised the Boss and his comedic timing.
“He's good. He works hard at it,” said Hirsch, who cited “Born to Run” as her favorite song. “[His jokes] are a little blue, but they are really good. I'm amazed how good they are, and he's a performer, so he knows how to work the crowd.”
Gaffigan was looking forward to Springsteen's performance, although his favorite song, "Jungleland," did not make the set list.
"I play that on repeat on long car rides," he tells Billboard. "I keep trying to get my kids to play it on piano."
Phillips -- who recently performed a show at Springsteen’s stomping grounds on The Stone Pony Summer Stage in Asbury Park -- praised the icon as the “definition of rock and roll.”
“The first show I got to play with him, I didn't get to meet him. I met [bandmate] Little Steven (Van Zandt),” he says. “We were in Sao Paulo, Brazil and we got to see his show, and he crowd-surfed twice and chugged a random person's beer. Seeing his show live, even if you don't know a lot of his music, is awesome. I couldn't believe how high energy it was.”
Phillips revealed that his involvement in the benefit happened only a few days before it happened.
“I happened to be in town and I said of course,” says Phillips, whose grandfather served in the military and passed before he was born. “I always get terrified doing the National Anthem. I usually don't do it unless it is something pretty special, and I could not say no to this.”
The evening began on a somber note, as founder Bob Woodruff -- the ABC news anchor who was wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq In 2006 -- honored the memory of veteran Shurvon Phillip, who passed away prior to the event.
"He loved Bruce beyond belief, and he loved the comedians, and especially Jon Stewart," a choked-up Woodruff told the crowd.
Even though the evening is a night of comedy, the cause was front-and-center, highlighted by a real-time lighting of the Empire State Building (in red, white and blue) and several inspirational videos spotlighting US Marine Corporal Aaron Mankin -- who was injured by a roadside bomb and suffered burns covering 25 percent of his body and face -- and Master Sergeant Israel “DT” Toro, a survivor of an IED detonation. Both men were on hand as testaments to their amazing stories and courage, and Del Toro took to the stage for a humorous exchange with his son, who joked his favorite New Jersey rock star was “Bon Jovi.”
As usual, though, jokes ultimately ruled the night with Stewart taking shots at Republican presidential-nominee Donald Trump, musing about the “eve of the last Presidential election” of our time, and recalling a 2013 Twitter war with the former Apprentice host.
“This is insane,” the former Daily Show host told the crowd. “I thought we were done three weeks ago.”
"I thought when a guy got off a bus and says, ‘I’m going to grab her on the p----,’ then OK, we’re done. The election is over," he said, referencing the now-infamous remarks Trump was recorded making behind the scenes at Access Hollywood in 2005. “Usually, this is a signifier that we don’t have to pay attention anymore.”
“Poor sweet, dearest Hillary,” he continued. “She was so ready. Then the FBI jumps in, and then it goes back to Anthony Wiener? To go from Billy Bush, “I’m going to grab her in the p----,” Anthony Wiener and he’s got a laptop, there is only one way this election can end. It’s a tie.”
The other comics steered clear of politics. Gaffigan stuck to jokes about his weight, the changing seasons, and getting caught at airport security with a box of Krispy Kremes, C.K. got graphic talking about impregnating his wife, and Seinfeld mused about life’s banalities and parenting (“Do you know what my favorite bedtime story was? Darkness! My favorite character was the complete absence of light!”).
The evening concluded with the auction of a Harley ridden by Springsteen. When the bidding slowed, all four comedians offered to pitch in $50,000 apiece, with the promise of a dinner attended by all four to the highest bidder. The bike eventually auctioned for $150,000, making for $350,000 with the quartet of comedians' contributions, and an overall total for the evening of $1,400,000.
Also attending the benefit--which kicked off the New York Comedy Festival-- was actor Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), his wife, actress Joanne Tucker and actress Bridget Moynahan.
Since its inception in 2007, the Stand Up for Heroes benefit has raised nearly $40 million to aid the nation's wounded, ill and injured veterans, service members and their families.
Watch a video of Bruce doing "I'll Work for Your Love" at the event below: