It’s been two months since Jon Stewart signed off as host of The Daily Show with his “moment of Zen” in the form of an appearance by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band.
At Tuesday night’s (Nov. 10) ninth annual Stand Up For Heroes fundraiser at The Theater of Madison Square Garden In New York City, Stewart was not so zen-like as he jokingly acknowledged his grizzled appearance.
“Jon Stewart’s grandfather is here,” he said, joking that he looked “old as shit” and that most of what you see on television is a “lie.”
“Underneath, I am Bernie Sanders,” he said.
Stewart’s set — which included shots fired at Donald Trump (“Are we really doing the Trump thing as a country?), Ben Carson, Hillary Clinton (“She is going to be President whether she wins or not!”) and Vice President Joe Biden, who Stewart said looks like he is working a “sales convention” during State of the Union addresses — was one of the highlights of the event, which boasted appearances by Ray Romano, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, trumpeter Chris Botti, and an acoustic performance by Springsteen, who threw some of his own dirty jokes in for fun. Presented by the Bob Woodruff Foundation and the New York Comedy Festival, the event has raised $30 million in 275 programs nationwide since it was founded in 2006.
Stewart introduced Springsteen saying he always admired the man because “he got out of New Jersey, a place where I also grew up and wanted to desperately leave.”
“And where do I live now?” he quipped. “New Jersey.”
Springsteen then entertained with a taut, four-song set that included a stripped down version of “For You,” a rowdy “Darlington County”(with whistling added for a freewheeling effect), “Working on the Highway,” and “Dancing in the Dark” (slight lyric change, “come on baby, have a laugh on me”) a repeat from last year and a favorite memory of Oliver’s.
“He did a stripped down version of it last year that was amazing,” Oliver tells Billboard. “You think of that as being such a big song, and it was incredible.”
Of course, being a comedy show, Springsteen threw in a few filthy jokes. The Boss wasted no time launching into his first joke about a young man that walks into a casting director’s office, but his name, “Penis Van Lesbian,” needed to be changed. The director passes on the actor, but then years later gets a letter thanking him for the advice…signed by “Dick Van Dyke.”
Other ditties involved a “voodoo penis” and a cathouse joke involving a woman named “Hurricane Hattie.”
“These are musician’s jokes,” Springsteen chuckled. “I didn’t say they were good.”
The evening kicked off with Botti performing a beautiful version of the National Anthem on trumpet, prompting Woodruff, the ABC News Correspondent who was gravely injured in Iraq, to ask the audience — which included Sopranos star Steven Schirrapa — if it was the best version they ever heard.
Woodruff and his wife, Lee, honored the military veterans in attendance, reading off each of their names and giving them a moment to shine.
“Tonight it’s about you,” he said.
The spotlight shone bright on Sergeant Kristie Ennis of the US Marine Corps, who was one of two Americans selected by Woodruff for the Walk of Britain — a 1,000 mile trek across the United Kingdom by wounded veterans of both countries. Ennis, a helicopter door gunner, crashed in Afghanistan in 2012, suffering brain trauma, a broken left leg, spine damage and other injuries. Currently a member of the Paralympic Snowboard Team, Ennis revealed to the audience that she plans to amputate her left leg shortly after the benefit.
While the evening did have its deeply moving moments, there were plenty of laughs provided by the stellar group of comics.
Several jokes — predictably — were made at Trump’s expense, first by Meyers who mused that the other candidates at the Republican Debate were prepped to handle Trump’s presence the same way park rangers prepare campers who approach a bear. The second was by Romano, who promised when “President Trump gets elected he is going to make a law that you all have to have a (television) show.” Then there was Stewart, who called Trump “easily mockable.”
Romano’s set was particularly strong with musings on aging (“I woke up with a sprained ankle. How did that happen? I hopped into bed!”) parenting a teenager who likes to brag that he hasn’t “showered in four days,” and sex scenes for his new HBO show, “Vinyl.” “I feel like I have to warn people,” he said.
Oliver once again talked about his trip to Australia and how it was once a place where Britain sent criminals to live. He also scored laughs talking about his lack of athleticism and a story of how he exposed himself at a race when he was younger.
As is tradition, the show wrapped with an auction. The prize this year was a Fender Stratocaster autographed by Springsteen, tickets to an E Street Band concert with a full backstage guided tour and a “slop fest” meal with the band. One caveat: the winner has to “bring your own drugs.”
With Springsteen on guitar playing licks from “Mystery Train,” the frenzied auction swelled past $200,000, but the singer sweetened the pot by offering his mother, Adele’s, famous lasagna to the package. He then tossed in a second signed guitar and another pair of house seats. Two bidders split the prize at $370,000 each, earning the Woodruff foundation $740,000.
Just when it seemed the night was coming to a conclusion, Stewart, Romano, Meyers and Oliver returned to the stage with another surprise: a new-model Harley Davidson motorcycle, driven by the Boss.
“It’s still warm,” Stewart said of the motorcycle seat.
When bidding stalled at $60,000, the entertainers started offering other prizes: Meyer’s tie, Romano kicked in a small bottle of Purell, and Springsteen tossed in a leather jacket. When that didn’t move the needle, Meyers, who abused Stewart that he still had a television show, offered four tickets and drinks in his dressing room at Late Night, Romano offered round trip airfare, tickets and a meet and greet to his show in Las Vegas, Oliver said he would “steal something” for the highest bidder and Stewart said the winner can come sit on his lawn in Jersey and “wave to people.” As a surprise, Sopranos star Lorraine Bracco offered from the audience to donate a pair of shoes worn in the film, Goodfellas. That did the trick, and the whole package went for $100,000.
Bracco, who has been involved with Wounded Warrior Project, tells Billboard that the evening is great way to honor veterans.
“Today I think a lot of people, artists, comedians, actors, actresses, realize that this is very important that we welcome these people back home in a good way,” she said.
She was also happy to be reunited with Springsteen for the cause.
“I have known Bruce for a long time,” she said. “We were lucky we had Stevie Van Zandt on The Sopranos so Bruce is kind of like extended family. I have been lucky to know those two big bosses for a long time. I’ve been blessed.”
Gotham star J.W. Cortes’ return to the benefit was a personal one. Three years ago, the former marine joined Roger Waters at a Stand Up For Heroes benefit on stage to sing “A Change is Going to Come” by Sam Cooke.
“It changed my entire career,” he said. “That night I got to meet Bruce and a lot of wonderful artists. But the biggest takeaway is I was singing for our heroes.”
Cortes, a New Jersey resident and NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority officer, survived a Scud missile attack ten years ago, and tells Billboard he wants to inspire other veterans to follow their hearts.
“I had dreams, and one of those dreams was to possibly act and sing one day,” he said. “Ten years later, I am on a hit show called Gotham where I play Detective Alvarez. Now I use it as a parable to inspire other veterans or anybody that has a dream to be reminded tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. You don’t need a scud missile to realize that.”
Dancing with the Stars Season 13 winner J. R. Martinez, who attended, added that music and comedy is integral to the healing process.
“It’s a way to break the barrier and start the conversation so to speak,” he said. “A lot of people when it comes to veterans is that they don’t know what to say or how to say it. So when you have music and comedy and entertainment, it gives us something to talk about. There were a lot of people for so long who didn’t know how to approach me because I was a veteran, because of my physical wound, but the minute I went on DWTS, we had a great conversation after that.”
He added that events like Stand Up For Heroes inspire him.
“I am not the only one that has an inspirational story,” he said. “For me this is an opportunity to be moved and rejuvenated by all the people, my friends, tonight.”