Bruce Springsteen is a man of many talents, though stand-up comedy is most definitely not one of them. But as the final performer of the annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit last night at the Theater at Madison Square Garden – which also featured Roger Waters and short sets by comedy superstars Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby and Jim Gaffigan – he was unable to resist the urge to tell a few jokes. "I'm puzzled," he said. "This is a night of comedy with soldiers in the audience, but the entire night went by without anybody telling any dirty jokes? I can't let that happen."
With that, Springsteen got uncharacteristically bawdy. "An old man is having trouble getting an erection," he said shortly after walking onstage clutching an acoustic guitar. "He goes to the doctor and he tells him the story, 'I can't sustain an erection. I've tried Viagra. I've tried it all, like jellybeans. Nothing.' Doctor says, 'You may be beyond medical help, but there's a gypsy around the corner. Go around to her and tell her this.' The gypsy listens and she says, 'Take this vial, and when the time comes, sprinkle it a little bit where it counts and say: "One, two, three." And then it's Washington Monument, Louisville Slugger time. But it's only going to work once.' The guy goes, 'Great, great. How do I get it back down?' 'That's easy, say, "One, two, three, four." It's going to go down.' The guy runs home, all excited, sees his wife and tells her to get into bed. He hops in, gets his clothes off and sprinkles a little bit on and says, 'One, two, three.' His wife goes, 'I don't get it, what's the 'One, two,three for?'"
Thankfully for the large audience of rock fans, military vets and deep-pocketed benefactors, there were far better jokes throughout the three-hour show. This was the seventh annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit, and the biggest one yet. ABC News reporter Bob Woodruff and his wife Lee put the first one together at New York's Town Hall in 2007, a little more than a year and a half after a roadside bomb in Iraq left him in a coma for 36 days. He awoke with an intense desire to help injured soldiers returning home from war, and they've raised $16 million for the Bob Woodruff Foundation through these annual benefits, which always attract the biggest names in comedy. Springsteen has played all of them, and Waters has participated in the last two. The event is part of New York Comedy Festival, and Caroline's on Broadway founder Caroline Hirsch plays a crucial role in putting it all together.
After introductory remarks by the Woodruffs and a stirring rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner," Stewart kicked off the night with a mini-set focused on subjects familiar to anyone who has watched The Daily Show in recent weeks. "They always say the Democrats are playing checkers and the Republicans are playing chess," he said in a hysterical bit about the troubled Affordable Care Act website. "But right now the Republicans are playing chess and the Democrats are in the nurse's office because they glued their balls to the inside of their thigh. That is the one injury that I have had."
He then handed the mic over to Bill Cosby, who sat on a chair and delivered a 20-minute (occasionally rambling) set focused almost entirely on his epic fights with his parents and siblings while growing up in Philadelphia. "I'll tell you now, after reading the Bible, I sided with Cain," he said. "The whole time through that story I just kept saying, 'I'm with you, brother.'" The only time he deviated from the childhood tales was when somebody in the audience interrupted a joke. "Let me tell my story," he said. "I don't care what war you were in, you will behave when I'm talking. I was in the service way before you guys were born. I was there when there was no guns. We just dug a hole and yelled at each other."
Jim Gaffigan came up next, and devoted his 10-minute set largely to food and self-depreciating fat jokes. "I just want to eat something healthy," he said. "I recently saw an apple and for a moment, just a moment, I didn't recognize it. I was like, 'What is that? Oh, it's an apple! It's so weird to not see it in a pie.' No one really wants fruit. It's a bunch of work. You got to wash it and peel off that sticker that Al Qaeda put on there. It's too much work. Some people make the gathering of fruit into an activity, 'Why don't we go apple picking?' Because I'd rather die."
Jerry Seinfeld was the final comedian of the night, and he killed with a 15-minute routine that dealt with his standard topics of raising children, dealing with his wife and the awkwardness of public bathrooms. "My daughter is having a birthday party tomorrow," he said. "Do you find that other people's children never look quite right? 'Is that boy's head supposed to look like that? He's a melon-head.' Then the parents come to pick him up and it's, 'Oh, they're melon-heads too. It's just a big melon-head family.'"
Waters played with a small band of veterans last year, but this year he assembled 20-plus soldiers who joined up with a handful of members of his touring band, including guitarist G.E. Smith and keyboardist Jon Carin. Waters is as anti-war as they come, but he's always a strong supporter of the troops and he's spent weeks organizing this four-song set, even going down to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington D.C. to meet wounded soldiers and form a unique rock orchestra. There was a huge choir, three drummers (one of whom had one arm, but didn't miss a beat) a bassist, about six acoustic guitarists and many others. They all blended together seamlessly.
Waters grabbed an acoustic guitar and sat on the side of the stage, allowing 22-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Timothy Donley, who lost both legs and part of his right arm in Afghanistan, to sing a rousing rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." This is a song that's been dusted off for a lot of benefits over the years. Adam Sandler even mocked the tradition at the 12/12/12 Hurricane Sandy benefit last year, but Donley sang his heart out and made the familiar tune feel fresh again. He deserved the huge standing ovation.
John Lennon's "Imagine" was the next selection, and Waters handled the lead vocals. "This is one of the songs that I suggested for this concert," he said. "I sent it to the guys through Bob and Lee Woodruff. I wasn't entirely sure they would want to do this." It's easy to understand his hesitation. "Imagine" has been called the "socialist national anthem" and it's certainly anti-war, but a good song is malleable and can mean different things at different times. At this show, it felt like everybody (onstage and off) was imaging a world where these brave soldiers didn't have to go overseas and return home with devastating injuries.
Some people in the audience were yelling out "Pink Floyd!" by this point, but the set continued with Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." Waters switched over the bass for this, and former Marine JW Cortes belted out the civil rights-era tune with incredible passion and intensity. He sounded like a mixture of Marvin Gaye and John Legend, absolutely stunning most everyone in the room. The Pink Floyd fans were finally satisfied when Waters dug out "Comfortably Numb" for the finale. Donley handled the David Gilmour vocal parts, and the famous guitar solo was impressively replicated, though nobody does it like Gilmour.
There were a lot of Springsteen fanatics in the audience and calls of "Brooooooce" filled the hall about a minute after Waters and his band left the stage. (Fun fact: Springsteen has made fewer U.S. live appearances in 2013 than any year in his career, going all the way back to 1965.) After telling his erectile dysfunction joke, he played a barn-burning solo-acoustic "Dancing in the Dark" and followed it up with a joke about an "Amazonian" prostitute named Hurricane Tessie that farts on men and spanks them. It was weird. Patti Scialfa came out for a tender duet on "If I Should Fall Behind," and then Springsteen sat at the pump organ for a stirring"Dream Baby Dream." Pre-recorded guitars, synths and strings kicked in midway through, and Springsteen stood up and poured himself into every word of the Suicide cover, before quietly ending it back on the pump organ.
They were dangerously closed to the 11 p.m. curfew after Springsteen's brief set, so Brian Williams quickly rushed onstage to help auction off one of Springsteen's electric guitars. As Bruce strummed out the bluesy chords to "Mystery Train" on the instrument, a bidding war broke out in the audience. When the price hit $140,000, Springsteen sweetened the pot by tossing in an hour of personal guitar lessons. That sped up the process, and at $230,000 Springsteen added an invitation to watch him record at his home studio. That was enough to get an extra $20,000, and a gray-haired man in a leather jacket won the entire package for a quarter of a million dollars.
The cost of going over curfew at MSG is apparently $10,000 a minute (one hopes they make an exception for this event), so as soon as the auction wrapped Bob and Lee Woodruff ran out to quickly thank everybody and wave goodbye. It's unclear when Springsteen will perform an American show again, but he'll certainly be back for Stand Up for Heroes again next year. Maybe they'll even upgrade it to the arena at Madison Square Garden by then.