They got the big surprise guest out of the way early at last night's Stand Up for Heroes, the fifth annual benefit for the Bob Woodruff Foundation and ReMIND.org. "I don't know what to say – I'm the opening act for a comedy show," joked President Bill Clinton.
The red carpet gala at the Beacon Theatre, part of the New York Comedy Festival's opening night, featured returning regulars Bruce Springsteen and Jon Sewart, as well as comedians Ricky Gervais and Jim Gaffigan and the Max Weinberg Big Band. Woodruff, the ABC newsman who suffered a serious head wound in Iraq, now raises big money for more than 40 veterans' organizations collected under the umbrella of his foundation. In addition to ticket sales, audience members last night pledged nearly $400,000, and one patron bought Springsteen's acoustic guitar, his shirt, his harmonica and harmonica rack – and a year's worth of maintenance on the rack, joked newsman Brian Williams – for $160,000.
The highlight of Stand Up for Heroes each year is Springsteen's mini-set, which in this case came on the heels of the superstar's marathon performance in Pittsburgh with old pal Joe Grushecky and his band. Last night Springsteen opened with an effusive barrelhouse version of "Open All Night," the most upbeat tune from his dark 1982 landmark Nebraska. After telling his second dirty joke of the night (it involved golf, buttercups and pussy willows), the feisty 62-year-old pushed Weinberg's house band into a joyous take on "Spirit in the Night," climbing over the audience and dancing in the aisle with one very demonstrative female admirer. "Security!" he hollered, grinning widely.
Before auctioning off his stuff, Springsteen finished with a spare version of "Land of Hope and Dreams." The gravity of the night's cause and the presence of uniformed vets in the front rows didn't keep the comics from transgressing for laughs. ("Sometimes it's the only cure for what ails you," as Clinton said.) Gervais joked about other charitable issues he's donated his time to and dissected criticism over his Golden Globes joke, in which he thanked God for making him an atheist. When Stewart mined the sexual harrassment charges against Herman Cain for easy material, he argued that the controversy couldn't have been generated by Democrats – Democrats don't think that kind of behavior excludes you from running for office, he joked.
When some in the audience groaned, wondering whether the joke was out of bounds given Clinton's presence, Stewart was ready for them. Don't worry, he told the audience in a comical stage whisper: "He left."
Stewart, a devout Springsteen fan, was clearly delighted to introduce the illegitimate lovechild of James Brown and Bob Dylan, as the comedian put it. But first he teased the crowd about the identity of the show's not-so-surprise headliner.
"Are you familiar with Kenny G?" he joked. "He does this thing with a member of Nickelback..."
Before wrapping the night with a brief romp through Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," Springsteen presented his guitar to the winning bidder – but it eventually ended up in the hands of Andrew Kinard, a veteran who lost his legs in Iraq and spoke movingly onstage earlier in the show. (It's unclear exactly how this transpired, but word was that an anonymous bidder outbid the original winner in order to give it to Kinard.) Last year's auction winner, a woman, asked the singer for a kiss. "I'm an equal-opportunity kisser," Springsteen said of this year's deep-pocketed donor. "I'll give him a smooch." Hey – the guy didn't ask, and we won't tell.