When Brian Williams walked onstage near the end of the annual Stand Up for Heroes charity event at New York’s Theater at Madison Square Garden last night, there was every reason to believe he was there to introduce Bruce Springsteen. By that point, every other performer on the bill (Jon Stewart, Jim Gaffigan, John Oliver and Louis C.K.) had done their acts and the NBC newscaster promised the crowd that they were about to see a talented singer from the state of New Jersey. But as the crowd began yelling for “Bruuuuuce,” out walked Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who proceeded to deliver a rather impressive rendition of “New York, New York” with live piano accompaniment. “I’m king of the hill,” he sang in his best Sinatra voice. “Chairman of the Joint Chiefs!”
It was the kind of moment only possible at Stand Up for Heroes, an annual event organized by the Bob Woodruff Foundation that raises money for injured service members and their families. Since its inception in 2006, it has raised more than $22 million. The event was first staged at Town Hall in 2007, and every year since it’s brought together some of the biggest names in comedy and music. This year’s show, the flagship event of the New York Comedy Festival, was particularly impressive. Here are 10 great moments.
1. Bruce Springsteen Cracks Jokes
Springsteen has played every single Stand Up for Heroes, and each time he finds himself in the odd position of following many of the most famous comedians in the country. While he certainly has is own talents, he always comes prepared with a few jokes. “On the New Jersey Turnpike the other night, a truck was hijacked by a group of thieves,” he said. “The truck was full of Viagra. The New Jersey state police are now looking for a group of hardened criminals.” He didn’t stop there. “A guy is sitting next to a nice-looking woman on an airplane,” he said. “She says, ‘I’m reading a book about how you get the most sexual satisfaction. According to the book, Native Americans and Polish men are the world’s greatest lovers.’ Then she goes, ‘Hi, my name’s Jill. What’s yours?’ He says, ‘Flying Cloud Kowalski.'”
2. Jon Stewart Keeps It Short
The Daily Show host performs at Stand Up for Heroes almost every year, and this time he opened the show with a set that clocked in at barely six minutes. After walking the crowd through his Halloween night, where his son dressed up as a Sumo wrestler, he moved onto the recent midterm elections. “It’s not just that the Republicans won,” he said. “It’s more like they skull-fucked the Democrats in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen happen. What happened to Obama? He used to be about hope and change. Now he’s like, ‘Ah, fuck that.'”
3. Jim Gaffigan Cracks Fat Jokes
When you’ve only got nine minutes for a set and you’re sandwiched between comedy legends, it’s best to stick to your A-list material. For Jim Gaffigan, that means doing a set where virtually every joke is about his love of food and his weight problem. After all, this is a guy whose new book is called Food: A Love Story. “I’m wearing these pants because they are some of the only pants that still fit me,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to fat out of clothes, but it’s a special feeling. There are watershed moments in your life, like when you hold your newborn or fat out of a pair of jeans.”
4. Bruce Springsteen Unplugs
It’s been five months since Springsteen has performed anywhere in public, so the place was packed with fanatics who dropped big bucks knowing they’d only see a handful of songs. He made it worth their money with his five-song acoustic set, breaking out a rowdy “Working on the Highway,” a sing-along “Growin’ Up,” a tender duet on “If I Fall Behind” with his wife Patti Scialfa and an intense, bluesy “Born in the U.S.A.” It’s a song about American’s mistreatment of returning Vietnam War veterans, and playing it to an audience full of wounded soldiers delivered a clear message: That tragedy will not be repeated this time around.
5. Derek Herrera Walks
Towards the end of the evening, Derek Herrera, a Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, walked onstage alongside his wife. He was paralyzed from the chest down in combat, but with the help of an electronic exoskeleton he’s now able to walk again. It was an absolutely remarkable sight, and it earned him some of the biggest applause of the evening. “I’m not sprinting or setting any land speed records at this time,” he said. “But it’s going to continue to improve and it is incredibly powerful for me to know where I’ll be in ten years with this technology.”
6. Louis C.K. Gets Dirty
Most performers deliver a rather G-rated set at this event, but Louis C.K. wasn’t having any of that. He absolutely killed with a filthy and hilarious 16-minute set that peaked with an amazing bit about watching two rats have sex on a subway platform. “There’s nothing surprising about how they did it,” he said. “It’s not like she was on top. It was a pretty standard rat fuck. I was curious to see how it was going to end. I want to see a rat orgasm. Is he like, ‘Aw fuck, I’m gonna fuck you…'”
7. Martha Raddatz Struggles to Keep Her Composure
Louis’s rat-sex bit carried on for quite a while, and at one point he used his hands to simulate how he’d make a female rat orgasm. It was at that exact moment that the camera panned to Martha Raddatz. The look on her face was priceless. She was clearly trying to restrain herself from going into a fit of hysterics, but it was not easy. The look seemed to say, “I’m the Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent for ABC News. I moderated the 2012 Vice Presidential debate and regularly sub for George Stephanopoulos on This Week. Right now, Louis C.K. is showing exactly how he’d finger a female rat. Laughing hysterically at such an insanely dirty joke, especially on camera as I’m surrounded by heroic wounded veterans, would be unseemly. Must. Not. Laugh. Uncontrollably.”
8. Louis C.K. Impersonates Courteney Cox
Springsteen wrapped up his set with “Dancing in the Dark.” Most of the comedians were watching from the corner of the stage, though you had to be sitting on the far right side of the venue to see them. When Louis realized what song Springsteen was doing, he broke out into about a two-second impersonation of Courteney Cox dancing from the “Dancing in the Dark” video. He had the arm moves down perfectly and it definitely seemed to amuse Jim Gaffigan.
9. John Oliver Makes Fun of Americans
The former Daily Show correspondent used his set to poke fun of all sorts of nationalities, from Australians to the British, but he saved his best joke for Americans. “Truly, the most glorious defining quality of this nation that I’ve observed over the past ten years is defiance,” he said. “This is a defiant country. It defies in the face of everything, from a threat to a fact. You don’t let things push you around. Let me give you some examples. We’re going through the biggest recession of our lifetimes. And yet on October the 31st of this year, the American people spent $310 million on Halloween costumes for your pets. For your pets! You can’t issue a bigger fuck you to a recession than that. The whole of Europe has adopted crippling austerity measures. The whole continent has agreed to be miserable for a decade, and you have taken a different path. You’re like, ‘Good luck Greece, but I’m pretty sure I can make my dog look like a bumblebee.'”
10. Springsteen Rakes in Big Bucks
The past few Stand Up For Heroes events have ended with Bruce Springsteen doing everything he can to make people in the audience write humongous checks for the charity. This year, he began playing a bluesy riff on an electric guitar and promised the instrument to the highest bidder. When bidding crapped out at $60,000 he stepped up to the mic and threw in a one-hour private guitar lesson. That got things up to $250,000, at which point he also threw in a lasagna dinner at his house. When that failed to generate a higher bid, he added on a ride around the block in the sidecar of his motorcycle and the shirt off his back. That was enough to get two competing bidders to make an agreement where they’d each pay $300,000 and share the prize. When the deal was finalized, Springsteen sang a few bars of “Mystery Train” as the crowd thinned out. How in the world is he going to top that next year?