Sometimes sitting around flipping channels can instantly move from mindless relaxation to outright inspiration. For six years, the New York Comedy Festival has put on the Stand Up for Heroes benefit, a spectacular show at the Beacon Theater that raises around $3 million for the Bob Woodruff Foundation, an org that helps returning troops get they services they need.
Now the linchpin of the fest, the Heroes benefit started back in winter 2007. Caroline Hirsch was watching TV with her life partner and fest co-producer Andrew Fox. Hirsch had always incorporated a philanthropic element into the fest; for example, one year the fest featured a roast of celebrity chef Mario Batali to raise money for the Food Bank. But an ABC doc about correspondent Bob Woodruff recovering from his injuries in Iraq struck a deeper chord.
“We realized we wanted to do something to help the troops,” Hirsch says.
Fox reached out to Bob and Lee Woodruff and they hit it off immediately. The Woodruffs were looking for a way to help. “I felt it was extremely important to get troops the best service they needed,” Woodruff says, “but while there were a lot of people who wanted to give money, they didn’t have time to research and do background checks to see which organizations were legit. I realized we could be the funnel, taking the money and funding the best programs.”
“It was a perfect match,” Hirsch says. Fox says they knew immediately they wanted a show in a theater, not a traditional fundraising dinner in a hotel. “My goal is to put on a funny show.”
So they created Stand Up for Heroes, but it was already May and the fest was just six months away. However, Fox says the major media companies — all of whom had journalists in harm’s way overseas — were eager to help and he and Hirsch had plenty of comedy contacts. Fox was quickly able to get Conan O’Brien as host and Robin Williams as a headliner. (Lewis Black and Brian Regan also joined the slate; Hirsch has always tried including one up-and-comer, like Regan in 2007 or Mike Birbiglia this year.)
But it was Lee Woodruff who came up with the final, most crucial ingredient: What could this comedy fundraiser need besides comics? Fox remembers Lee saying, “What about Bruce Springsteen?”
The rocker not only sells tickets, he’s a draw for the talent, too. Ricky Gervais, who is returning for his third time this year, says, “I do what the Boss tells me.” (He also sounds positively giddy about a photo taken backstage last year with Springsteen and Bill Clinton.)
While Fox starts planning the next event nearly as soon as one ends, they’re aided by the fact that the headline comics keep coming back for more, feeling it is an honor. Jon Stewart is returning for his third year hosting and in addition to Gervais, Robin Williams is coming back for more.
“I fly across the Atlantic just for this,” says Gervais, adding that it’s a “humbling” experience being hailed on the red carpet when he knows who the true heroes are. “I’m pretty much in awe of people who risk their lives for freedom and the values we enjoy. I know how lucky I am.”
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