Caroline Hirsch had been running the New York Comedy Festival for three years when she decided she needed to do more.
In May 2007, she and partner Andrew Fox sat down for a meal with Lee Woodruff, who had just started the Bob Woodruff Foundation with her husband, badly wounded the previous year while reporting from Iraq.
Hirsch proposed “a little event” to spotlight the foundation, which provides support for organizations helping veterans returning from the front. The next thing she knew, Hirsch and her team were organizing a November fundraiser from scratch in the 1,400-seat Town Hall. “I guess it was pretty ballsy,” Hirsch recalls.
This year marks the 10th edition of Stand Up for Heroes, which has raised approximately $40 million for the Woodruff Foundation, Hirsch says. At this year’s Nov. 1 event, they will bring back some of the veterans who have benefited to highlight the org’s work.
Hirsch credits the fundraiser’s success to committed performers, a coterie of comedy superstars — this year features Jon Stewart, Louis C.K., Jerry Seinfeld, and Jim Gaffigan, all of whom have repeatedly supported the event — and a singer with a natural flair for joke-telling named Bruce Springsteen. “That was amazing,” Hirsch says. “He clearly works on his jokes and he’s good at it.”
Bob Woodruff says it’s “like a dream to be up on the same stage as the most famous comedians” but adds it’s unlikely he’ll follow the Boss’ lead and tell jokes. He relishes his own job on stage: “I love reading the names and ranks of all the veterans we fly in for the event.”
It’s the first trip to New York for many, and Woodruff loves seeing them get pampered with donated services for makeup, hair, and massage.
Back in 2007, Conan O’Brien was the first comedian to sign on. He shared the stage that year with Lewis Black, Brian Regan, and Robin Williams, whose wife shelled out $85,000 when Springsteen drove his motorcycle on stage for auction. Springsteen has performed every year and auctioned everything from his guitars to backstage passes to lasagna dinner at his house. “He gets so into it, egging people on,” Hirsch says.
She remembers that first year trying to round up customers: “We were calling friends to come and help get the word out but then we got momentum and just kept going and going.”
The event moved to the 2,800-seat Beacon Theater and then the 5,500-seat Theater at Madison Square Garden. This year, Woodruff says, more than 85% of tickets were sold in the first three days.
Stand Up has even added a sit-down component the past three years, with Dine Out for Heroes, which was started by restaurateurs Peter and Penny Glazier. This year’s event takes place on Veterans Day; Penny Glazier expects close to 100 top New York restaurants to participate, with each donating a dollar per diner that day while also promoting the cause to customers who can add their own donations.
Among the highlights over the years have been a 2011 opening act named Bill Clinton. “He told a joke and then gave a speech that was moving,” Hirsch says. Roger Waters was joined by wounded veterans from the MusiCorps rehabilitation program in 2012. And when Springsteen auctioned off another guitar last year, Fox sent out the comedians to drum up interest, leading to a riff-off among Stewart, Ray Romano, Seth Meyers, and John Oliver as the auctioneer tried to maintain control.
But Stand Up for Heroes never loses sight of its vital mission. “You hear about the backlog at the V.A. and you know these issues have not gone away,” Hirsch says.
“There’s not the same sense of urgency as in 2007,” Woodruff says, when much of the money was going to medical care because there were a hundred casualties a week. “We have longer-term goals now.”
Now the mission includes connecting veterans with other veterans who understand their issues, and helping vets find satisfying jobs. “They don’t want handouts, they want their dignity back,” Woodruff says.
He’s pleased to celebrate the 10th Stand Up, but he’s also looking ahead to the 11th, 15th, and 20th. “I’m never giving it up, because this is never going away.”