Late-night talk-show hosts have lately been commanding center stage in the nation’s political conversation. So it’s fitting that the centerpiece of the nation’s premiere comedy festival will bring together four of the biggest names in the field on one stage — even if it is for a decidedly non-political event.
This year’s Stand Up for Heroes fundraiser at the New York Comedy Festival includes “The Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minhaj and John Mulaney, but will focus on heavyweights of late-night past and present: Conan O’Brien, who hosted the first Stand Up, Trevor Noah, making his Stand Up debut, and return players John Oliver and Jon Stewart.
Bob Woodruff, whose Bob Woodruff Foundation is the beneficiary, says the organization is careful to remain non-political and that Americans from both parties want to help the veterans. But he makes no effort to vet the comedians’ jokes.
“I’m sure they will show respect for who is in the audience because they all respect the troops, but I don’t know how they’ll avoid political jokes,” says co-organizer Caroline Hirsch, of the legendary comedy club Carolines on Broadway.
Louis Faranda, the executive talent producer for both the festival and Carolines, says while he and Hirsch sought a balanced schedule, with non-political acts including the Impractical Jokers, he believes the entire festival will be even more political than last year’s event held on the eve of the election.
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“New York City is multiracial and multicultural and this president is very divisive and absolutely ridiculous and people here despise him so there’s a political fervor,” he says.
Faranda adds that he thinks O’Brien will “maybe make one joke and move on, but the other guys will not be able to resist.”
Brian Regan and Nick Offerman, along with Bill Maher, are among the high-profile comics who have performed at the festival in the past. Many of the first-time big names year are coming in as part of the festival’s new partnership with TBS, which replaces Comedy Central.
Hirsch had conversations in the past with TBS but then renewed with Comedy Central. “Now, however, I felt the time was right — they have a whole new look, with smart, cutting-edge comedies,” she says.
Michael Engleman, Turner’s executive vice president of marketing and brand innovation, says TBS not only “changed the chemistry of its brand” but began thinking about entertainment differently. “We are looking for immersive experiences and for digital and social media experiences.”
The result is the Hub at the new hotel Public, a centerpiece for the New York Comedy Festival filled with free events based on TBS programs: Ana Gasteyer (“People of Earth”) will interview Samantha Bee (“Full Frontal”) and take audience questions; O’Brien’s writing staff will do standup, and the show will also record at the Apollo Theater all week; and “Search Party” will provide an interactive experience using sets and magic.
“It’s a new flavor for the festival,” Hirsch says. “They’re so enthusiastic and they came up with the plan.”
Engleman says the Hub is “a perfect way of showcasing our diversity of talent,” adding that it provides opportunities with sales partners and deepens relationships with fans who must RSVP through the TBS app. “It’s part of our commitment to original thinking to pushing entertainment beyond the television screen.”
Hirsch adds that TBS is hosting a paid event, but one is a fundraiser: to promote the new series, “The Last O.G.” starring Tracy Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer, the event will host “A Toast to the O.G.s of Comedy,” raising money for the Fortune Society, a charity that supports re-entry from incarceration, which fits with the series’ theme.
And Faranda partnered with O’Brien’s Team Coco on the Comics to Watch event to be held at Carolines right after the finals of the annual New York’s Funniest competition.
“We worked together to cut the 300 submissions down to 10 and we promised ourselves that we wouldn’t go past that,” he says of working with the TBS show’s producers. “But we ended up with 12 comics anyway — there were just so many who were funny we had to squeeze two more in.”
Since 2007, the annual Stand Up for Heroes fundraiser has been the heart of the New York Comedy Festival, both for the cause and the talent it has attracted. Stand Up raises money for the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which provides support for organizations that help returning veterans.
The event was created by Hirsch and her partner Andrew Fox with Woodruff, the ABC reporter who had been badly wounded in Iraq, and his wife, Lee. Stand Up gives the chance to explain the work the foundation does and to honor the veterans, especially the dozens who are flown in to sit in the front rows of the sold-out Theater at Madison Square Garden.
“Stand Up for Heroes is an opportunity for us all to put aside our differences and honor those who have, and continue to sacrifice so much for all of us,” Woodruff says.
In its first decade, the fundraiser has reaped over $40 million, thanks to the generous support of comedians who perform for free: Jerry Seinfeld, Louis CK and Ray Romano and Jim Gaffigan are among the superstars who have donated time on stage. Last year, the foundation awarded $4.4 million in grants to nearly 50 programs.
This year’s fundraising will reflect current events, Woodruff says, with at least $500,000 going to veteran organizations affected by the hurricanes that wreaked havoc on Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico; $300,000 of that will go to Team Rubicon, a group that helps reintegrate veterans into civilian life by helping with disaster relief.
“It’s very significant for veterans to have a role or mission that is near to their heart,” Woodruff says. “They get a lot out of helping with the recovery and building relationships with other people. But they also have physical skills and training and they can be more suited to these situations than people who did not serve since they are used to going into dangerous areas and handling discomfort.”
One performer who has shown up with a guitar and dirty jokes every year is not on the bill this year: Bruce Springsteen. The musician, who has not only performed each time but also has donated guitars, harmonicas, motorcycles and the shirt off his back to raise money, has taken his talents to Broadway. But Hirsch was able to recruit the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the musical guests.
Woodruff is quick to say they are “not replacing” the Boss. “I’m sure he will be back.”
The overall festival features a mix of old reliables and new relationships.
Says Chris Hardwick, who’ll be performing at Carolines for six shows, “The festival reminds you that you’re part of a comedy community, the comedy lifestyle is so transient that it’s great to get to hang out at the festival.”
What: The New York Comedy Festival
When: Nov. 7-12
Where: More than 20 venues throughout New York City