Jon Stewart mused aloud at the Theater at Madison Square Garden last night about the former supporters of Barack Obama who had voted for Donald Trump, wondering about that evolution. “How do you even get there?” the former “Daily Show” host asked. “It’s like a guy who’s like, ‘It didn’t work out with my girlfriend so now I’m going out with a toaster. I just stick my d— in it and see what happens. That’s where our country is at right now. We all put our d— in the toaster.”
Stewart wasn’t the only comedian to use graphic imagery to comment on the chaos president at the annual Stand Up for Heroes fundraiser. His “Daily Show” successor, Trevor Noah, said he feels conflicted because he wakes up in terror each day, but also knows the president’s antics will make him laugh, saying it feels like “there’s a giant asteroid headed towards the Earth … but it’s shaped like a penis.”
And John Oliver, the “Daily Show” alum who now hosts “Last Week Tonight,” said, without naming Trump, that America is not looking, shall we say, great. “Falling in love with America right now is like falling in love with a girl who’s throwing up all over herself. You hold her hair back and say, ‘Let it all out. You just made a mistake, that’s all.”
There’s a simple reason why some of America’s top comedians drop what they’re doing each November to perform for free, and the answer is in the front rows of the audience: the men and women who have served America in the armed forces.
Stand Up for Heroes kicks off the New York Comedy Festival, run by Carolines on Broadway, and raises money for the Bob Woodruff Foundation to support veterans and their families.
Woodruff, who was wounded in Iraq, and his wife, Lee, created the foundation to steer money to organizations that help veterans return to civilian life, whether the wounds they have suffered are physical or mental. This year was the 11th annual show and the foundation, which has raised more than $40 million through the first decade of these fundraisers, had committed $500,000 to Team Rubicon, which helps veterans feel connected to civilian life by aiding with disaster relief, and to veteran organizations affected by the recent spate of hurricanes and wildfires.
“This event is close to my heart,” Oliver on the red carpet. Oliver, whose wife served in Iraq, added, “I’ll do anything to make these f—ers laugh.”
He isn’t joking — while performing at a USO show in Afghanistan, he said he tased himself to get a laugh. When asked about the possibility of tasing his fellow late-night hosts on stage at Stand Up for Heroes, he thought it over, but decided it might not work as well. “Conan seems so gigantic, it might take a couple of tries just to take him down,” he said. “And with Jon, all he’d have to do is smell the taser and that would be enough and he’d go down.”
“Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minhaj, who was making his Stand Up for Heroes debut, said beforehand that he was excited to be on stage with such luminaries, but also just to be able to help this cause. “My mom worked at the VA for years so any time I can do anything to help, it’s a must,” he said. Minhaj, the only comedian wearing sneakers to the fundraiser, then asked Variety not to reveal that the real reason for his participation was, “I’m funneling the Foundation’s money into my sneaker collection.
Minhaj was nervous enough beforehand to ask what the show was usually like and how long each comic’s set typically ran. But he and fellow Stand Up for Heroes rookie John Mulaney both garnered huge laughs from the crowd without discussing the president.
Minhaj’s set dealt with America’s deep-seated racism, both in a story about being called a member of ISIS while in Alabama and admitted to being “shocked … and flattered” at the notion that this group would want “an Indian boy band member” to help their “rebrand.” When his “people” are accused of repressing their women, he points out that among Disney princesses, white ones were routinely repressed — Cinderella is sold into bondage and “some dude Bill Cosbys” Sleeping Beauty — while Mulan rises to a general’s rank. And his riff about hectoring a Samsung Galaxy owner on a plane to assimilate into this Apple nation (“I’m not saying every Samsung blows, up but I’m saying every time a cell phone blows up, it’s a Samsung”) helped him understand what it’s like to be racist.
Mulaney’s sly, off-kilter set reflected on student assemblies, and the follow-up assembly where the students get yelled at for not showing respect to the lady with the puppets who had tried teaching them about bullying. He also spoke about the rise of machines, which now have so much power that computers routinely force humans to take tests to prove that we are not machines.
Conan O’Brien, the least political of the four late-night hosts there, generally avoided Trump, telling of a bizarrely funny encounter with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He devoted most of his set to what happened to him when he moved his show to Los Angeles (he found his “inner douchebag” within minutes of landing at the airport) and what happens when he returns to New York (most residents presume that since he left the city, he is actually dead, and are pleasantly surprised to see him back here and alive.)
The show, which opened with former “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr. singing a quietly beautiful rendition of the national anthem, had a different ending this year. In past years, after the fundraising portion (this year reaped more than $600,000) Bruce Springsteen has performed, told jokes, and auctioned off personal items and services for the Foundation.
But with Springsteen busy on Broadway, the organizers recruited the Red Hot Chili Peppers. While there was no auctioning off of Flea’s bass or colorful outfit, the crowd didn’t care, with many fans staying on their feet throughout a raucous set that included “Can’t Stop,” “Dark Necessities,” “Snow (Hey Oh),” “By the Way,” and “Hey.” Even as Lee Woodruff came out to thank everyone for coming, the fans kept chanting for more, a sure sign of a successful evening.