“Voting for Trump is like eating a Tide pod,” John Oliver told a packed house at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Monday night. “Once, I fundamentally understand. You didn’t know how bad it was going to be and maybe you were excited to learn. You do it a second time, you’re a danger to yourself and everyone around you.”
Oliver was the headlining comedian of Stand Up for Heroes, which launched the New York Comedy Festival while raising $5.7 million for the Bob Woodruff Foundation — to be distributed to organizations committed to helping veterans.
Each year features comic superstars Oliver and Jon Stewart, plus a show-closing performance from Bruce Springsteen. Woodruff also always reads the names of the wounded warriors in attendance and a veteran addresses the audience. But maybe what’s most astonishing is how the event still surprises every year — be it a special appearance by former President Bill Clinton, Springsteen riding a motorcycle onstage or Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters singing with wounded warriors.
Ultimately, it’s the combination of predictability and suspense that make “Stand Up” so successful and this year’s event had all those elements in abundance. One video, about the resilience of Army Major Peter Way and Marine Corps Sergeant Kirstie Ennis, and the help the foundation provided them, was followed by a speech from Major Way. Way, who was injured in Afghanistan and given a 10% chance of survival when his leg was amputated, came on stage and spoke movingly about what the foundation means “to me and my fellow warriors.”
While Stewart and Oliver were the big comedic headliners, the night also featured two younger talents. In his Stand Up for Heroes debut, Ronny Chieng (like Hasan Minhaj two years earlier) proved that the least known star could earn the biggest laughs. Chieng mocked American culture from a variety of angles. He joked, bemoaning the return of measles, “Every year America becomes more and more hipster, deciding to bring back organic, small-batch diseases,” before blaming the internet for the rise of disinformation about vaccinations. “Fifty years from now, we’ll look at the internet the way we look at smoking now. ‘Man, I can’t believe we just let pregnant people use the internet.’”
On the red carpet before the show, Chieng spoke about contributing to the cause, while recognizing the event’s “fun vibe” as he and Minhaj teased each other in back-to-back interviews. Minhaj predicted that, as a rookie, Chieng would be hazed by those who had performed there before and declared, “My one goal tonight is to do better than Ronny Chieng.” Chieng expressed faux dismay that Minhaj would make it personal then declared, “We’re all here tonight to help these people … and to defeat our comedy rivals.”
The night also featured a jazz-and-funk set by harmonica player Frederic Yonnet and his seven-piece band, and a special performance by Sheryl Crow, whose set resonated with the evening’s themes of resilience and helping others. She played “Everyday Is a Winding Road,” “Redemption Day” (done, to the crowd’s delight, as a duet with Springsteen) and “I Shall Believe.”
At the end of the night, the stage belonged to Springsteen, who gleefully told R-rated jokes and extended his closing set. While the Boss typically sings four acoustic songs, this year, after “Bobby Jean,” “I’ll Work for Your Love” and “I’m on Fire,” his “Dancing in the Dark” segued into “Land of Hope and Dreams.”