For the last 16 years, the New York Comedy Festival has hosted Stand Up for Heroes, which brings together elite comedy talent to raise money for the Bob Woodruff Foundation, a non-profit that has raised and distributed more than $120 million to support veterans.
This year featured Hasan Minhaj, Iliza Shlesinger, Jeff Ross and Jon Stewart (who has been a constant presence for the last decade). And yet, with all these polished comics, the final joke of the night went like this….
“What do you call a herd of cows pleasuring themselves? Beef Stroking Off.”
But this cheesy rim-shot bit was soon overshadowed by hearty cheers because the joke teller was none other than Bruce Springsteen, and he immediately launched into the finale of his four-song acoustic set, “Dancing in the Dark.”
Springsteen has been steadfast in his support of the event, which featured an audience filled with veterans, and the foundation itself.
“Bruce has been a friend for so long now and has given us and the event a consistency and a legitimacy,” Woodruff said before the event. “Some people have come every year and others hear about it for the first time and come because they want to see him perform. It’s always an honor to have him.”
The foundation — which Woodruff and his wife Lee started after he suffered a traumatic brain injury while embedded with troops in Iraq in 2007 — has helped more than 12 million veterans by giving more than 560 grants. This year’s event added $4.5 million to the coffers including more than $700,000 raised in donations from audience members.
The Foundation adapts its priorities to veterans’ needs, Woodruff said in an interview. One key issue is employment, especially because issues like depression can be compounded when job and food security are threatened. Lee Woodruff added that another focus now is on the mental health of children of veterans.
The show was the first event open to the ticket-buying public at Lincoln Center’s newly revamped David Geffen Hall, and it featured a big band jazz ensemble to show off the auditorium’s improved acoustics. The Woodruffs introduced the programs, veterans and their families in person and on video, including a moving section about the fight for healthcare treatment for those made ill by burn pits. While the mission was front and center, it was, of course, always an evening of entertainment, including the comedians and a set by The Lumineers.
Minhaj riffed about his mother, who works for Veterans Affairs, quipping, “And I still can’t get an appointment with her.” But in an interview beforehand he noted that her work made him keenly aware that even though America’s soldiers are no longer getting wounded on battlefields, the veterans still need care and support.
“The war is done, but it it isn’t for them,” he said. “This event helps keep that top of mind for folks.”
On the red carpet, Ross, known as the premiere roast artist, contemplated the idea of bringing up a veteran for a speed roast or even taking on Springsteen—“I’m Born to Roast,” he joked—but onstage he targeted himself (“I look like Bruce Willis if he died hard), bland rockers (“When I had COVID I lost my sense of taste… and went to see Dave Matthews) and the late Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, in which he re-enacted their final sexual acts, with the Queen commanding “Eat my shepherd’s pie.”
But it’s clear who the brightest star of the night was and still is. Ross joked beforehand that “I’m only here because I wanted to meet Springsteen,” and Minhaj added that Springsteen’s commitment inspires everyone to be their best; “You know you have to bring it because Bruce always does.”
Of course, some of what Springsteen brings are those awful, dirty jokes. Most years he has amused himself with shaggy tales, but this year he reveled in one-liners that would even make a 10-year-old groan. “What do you call an Italian hooker? A pasta-tute.”
But everyone was all too happy to indulge, to get a chance to hear acoustic versions of songs like “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” After the audience finished singing along to “Dancing in the Dark,” he belted out, “Heyyy Baby,” blew the crowd a kiss and ended the evening on a high note.