“Humor is healing. Music is inspiring.” That’s how Staff Sgt. Robert Henline summed up last night’s Stand Up for Heroes benefit – an annual event for injured service members, veterans, and their families produced by the New York Comedy Festival and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.
In March 2007, Henline’s truck hit a roadside bomb while he was serving his third tour in Iraq. He suffered burns over 38 percent of his body and lost his left ear in the explosion – but Henline held on to his sense of humor. Before the show, the vet worked the red carpet outside of Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre with stars like Ricky Gervais and Roger Waters – and even joked about preparing the Pink Floyd bassist for his Stand Up performance by tossing firecrackers into Waters’ dressing room.
Henline’s unorthodox method certainly got results. After John Mayer opened the show with a bluesy, instrumental take on The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” – throat problems have forced the musician to stop singing live – Waters arrived to sing and play with a band largely composed of former soldiers and marines. With six wounded warriors on guitar and another seven taking care of backup vocals, Waters led the group through emotional renditions of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” For the finale, Waters gave the mic to a vet named Tim, who had lost both his legs in combat. Tim’s strong, soulful voice soared through Levon Helm’s “Wide River to Cross,” earning the night’s longest ovation.
Waters and his band were a tough act to follow – but somehow, Bruce Springsteen managed. The Boss earned hoots, stomps, and endless cries of “BRUUUUCE!” from the well-dressed crowd as he made his way through “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Working on the Highway,” “Tougher than the Rest” – with some harmonizing help from his wife, Patti Scialfa – and “Land of Hope and Dreams.” To the audience’s delight, Springsteen punctuated his set with a few corny jokes, both of which happen to be on the Internet. For the full effect, read them aloud in your best gritty Jersey growl.
After Live! co-host Michael Strahan and Jamie Niven of Sotheby’s auctioned off a package of Boss-related goodies that would have made Chris Christie weep – Bruce’s guitar, his harmonica, six tickets to a show, and a personal backstage tour before the concert; the whole thing went for $110,000 – it was finally time for a group of all-star comedians to take the stage. Jon Stewart kicked things off with a bit of blue political humor about “the most f—ed up election season of our lifetimes”: “Poor Mitt Romney. How do you f— that up? …You’ve got a president $16 trillion in debt, you’ve got 8 percent unemployment, you’ve got a vice president that’s the kind of guy that seems like he’s trying to bang chicks at funerals.” Even worse, said Stewart, Romney couldn’t even beat someone with a dubious moniker like Barack Hussein Obama – “It’d be like Franklin Roosevelt losing to a guy named Gaydolf Sh–ler.”
Ricky Gervais followed Stewart with a set about his own copious charity work – though in true Gervais fashion, the jokes focused on how the Office creator hopes to collect on his philanthropic investments (“If I ever get cancer myself, I’m going to walk to the nearest hospital and say, ‘Right, I paid for that machine. Get that little bald f—er off it’ ”) and why he resented being asked to perform at a benefit for “sufferers of obesity.” Obesity, he argued, isn’t a disease – it’s a choice: “If you went to a big fat bloke, 300 pounds, surrounded by pies, and you went, ‘What’s making you fat?’ he wouldn’t go, “Is it all the jogging?’”
While the crowd had welcomed Stewart and Gervais with loud cheers, the reception for comedian Mike Birbiglia was decidedly more muted. Though Birbiglia is beloved by This American Life listeners and comedy geeks, he hasn’t quite reached household name status yet. Still, the man behind Sleepwalk With Me won the audience over with a bit straight out of Ira Glass’s radio show: the story of a carnival date gone horribly, horribly wrong. You can read the whole thing here – but you might not want to unless you’ve already had lunch.
Birbiglia’s kinetic performance was the perfect lead-in to Robin Williams, who bounded around the stage as energetically as a man half his age – a stark contrast to his subdued appearance on the red carpet, where he talked about his dad’s time in the navy and the experience of performing for soldiers overseas. (“It’s incredible, especially performing for that many well-armed people,” he joked.) Williams’s material, though, was very much that of a septuagenarian. Most of it focused on iPhones, how ’00s marijuana is much stronger than ’70s marijuana, and Viagra: Williams quipped that jealous, know-it-all Siri is like “a f—ing iWife,” and called today’s pot “kickass cartoon weed” before telling a story about the one and only time he ate hallucinogenic mushrooms as a teenager.
Even if his jokes covered well-worn territory, the man is still Robin Williams – which is why the night’s last comedian, Patton Oswalt, expressed mock indignation about being asked to follow his performance. The “other fat guy from King of Queens” said that if he did two minutes of Williams’ lively act, “my heart would explode.” From backstage, Williams could be heard whooping in response. Oswalt, the son of a Marine Corps colonel, segued into stories about a recent shopping humiliation – with his 36’ waist and 30’ inseam, he’s basically looking for “Hobbit clothing” – and the horror of living in New York City, which “turns your brain into a rat, and your skull into a cage, and the city is just a stick poking the rat all day.” His best line, though, was an ad-lib that followed a hacking cough: “I have the 17th century in my lungs, I swear. I’m going to start coughing up Dickens novels any second.”
Though the entire event isn’t online, you can see the first half of Stand Up for Heroes – including all its musical performances – in the video below. BRUUUUUCE!
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