For a few fleeting minutes on Tuesday night, everything was all right in the world. That was because Jon Stewart, performing at the benefit show Stand Up for Heroes, was once again delivering a blisteringly funny take on current politics. Jon, please come back. We've sorely missed you.
The former Daily Show host's set was one of the highlights of the event presented by the New York Comedy Festival and the Bob Woodruff Foundation. Raising money to help injured veterans and their families, the annual show consistently delivers an evening of laughter mixed with a few tears.
This year's edition featured the usual stellar lineup of stand-up comics — besides Stewart, it included Louis C.K., Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Gaffigan — and perennial guest star Bruce Springsteen, who has performed at every show since its inception. As always, there were many veterans in attendance, both in the audience and onstage.
After a suitably patriotic opening featuring Phillip Phillips singing the National Anthem, Woodruff and his wife Lee welcomed the crowd. Addressing the veterans in the audience, Woodruff asked them, "Those who are able to stand, please do so," encapsulating the need for the fundraiser in a single sentence. This was followed by a video clip profiling a double-amputee veteran whose indomitable spirit was conveyed by his comment, "I don't think my injuries are that serious … it's just an arm and a leg."
Stewart performed the opening set, announcing that it was "an honor to be with you, my heroes, on the eve of the last American election … 240 years, we gave it a shot." After claiming that he didn't miss commenting on current events, he launched into a hilarious tirade about the surreal presidential race, summed up by his exclamation, "What the f—?" Stewart said the race should have been over after the leaked tape in which Trump boasted to Billy Bush about grabbing women "by the pussy," adding that the revelation "broke the news." He also noted the irony of Hillary Clinton, who is vying to become the first woman president, possibly being taken down by "Bush and Weiner."
"Hillary Clinton is literally being cock-blocked," he added.
As if resigned to an ever-divided country, Stewart asked, "Can't we just split up? Does it have to be the United States of America?" He spent the rest of his time reciting uproarious tweets he and Trump exchanged several years ago, in which Trump lambasted Stewart for changing his name from Jonathan Liebowitz and Stewart responded by dubbing him "F—Face Von Clownstick," a moniker which quickly went viral.
As he left the stage, Stewart sardonically enjoined the crowd, "Vote wisely this November."
Surprisingly, that was the last significant mention of politics in the show. Even with the election only a week away, the other comedians stuck to their tried-and-true themes. Jim Gaffigan did his usual self-deprecating fat jokes, including a story about being humiliated when airport security discovered a box of donuts in his carry-on luggage, and delivered funny gags about fall foliage, TV remote controls and baby boomers clinging to such old-fashioned technologies as cable TV and landline phones.
Louis C.K. continued his current penchant for jokes about fatherhood and parenting, including riffing about public school. He began the latter bit by praising teachers, but quickly shot down the ensuing applause: "Don't clap, because you're not going to like this how this ends," he warned, before proceeding to mercilessly mock the profession.
Seinfeld delivered his well-honed routine about the effort that "going out" entails, and for what? "Well, this is it," he said, looking around the large venue. Now that we were out, he added, all we wanted to do was get back home. "Nobody wants to be anywhere," he shrugged. He also tore into energy drinks, over-coddled children and the mediocrity of children's movies. "No kid has ever said, 'I found that unwatchable,'" he pointed out.
As has become a tradition at these shows, Springsteen took advantage of the opportunity to channel his inner Borscht Belt comedian. He introduced each of his numbers with Henny Youngman-style jokes featuring opening lines on the order of "So there's this 80-year-old couple …" and "An old man is in a gym … ." They were surprisingly funny, although it's safe to say that the Boss shouldn't give up his day job.
In his brief set, Springsteen delivered stark, solo acoustic versions of "I'll Work for Your Love" and "Long Walk Home" (both from the 2007 album Magic), "Working on the Highway" and his smash hit, "Dancing in the Dark."
The show included a pitch for donations from a largely well-heeled audience that raised $770,000 in just a few minutes. Later, a custom-built Harley-Davidson motorcycle was auctioned off, as well as Springsteen's guitar. To raise the stakes, Springsteen threw in a ride in his '67 Cadillac, all the hot dogs and hamburgers the bidder could eat and a serving of his mother's lasagna. The comedians joined the fun, promising to have dinner with the winning bidder and Gaffigan offering one of his kids to sweeten the deal.
For all the laughs and pointed digs, it was the veterans who provided the most memorable moments as they introduced the performers. They included Master Sergeant Israel Del Toro, who as a result of an IED detonation suffered third-degree burns on 80 percent of his body and lost fingers on both hands; and Corporal Aaron Mankin, who has endured 64 surgeries since a bomb exploded under his assault vehicle.
"It's amazing to be here," Mankin told the crowd. "Actually, it's amazing to be anywhere."
The old line may not have been very funny, but it has rarely had greater emotional impact.