With some of the biggest names — Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Conan O’Brien, Hasan Minhaj, and John Mulaney — in comedy taking the stage Tuesday evening at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in the aftermath of the New York City attack and the Sutherland Springs mass shooting both occurring last week, the stage was set for plenty of Trump criticism and calls for gun reform. But while politics came up in some fashion in almost every set, most of the comedians pulled fewer punches than expected at the 11th annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit, presented by The Bob Woodruff Foundation and the New York Comedy Festival. Perhaps that was due to the timing of the event and the widely military-based crowd, though only Stewart admitted as much. “Yeah, I know where I am, don’t worry about it,” he said, following a joke about the state of America. “I know the crowd I’m in.”
Even so, the night went off without a hitch, with all of the comedians turning in praiseworthy sets, particularly Mulaney. Serving as the penultimate performer, he shined with his ability to both interact with the crowd, adjust to O’Brien’s curveball ahead of his routine (more on that later), and provide some more lighthearted content than the majority of his colleagues. Branded as a night for laughter in the midst of some deeply saddening times in recent weeks, the show held true to its word. The Red Hot Chili Peppers closed the benefit with a handful of songs that had the crowd standing and — to Oliver’s dismay — filming.
Read on below for some of the highlights from last night.
Jon Stewart talks Obama-to-Trump voters
Jon Stewart kicked off the night as the first comedian, opening with jokes about his appearance, likening himself to guacamole that has gone bad at a Mexican restaurant. He unsurprisingly delved into politics near the beginning of the set, reminiscing on his time at this same event last year. “Last time I was here was last year. It was before the election and then I sort of blacked out — what happened? Anything exciting? Did my candidate win?” he laughed.
He also appeared dumbfounded at the “10 to 15 percent of Obama voters [that] voted for Trump.” Imitating one of those said voters, he joked, “You know who I love is that very staid, professorial gentleman from [Kenya] who has an articulate sense but who’s a bit standoffish and aloof. That’s the guy that I really love, but since he’s not running this year, I’m going to check out ‘grab ’em by the pussy’ candidate. That seems like a good natural evolution.” He also said that the current state of America is essentially just sticking your dick in a toaster after ending a relationship with your girlfriend.
Hasan Minhaj compares Disney princesses
Minhaj, who debuted his excellent special Homecoming King on Netflix earlier this year, recalled a recent trip to Alabama where a Wal-Mart employee refused to sell him a gun on the account that he may be a part of ISIS. “Have you ever been shocked but flattered at the same time?” Minhaj asked the crowd, describing his response. He then impersonated a member of ISIS: “You know who we need? We need, like, an Indian boy band member. What is Hasan Minhaj up to these days?”
Minhaj continued his set by detailing this conversation with the Wal-Mart employee, eventually getting into a debate with him about how white Disney princesses are repressed, but the Disney princesses of color are all liberated. He drew upon examples in Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Ariel, comparing them with Mulan, Moana, and Jasmine.
He concluded his set with a hilarious bit about understanding racism, talking about an encounter with someone on his plane that had a Samsung Galaxy Note 6. “I don’t want to hear it, Chad. I’m not saying every Samsung blows up. I’m just saying every time a cell phone blows up, it happens to be a Samsung. I’m tired of this culture where we have to accommodate you people.”
Trevor Noah applauds Republican branding and Trump’s decision to fire Comey
Trevor Noah delivered perhaps the most politically-focused set of the evening: He praised the right side’s political branding, calling them “the best” at it and saying that the Democrats are “nice people” but have “no clue about political branding.” He cited the pro-life versus pro-choice debate as an example.
He also said that Trump is an “emotional paradox” for him because he doesn’t know how to feel about him. “On the one hand, I do wake up terrified most days that he’s the president of the most powerful nation in the world. On the other hand, I must admit I wake up every day knowing he’s going to make me laugh. … It feels like there’s a giant asteroid heading toward the earth, but it’s shaped like a penis. I think I’m going to die, but I know I’m going to laugh.”
He concluded his set by agreeing with Trump’s decision to fire former FBI director James Comey — not in a political sense, but under the rationale that if you can fire someone that’s investigating you, you should definitely do it.
Conan O’Brien recalls his most awkward celebrity encounter
The TBS late-night host spent much of his set talking about the differences between New York and Los Angeles, and he recalled his most awkward celebrity encounter of all time: seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger in a coffee shop. According to O’Brien, here’s how the conversation went down.
AS: “Coffee in the morning, huh?”
CO: “Yeah, coffee in the morning.”
AS: “Coffee in the morning is good.”
CO: “Yeah, coffee in the morning — it’s very good.”
AS: “The caffeine!”
CO: “The caffeine, ’cause it helps, it helps —”
AS: “Wake you up!”
Besides reliving that painful conversation, O’Brien showcased a spoof cast for his made-up made-for-TV movie featuring some of the most prominent New Yorkers: Donald Trump is to be played by an orange cat’s butt, Rudy Giuliani will be portrayed by a rabid bat, and Mama June from Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo is cast as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Before exiting the stage, O’Brien recreated a scene that happened to him at the same benefit event’s first year. According to him, right before his entrance, the most beautiful rendition of “Taps” that he had ever heard was played and that the crowd fell silent in sadness. He brought out a trumpeter to play the song while introducing Mulaney.
John Mulaney talks DJ Bodycam, computer robots
Mulaney didn’t touch on any of the controversial issues facing the nation today; however, he did gloss through a few different great segments, beginning with his recollection of school assemblies. He transitioned into a bit about the increasing difficulty of logging into see his personal stuff, citing the difficulties of computer robots that ensure that the user is not a robot. He concluded with a couple minutes on the evolution of police sirens, likening old sirens to a dying, gay cat and the new sirens to DJ Bodycam in the back of a police car.
John Oliver on America as a defiant nation
“America is a defiant nation. You are the most defiant nation on Earth, and the fact that some of you are going, ‘No, we’re not,’ proves my point,” said Oliver, drawing laughs from the crowd. While he didn’t stray from politics, he spent more time than expected on other matters too, including a long story about the time that his penis fell out of his shorts during a track race.
His most memorable quote from the set did center around America, though: “It’s a strange time to be in love with America right now. Some would argue you’re not at your finest,” he said. “Falling in love with America right now is like falling in love with a girl who is throwing up all over herself. Just holding her hair back saying, ‘Shh, let it all out. You just made a mistake, that’s all. You can’t repeat this mistake, otherwise you become less sympathetic.”