Is there any societal benefit from laughter? Sure, humor makes us feel better, but does it actually make the world a better place? Philosophers and theoreticians can debate this forever, but the third edition of Comedy Central’s Night of Too Many Stars (which returned Sunday after two-and-a-half years, still hosted by Jon Stewart) has once again provided a tangible way for comedians to help people struggling with autism. Founded by comedy veteran Robert Smigel (voice of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog), Night of Too Many Stars brings together more famous comedians than you can keep track of, and auctions off their various skills and personalities to raise funds for autism programs.
This year’s edition monetized John Oliver’s British charm by selling the opportunity to commit a crime with him (because, as Oliver explained, “We Brits come from a long line of pickpockets, thieves, and charming miscreants. We stole two-thirds of the Earth’s landmass!”). The bit that followed, where Oliver took a young woman outside the Beacon Theatre to “rob” a nearby wine store, raised $28,000 for autism programs. Chris Rock’s auction to “sell out” ended with him memorably advertising Tommy Hilfiger underwear (“it makes your dick look bigger!”), and raised an additional $35,000 from the designer himself.
Night of Too Many Stars makes sure you understand the benefits of this money, with short videos highlighting the programs they fund, like the one helping an austistic boy develop social skills through horse-riding lessons. These programs are undeniably awesome, but these comedians are also too smart not to notice the contradictions inherent to this kind of glitzy fundraiser. Some bits took them head-on, like when Steve Carell showed off the “swag bag” that fundraiser attendees were supposedly given, filled with goodies like a Rolex watch, the key to a self-driving Google car, a rhino horn (“cut right off before putting it in the bag, so it’s fresh”), thick toilet paper, and a laser-point vibrator (“so you can entertain your cat while you masturbate”). Stewart weakly protested “we actually fund over 50 different scholarship programs” as his former Daily Show correspondent tossed “diamonds” into the audience. The bit ended with Carell biting into a piece of “deep-fried gold” and immediately regretting it: “I knew I should’ve tested this prop out!” According to Stewart, it tasted like “a McDonald’s apple pie from the ‘70s.”
For a show now in its third iteration, full of comedians who built their careers on live performance, this year’s Night of Too Many Stars was filled with extremely entertaining live chaos. During a section of the auction in which the winner got to “kill” Steve Buscemi with their weapon of choice, the execution completely failed due to the kind of tech malfunctions more common to a local theater production. “People magazine consistently names me the most murder-able man alive,” Buscemi declared at the beginning, but none of the props managed to even fake-kill the Boardwalk Empire star. Not the gun, not the chainsaw, not even the peanut.
NEXT: Paul Rudd becomes a baby bird.
Fortunately the most transcendently funny part of the entire special followed, one that managed to go slightly off the rails without ever falling apart. Introducing Ant-Man star Paul Rudd as “a man of the people,” Stewart invited four audience members from “the cheap seats” to the stage. Each contestant spun a “Wheel of Rudd” that ranged from “Travolta Your Face” to “See penis.” “Based on how tonight’s going,” Stewart said mere minutes after the Buscemi debacle, “I’m guessing we’ve got four penises coming.” In fact, the other options turned out to be even crazier. The third contestant, an American hero known only as “Joe from Queens,” rolled “baby bird.” “Joe from Queens” proceeded to chew up a whole chicken and regurgitate it into Rudd’s mouth. As Rudd struggled with all his strength not to swallow, Stewart couldn’t contain himself, jumping up and down yelling, “This is the greatest night of my life!” By the time Stewart declared, “I’m gonna save us all some trouble” and manually turned the final wheel to “See penis,” it felt anticlimactic.
As funny as Night of Too Many Stars can be, its most memorable moments (such as the 2012 duet between Katy Perry and young autistic fan Jodi DiPiazza) are heartfelt reminders of what the show is really about. This year’s warmest moment involved Gilbert Gottfried, which probably seems strange to read. It seemed strange to other comedians during the show, too. Carell described the overabundant opulence of the “swag bags” by joking that “everyone gets one, even Gilbert Gottfried,” and Stewart included a jab in his introduction: “We’re gonna talk more about the reason we’re doing all this. I can’t think of anyone better than – seriously, Gilbert Gottfried?” But everything made sense after the obnoxiously voiced comedian came on stage and producers played a video about a boy named Owen Suskind. Suskind is so severely affected by autism that he spent many years without talking, until his father noticed that he watched Disney movies intently. By speaking through an Iago puppet in a Gottfried-like voice, Suskind’s father managed to get him talking again, and spurred further development. As soon as the video ended, Suskind came out and joined Gottfried on stage so they could do a scene from Aladdin. As Gottfried resumed his Iago voice, Suskind shook his head in disbelief before providing an accurate Jafar impression. Unfortunately, Gottfried couldn’t remember all his lines (“ah fuck, it was twenty years ago!”) but Suskind was able to take over and do both parts while Gottfried visibly shook. It was awesome, as was DiPiazza’s new duet with “Weird Al” Yankovic on his Kinks-parodying “Yoda.”
As Stewart said, Night of Too Many Stars’ fundraising is not about finding a cure for autism, it’s for helping people with autism now. Smigel took the stage towards the end and explained why Night of Too Many Stars has changed from referring to autism as a “disease” to a “condition.” “I have a son who’s severely affected,” Smigel said. “He doesn’t speak very much, but he’s as beautiful and whole as anyone I know.”