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8th Stand Up for Heroes at Madison Square Garden

Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York on (Wednesday, Nov. 5)

The annual Stand Up for Heroes shows always offer a tremendous array of comedy superstars, and this year's eighth edition was no exception. Featuring such white-hot comedians as Jon Stewart, Jim Gaffigan, John Oliver and Louis C.K., the veterans benefit also included a performance by Bruce Springsteen in what has become an annual appearance.

But they were far from the most memorable people to take the stage. Normally, when a show of this caliber promises that there will "surprise guests," one assumes that they will be on the order of, say, Sting or Billy Joel. Not so for this evening benefiting veterans and their families, presented by the Bob Woodruff Foundation and the New York Comedy Festival. Although the scheduled performers all delivered sterling, albeit brief sets, they were far outshone by the unannounced guests.

After the comedians had finished their routines, newscaster Brian Williams ambled onstage to introduce "a veteran singer from New Jersey." No, it wasn't Springsteen, but rather Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who belted out a rendition of "New York, New York" that brought down the house.

"I'm king of the hill / Chairman of the Joint Chiefs" he bellowed in perhaps the most unique rendition of the song ever.

But that was nothing compared to the appearance of Derek Herrera, a former Marine captain who became paralyzed from the chest down after suffering a combat injury in Afghanistan. Accompanied by his wife, the soldier actually walked onstage, using just crutches and a pioneering robotic exoskeleton. The entire audience stood up as he made his entrance, and actually remained standing for the next 10 minutes as he recounted his story and self-effacingly described himself as "average" when compared to the many heroic veterans in attendance. As he left the stage, he seemed to be struggling to return to the wings, with the whirring sounds of his mechanical walking system clearly audible. As audience members shouted out such encouragements as "You got it!" he finally made his way offstage to tremendous cheers.

Such deeply moving moments are par for the course for the Stand Up for Heroes shows. But fortunately there were also plenty of laughs to offset the drama. Stewart, pointing out that "we honor heroes and then we bring out the schmucks," delivered brief bits about the struggles of raising small children and the recent midterm election. "I don't want to say that Republicans won," he mused. "It's more like they skull-f---ed the Democrats."

Gaffigan relied on his tried-and-true repertoire of self-denigrating fat jokes, describing his depressing tendency to "fat out of clothes" and recounting a hilarious anecdote about airport security discovering a box of doughnuts in his luggage.

Oliver made comedic fodder of his English heritage, joking about his trip to Australia, once a British penal colony.

"We sent our criminals to somewhere that was obviously nicer than where we lived," he pointed out, before scoring big laughs with a bit about watching news coverage of Hurricane Sandy in which the on-camera reporter was overshadowed by the sight of a man blithely jet-skiing near Battery Park even as the storm raged.

Louis C.K. delivered some of his funniest bawdier material, including a profane bit about watching rats having sex on a subway platform. He also described telling his young children about their dog's death as "a dry run for grandma."

Springsteen took advantage of the show's comedic bent by indulging his hidden desire to be a stand-up comic, peppering his five-song set with a series of Borscht Belt-style jokes. Telling the story of a truck full of Viagra being hijacked on the New Jersey Turnpike, he paused before delivering the punchline: "The police are now looking for a group of hardened criminals."

Oh, and he also sang, delivering rollicking solo acoustic versions of "Working on the Highway" and "Growin' Up" before being joined by wife Patti Scialfa on a stirring "If I Should Fall Behind" dedicated to the veterans and their families. He also delivered dramatically different versions of two of his biggest hits: "Born in the USA," stripped of its jingoistic elements via an intense rendition featuring bluesy slide guitar; and "Dancing in the Dark," slowed down to accentuate the starkness of its lyrics.

It all ended with an auction, the prize being Springsteen's guitar and the promise of a one-hour personal guitar lesson. When that didn't achieve the desired results, the rocker kept upping the ante, throwing in a lasagna dinner at his house, a ride in the sidecar of his motorcycle and even the shirt off his back. By the time it ended, two separate bidders pledged $300,000 each, agreeing to share the prize. Springsteen thanked them with a few bars of "Mystery Train" before leaving the stage. It was a fitting conclusion to an evening that scored much-needed funds for its supremely worthy cause.

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