TV

The Cause At The Center Of Comedy’s Biggest Night

Robert Smigel, the man responsible for Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, is putting on comedy special for charity – and yes, he’s aware of how strange that sounds.

HBO’s Night of Too Many Stars airs live November 18th from Madison Square Garden and the goal of the night, besides bidding on awkward dinners with Matt Damon and Jimmy Kimmel, is to raise money for NEXT for Autism, a nonprofit providing help to people living on the spectrum.

“What if a charity event was run by someone who’s disturbed, but well-meaning?” Smigel joked with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show a couple of years ago while promoting the show. Smigel tapped Stewart to host the star-studded event back in 2008. Since then, NEXT for Autism has raised nearly $24 million for programs designed to help children and adults living on the autism spectrum lead fulfilling, productive lives.

Smigel joined NEXT for Autism (formerly New York Collaborates for Autism) after his son was diagnosed with the disorder. The comedian and his wife Michelle spent years trying to get their son into schools and programs that understood the needs of children with autism. The experience prompted Smigel to enact change the best way he knows how: through comedy.

Years of shoving his hand up a puppet’s a** and insulting everyday people on the street may not seem to give someone the best know-how to run a charity benefit for autism, but Smigel’s work on sketch comedy shows like SNL and The Dana Carvey Show as well as late night talk shows like Late Night with Conan O’Brien have gained him plenty of funny friends who don’t mind going balls to the wall for a good cause. And that’s really the big draw of the show. Famous people auctioning off their “services” and audience members bidding on them.

Famous people like Paul Rudd, who came on stage at the Beacon Theater in 2015 and agreed to be fed regurgitated chicken by an audience member. Someone else bid a few thousand to commit a crime with John Oliver while Tommy Hilfiger shelled out cash for Chris Rock to do an ad spoof for his underwear line.

Alongside these outrageous moments (which really feel like absurdist comedy sketches) are comedians like Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson, Stephen Colbert, Adam Sandler, and more gifting viewers with hilarious stand-up routines and doing, as Stewart puts it, “lots of begging” for a good cause.

That cause is NEXT for Autism’s driving mission to better the opportunities for people who continue to be ostracized by society at large.

According to the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, 1 in 68 children are born with autism spectrum disorder. Of those, 44% show average or above average intelligence. The stereotype that people with autism can’t function on an intellectual level has been perpetuated, in part because, while just as capable as regularly functioning individuals, people with autism often exhibit social and behavioral issues that affect the way they interact within society.

“A lot of people just don’t understand that these are whole human beings,” Smigel told Stewart on his show. “They’re entitled to not be written off. They need to be given the chance to have the best lives possible.”

NEXT for Autism is working to give them that chance by partnering with organizations that focus on finding solutions for problems faced by the autism community. Organizations like Project SEARCH Collaborates for Autism (PSCA) which helps students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) transition from their last year of high school into employment. Unemployment is a huge problem faced by adults with autism so training kids early in marketable, employable skills might help combat that.

BOOST! is another program created by NEXT for Autism that’s less about planning for the future and more about providing kids with autism the same of kind of social activities that their typical peers enjoy. The nonprofit partners with community-based organizations to provide funding for kids with autism to have peer mentors that help them learn to socialize in a group setting and for students to go on fun outings — think bowling and the movies.

But the work NEXT does isn’t just focused on people living on the spectrum, it’s also about training the next wave of special educators that work with people with ASD. The Hunter Autism Research, Practice & Policy Center wants to give teachers the tools to better serve people with ASD so that no child has to struggle to find school programs like Smigel’s son did.

And one of NEXT for Autism’s biggest success stories — one that was funded by the money raised during Night of Too Many Stars — is the NYC Autism Charter School, the first charter school in New York State dedicated exclusively to educating students with autism spectrum disorder. The school is a lab school, meaning it’s housed in a normal public school but contains state-of-the-art, science-based educational programming to help kids on the spectrum get ahead. In return, the kids with autism interact with typically-developing students on a daily basis to teach them tolerance, compassion, and how to mentor others. It’s not about separating students with autism, making them feel even more “other.” Instead, it’s about lending them the skills they need to get ahead while still giving them the same educational experience as their peers.

Charity telethons and TV specials are pretty commonplace but though it follows the same format, HBO’s Night of Too Many Stars isn’t like any you’ve seen before — and not just because it marks Stewart’s first TV hosting gig in two years. The show’s not afraid to poke fun at itself, its stars don’t mind a bit of embarrassment in the name of charity, and even with a crowd of A-listers, there’s a motivating sense of sincerity behind the event.

Sure, you might see Bon Jovi duet with Will Forte and Gilbert Gottfried, but what you don’t see — how the money the show is raising will help kids and adults with autism feel valued and supported — that’s the real draw of this thing.

You can watch Night Of Too Many Stars live on Saturday, November 18 at 8PM ET on HBO

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