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Moments of absurdity are to be expected at the biennial "Night of Too Many Stars" benefit on Comedy Central. Things like Seth Rogen auctioning off a trip to the urinal with him; a knock-down, drag-out fight between Kevin Bacon in a butter costume and Liev Schreiber dressed as broccoli; a performance of "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen and Harvey Keitel.
All of those are memorable highlights of the fourth "Night of Too Many Stars," which uses comedy to raise money for autism education programs. But at the event, which was taped last Saturday at the Beacon Theatre in New York and will air Sunday at 8 p.m. on Comedy Central, something remarkable and unusually tender happened along with Stephen Colbert being mauled by a bear.
A young autistic girl accomplished a feat beyond that of most, autistic or not: She sang a duet of "Firework" with Katy Perry that brought the house down and moved host Jon Stewart (and many others) to tears. As the standing ovation roared for young Jodi DiPiazza, she stood up from behind the piano and wrapped her arms around Perry, nestling herself against the pop star.
"It's the most beautiful thing I've ever been associated with," said the comedian Robert Smigel, who organizes and produces "Night of Too Many Stars." "I've made a career of all this nonsense - and I'm very proud of it - but it all pales in comparison to what happened Saturday."
Perhaps more than any other installment, this year's "Night of Too Many Stars" strikes an uncommon balance between heart-rending emotion and knee-slapping slapstick. It's certainly the only show that can get away with filming Seth Rogen peeing, and say it's for a good cause.
Smigel is best known as the comic genius behind the Borscht Belt-inspired hand puppet, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (and "genius" is a fair label for such a creation). He's a New York comic veteran whose career has covered "Saturday Night Live," where as a writer he made the TV Funhouse cartoons; "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," where he was head writer in a room that included Louis C.K.; and numerous projects with Adam Sandler.
Smigel and his wife, Michelle, also have a 14-year-old son, Daniel, who's autistic. It was their trouble getting him placed in one of the too few quality schools for autistic children that led Smigel to begin the "Night of Too Many Stars" fundraisers, which have brought in more than $14 million.
"They deserve to be nurtured," says Smigel of children with autism. "They deserve to be educated. They deserve to be encouraged and not written off and not ostracized."
The show couldn't be more personal to Smigel, who founded the event by calling on his comedian friends to ask the favor of their participation. Stewart, with whom Smigel hadn't been close, has been a mainstay of "Night of Too Many Stars." Stewart's generosity, Smigel says, has "overwhelmed" him and Michelle.
But as the years have gone on, putting it together has grown more difficult.
"It started with me just asking my friends and of course they all said yes," Smigel says. "But it's hard to keep going back to the same people. And I don't know everybody in show business, as old and experienced as I am."
This year's show features many familiar comic faces, like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (who auction off the chance to be their best friend for the night), J.B. Smoove (who makes a DVD commentary watching HBO's "Game of Thrones" with Tracy Morgan) and Ben Stiller (who, as his fashion model character Derek Zoolander, dresses down Tommy Hilfiger). On his show "Conan," O'Brien is also chipping in by trying to raise $100,000. If he succeeds, O'Brien has pledged to do an episode in a deep spray tan.
But there are also more musicians this year, including Sting, Jepsen and Perry. After the show, Perry tweeted that she would never forget the evening, that "it was the most important moment thus far of what I do."
One conspicuous absence is Triumph. Smigel apologized to the audience for not having the time to perform as Triumph, noting that putting on the show had been "the hardest thing I've ever done."
But Smigel is wary of having audiences associate him with anything other than laughs.
"If I want to make a living, I've got to continue being the moron that I am - the professional moron," says Smigel. "I just want to keep doing that puppet with no backstory. What's going on up Triumph's ass is nobody's business."
That may be true, but what's up Triumph's rear also happens to be a guy who'll do anything for his son - and many more like him.