“Are you ready for hilarious sh**?”
Seth Rogen, wearing a pale yellow button-down and black pants, was addressing a packed crowd from the stage of the lavish ballroom at the Jane Hotel in New York City. Enormous stuffed beasts and bizarre portraits looked down on him from the high walls. Over 300 people—mostly chic young things in their 20s, 30s and 40s—squeezed like sardines onto leather and velvet couches or stood. All around them were majestic trees sprouting up from urns. Lush red drapes covered the windows. A gigantic disco ball hung from the ceiling, mercifully motionless.
In this Royal Tenenbaums–meets–Baz Luhrmann tableau, Rogen and his wife, Lauren Miller, kicked off a very funny event to benefit a very serious disease: Alzheimer’s.
Miller’s mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2006, at the age of 55. Her family’s experience with the illness prompted her and Rogen to start Hilarity for Charity, which raises money and awareness about the fatal disease, especially among young people. Since 2012, Hilarity for Charity has held two fund-raisers in Los Angeles; Tuesday night marked its first New York City event. Featuring stand-up routines from Demetri Martin, Natasha Leggero, Hannibal Buress and Aziz Ansari, the benefit raised $150,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association.
“[Hilarity for Charity] was born out of a selfish place, a way to make ourselves feel better and do something,” Rogen told Newsweek. “Because you want to find something to give you some control over the situation. That is one of the reasons that we did it. The other reason is to try to raise money and get people talking about the disease.”
More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s today, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, including 200,000 people under the age of 65. The cost of caring for Americans with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is set to reach $214 billion this year, excluding the $220 billion in unpaid care from caregivers. Not a single treatment prevents, stops, slows or reverses the disease, and if doctors don’t find one, there could there could be as many as 16 million Americans with Alzheimer's by 2050, costing the country $1.2 trillion.
In February, Rogen testified before Congress, putting a celebrity face on a disease that, he argued, is all too often whispered about. “After forgetting who she and her loved ones were, my mother-in-law, a teacher for 35 years, then forgot how to speak, feed herself, dress herself and go to the bathroom herself—all by the age of 60,” he said. His testimony—poignant, yet accessible and somehow funny—went viral immediately.
Comedy has proven an apt vehicle for talking about a horrific disease. “In order to get people to think about something that’s so sh**ty, to have it be fun was the best idea we could come up with,” Rogen says.
“I don’t have jokes about [Alzheimer’s] because I think it’s sad,” Martin said as he kicked off the evening’s comedy. Like Leggero, Buress and Ansari, he steered clear of joking about the disease, instead riffing off of the vulgar and the mundane. “I think balls is a bad name for that part of the male anatomy. Balls implies things you don’t want done to them,” Martin said. “They should have come up with a better name. Mints!”
Leggero, who roasted James Franco on Comedy Central and has appeared on Chelsea Lately and @Midnight, has a personal reason for performing: Her grandmother died of Alzheimer’s disease. “I’m just now hearing, from being a part of this event, that it can happen early,” Leggero told Newsweek. “I wasn’t aware of that. Nothing sounds scarier to me than not— Because I already feel like we’re getting stupider from the Internet.”
During her routine, Leggero railed against the Internet (“Why do I have to sign into Facebook to pay my water bill?”) as well as Republicans (“Pussies are for eating, not controlling”).
Buress joked about growing up with the name Hannibal (his father’s name is the uber-normal John). And Ansari, the final act, talked a lot about finding love—good timing, given he is writing a book about relationships in the age of technology. He read a text message he once received from his girlfriend: “‘You feel like home to me. Even if we’re in a hotel, I feel like home because I’m with you…I love you so much.’ She sent that to me when I went away for five minutes to take a sh**.”
The crowd roared. A stern security guard eyed my notebook, leaned over and said, “He’s funny.”
The night ended with a short thank-you speech from Miller followed by an auction. The two items—VIP tickets to this week’s Saturday Night Live, which Rogen is hosting, and airfare and tickets to Hilarity for Charity’s upcoming event in L.A.—went for a total of $22,600.
Hilarity for Charity recently launched HFC U, a nationwide program that encourages college students to throw their own Hilarity for Charity events to help raise awareness and funds. The college or university that takes in the most money by tomorrow will win an advance screening of Rogen’s upcoming film, Neighbors, and the chance to meet the star himself.
Standing at the back of the ballroom, sandwiched between an enormous tree and a gaggle of model types, Sheila Rothenberg leaned against the wall, taking in the scene. “I love what Lauren and Seth are doing. I love that they’re trying to raise awareness around young people,” says Rothenberg, 57, who lives in New York City and has known Miller for years. “You have a special connection to someone who goes through the same thing, because you never know what it’s really like until you go through it.”
Rothenberg’s grandmother, mother and aunt all died of Alzheimer’s disease. She has one living aunt, who also has Alzheimer’s. “I’m probably gonna get it,” Rothenberg says. “I know you gotta die of something. You can’t cure everything.… My mother was 89 when she died, but I noticed it when she was 73. It was really like at least 17 years of someone not remembering who you are. But she always remembered George Clooney, almost till the end!”
Rogen was on stage at this point, thanking everyone for coming and adding his laid-back touch: “All right! Uh, that concludes the entertainment portion of the evening, but I believe they’re serving alcohol, so please partake in that and enjoy yourselves.” Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” started blasting.
“What I didn’t know in the very beginning was not to say to them, ‘Don’t you remember?’” Rothenberg yells above the music. “I went to a meeting at the Alzheimer’s Association with my dad, and I learned not to ever say, ‘Don’t you remember?’ That was such an important thing, because my mother would get so upset. She couldn’t remember.
“I have not gotten sentimental about my mother in a really long time, till right now.”
Abigail Jones’s previous Alzheimer’s coverage: Alzheimer's Is Expensive, Deadly and Growing. So Where's the Research Money? and For Caregivers, Alzheimer’s Can Be a Life Sentence.