Staff Perspective: Downrange Comedy – Humor in Deployed Settings

Staff Perspective: Downrange Comedy – Humor in Deployed Settings

Matthew Sacks, Ph.D.

I’ve always loved comedy and gravitated towards individuals with humor and quick wit, whether in a friend, colleague, or comedian.  I find that comedy and humor can be base, but in other moments incredibly stimulating intellectually and even emotionally powerful.  Comedy can make connections between ideas and subjects that are seemingly unconnectable, it can short-circuit the brain into confusion and epiphany in a singular moment of time, dousing our brains with dopamine and contorting our bodies with intense laughter.  Over the course of my time in the field of psychology, I have often used humor as a clinician to connect with clients and to help a given individual see a situation from a slightly different perspective.  In such clinical settings, the use of humor can be very effective, but it runs the danger of being quite unpredictable at times. As anyone who has sat in a meeting with me can attest, I also use humor on a daily basis, again with varying degrees of success.  But I am an amateur, like most of us are, in the world of comedy.  A true comedian is a professional entertainer, an artist, a person that has devoted themselves to their act and their craft.  Being a professional comedian certainly requires an engaging sense of humor, but it also necessitates that one puts in hours upon hours of preparation, of performing, of spending long nights at comedy clubs and on the road touring and playing to small crowds in out-of-the-way cities.  Comedy can help takes one’s mind off of their own problems and be a diversion.  It can also be used to bring people together, to share laughter over a common problem or challenge, such as the stress of a deployment.

The United Service Organizations (USO) has been including comedians as a staple of their entertainment events staged across multiple continents, deployments, and military operations dating back to World War II.  The USO recently celebrated their 75th anniversary at a comedy-filled event hosted by Jon Stewart and attended by the President and Vice-President at Joint Base Andrews.  The event highlighted the many years that comedy has taken center stage in the entertainment of Service members at home and abroad.  USO tours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom have featured comedians ranging from Louis CK to Robin Williams.  I have always been curious about the real world impact of such comedy performances in deployed settings.  Curious about how they impacted Service members who were living in austere and dangerous environments thousands of miles away from home, from family and friends, and from the American culture at large.  I was also interested to learn what these performances meant to those professional comedians who took a leap of faith and travelled across the world to perform downrange.  Last year I was able to connect with two such comedians who had performed overseas: Kathleen Madigan and Roy Wood, Jr.  I separately interviewed Kathleen and Roy to learn more about their personal experiences and perspectives on the role of humor in deployed settings.  Below is the first of two transcripts from those interviews.

Kathleen Madigan has been performing and touring for over 25 years, making television appearances on ‘Last Comic Standing’, many of the late night talk shows, as well as several of her own stand-up comedy specials.  Ms. Madigan was most recently featured on the web series ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ where she was interviewed by comedy icon Jerry Seinfeld.

I spoke with Kathleen in June of 2015, while she was on the road performing.

Dr. Matt Sacks: Hi Kathleen, thanks for doing this.

Kathleen Madigan: No problem.

MS: First off, I wanted to know, do you have any military background in your family or close friends growing up?

KM: No, that’s the weird part (laughs), no I don’t.  Nobody.   I mean, my mom’s dad, but I don’t really remember him, was in World War II, but he died young, so I don’t really…like not my dad, not my brother…they’re all the weird age, even my grandpa the weird…the age of missing it all, so yeah, no.                                                         

MS: How many USO tours have you done over the years?

KM: Well I did two in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then I’ve done USO stuff at home, like in the States, down in San Diego, Camp Pendleton, we did a show down there…stuff like that.  But the big ones were the two overseas, two to Iraq and Afghanistan.

 MS: For your trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, did you have your own conceptualization of what your ‘mission’ was for yourself?

KM: No…we had absolutely no vision because we didn’t even know what we were getting into because they couldn’t even tell us because we were with Mike Mullen, who was the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [2007-2011], so the schedule… so we didn’t even know where we were going.  You can’t even picture what you’re going to…I was with [fellow comedian] Lewis Black, and the second one, Robin Williams, and they had been before, so Lewis kind of gave me an outline of what the shows would be, some were going to be outside, some were going to just be in tents, some were going to be in huge… that kind of stuff.  He didn’t really even know either because he didn’t know where exactly we were going to go.

MS: So there was a lot of secrecy as far as exactly what the venue was going to be like and where you were going?

KM: Oh yeah, no idea…no idea…so like, should I wear a coat?  Will somebody tell me?  Because Baghdad, it was outside and it was actually like freezing and it wasn’t snow…but if you took a picture you could see the sand crystalize in your camera, so it looked like snow, but it was sand, but it was freezing, it was very cold, I don’t think people picture how cold it can get and as hot as it can get on the other end…it was extreme…and we were outside...I remember thinking I don’t know how Kid Rock’s fingers are working to play the guitar…because my hands are frozen. So we didn’t know until you really got there, and they wouldn’t even tell us in advance, because then they’d change the trip…like he ran off to Pakistan one day without us, Admiral Mullen did, so we all had to stay put…and then sand storms kept coming.  It’s sort of like, we’re going to go wherever we can go today and we’ll let you know after breakfast what the plan is.                                                                                                                         

MS: We often think of military deployments as being potentially very stressful; from a practical standpoint there is the danger aspect, but also based on factors such as being away from home, away from family and loved ones.  Given all of that, how do you think something like comedy impacts Service members who are going through that unique type of stress?

KM: What we discovered was that any escape from…I kept calling it like a mental vacation, whether it be comedy or movies or anything they can do to escape and forget just for an hour, where they are, seemed to be what they liked the best.  And then, a lot of people think I’m kidding, but I’m not kidding, a lot of the soldiers said people don’t picture…Kabul, the base there is like the size of a giant community college, it’s huge, and most of the soldiers are not involved in like the ‘American Sniper’ thing, they’re more involved in running a huge city.  One of my best friend’s son worked at the jail on the Kabul base, every day he went and he was like a guard. Most people don’t have permission to leave the base, so your whole area is like this three mile circumference thing that you can’t leave, so the mundane repetitive nature of that becomes a grind.  So just that new people showed up, and we’re going to do a show…they said oh we’ve been looking forward to this for months, like they would wait for us…it’s not like we were being divas, like oh we’re backstage and we don’t want to come out…we just weren’t getting to places on time because we were in those Ospreys, flying in weird devices, and there were big sand storms and stuff, and we would get there late, and they were all waiting for us, outside, freezing!  And they were just so fired up to have something different to experience…it’s just a break in the monotony and the mundane repetitiveness of whatever their jobs might be.  You know, some people…I thought oh my god, your brain would be fried by the end of the day…they just watched videos of outside the base, all day, that’s all they did…you know, super important, especially if somebody’s going to come and crash the gates, somebody needs to yell HEY!  But it’s also a grind.

MS: Did you get a chance to interact with Service members of different ranks, of different age ranges, and if so, did they differ as far as their humor, what they found to be funny, what their focus was?

KM: Yeah, but I would say it would be the exact same as if in real life you went out and hung out with a bunch of 20-somethings versus a bunch of 40-somethings.  The higher-ranking guys were the 40-somethings, and then my dad’s friend, his son, he was really young, probably like 21-22…when we were hanging out with those guys, just by their nature, they were a little sillier, a little lighter, but then I would say that holds true in real life...if you went to a bar and hung out with a bunch of 21 year-olds or you went to have drinks with a bunch of 41 year-olds.  It’s the same kind of thing…and it’s not even a maturity level, as much as it is like a lightness with the younger ones, they’re just lighter, they just aren’t bearing the weight of another 20 years of crap (laughs).  But I would say that is the thing in real life, no matter what job the people had, I don’t think it has to do with their…if anything the only difference I saw was that the 20-somethings over there would be more mature than the 20-somethings that are not in the military…just a lot more discipline, and they’re not more serious, they’re just more structured.

MS: Before your first downrange show, did you have any prediction about what it was going to feel like, what it was going to be like for you to be on stage?

KM: No, I literally had no idea. Except for what Lewis had told me, that the crowds are great.  I mean, I had done shows at military bases here in the states, so I already knew they’re just a regular crowd, but over there they ended up being 50 times better, like me and Robin were joking why didn’t we shoot a special here, you’d never find a better audience because they’re so happy that someone showed up.  Like versus, let’s say I go and do a show in Chicago, the crowd’s great, they’re fun...but they could do a million things that night, so it’s not like they’re over-the-top appreciative and sort of entertainment starved like you know the guys sitting around in Forward Operating Bases, and when I say guys I mean women’ve got a FOB, nobody’s coming to see them, you know even if it’s 250 of them, and they’re the ones out clearing the way, those were the really strange, really like something to see type places. Those places were really something…they’re just the most appreciative people on earth…and it’s really awesome when I get back to the states, and I did a show at The Mirage [in Las Vegas], I work there probably twice a year, the last time we did it, a man and a woman who were both in the military both saw our show in Kandahar, they were deployed in the same area, and they both made it...and it was weird to see them in street clothes, and they were like we saw you in Kandahar!  Very strange, and we were like oh, thank god, everybody made it back in one piece, yeah, good for us!

MS: To take a step back, how do you understand the human function of humor, almost from an evolutionary perspective?  How do you conceptualize what is humor and why do we have it, what’s its purpose?  Why does it exist?

KM: I honestly have no idea and I think it’s the weirdest human trait …it’s not just strictly for humans, it’s the one thing I don’t think people can really explain…they can’t explain different people’s laughs, and like sadness you can explain, because you can say, well they feel a loss, you know, so therefore they’re crying, because physically, sadness can physically can cause you pain, your stomach can hurt, your head can hurt…comedy…I really have no idea either…I mean it’s just bizarre…I think they show you, I’ve seen on the Discovery channel and stuff…gorillas playing…now they do play…but are they laughing? Not really. It’s seems very much…a dog doesn’t laugh, you know what I mean?  I mean it’s just a very weird human thing.  I think once things get so bad that humor is or can be… the flip side literally, from a tragedy…the darkest to the lightest, but that’s they only thing I can think of.

MS: Jumping off of that last point, do you feel like there is a type of humor that is more effective when you’re dealing with somebody who is going through tragedy or just went through some sort of loss?

KM: No, that would just be very specific to that situation.  No.  Sometimes it’s just not appropriate at all.  I mean like when we went to visit those hospitals, thank god we had Robin Williams with us or a Kid Rock, like a super, super famous person because those sick soldiers are just excited to see that person, but like comedy wouldn’t be appropriate at that moment.  They just can’t believe Robin Williams is standing there, or Kid Rock is standing by their bed, they’re fired up about that.  But the hospital situation…I mean these are really serious situations…maybe your family can joke about it, but not a stranger, I don’t care how famous you are.

MS: In your last comedy special [‘Madigan Again’] you joked that it was because of your Catholic-guilt that you said yes to performing in a war zone, but is that the real reason?  Why did you say yes?

KM: Well, because I think you should…and I don’t know if this comes from a hundred years of Catholic School or whatever, but I think you should give back if you can, whenever you can.  And you know I’m not rich enough to write $50,000 checks for scholarship funds but I can go do shows for free…you know, that’s not a problem, and especially for the military because I do think, a lot of the people that I know that joined the military where I grew up, which was Ferguson, Missouri, like a lot of people did it because they needed to…it’s not the richest, and it’s not the elite, it’s most of the time, the other end.  And I would get a little frustrated when you’d go in and you’d see the contractors pulling in after the soldiers, and I’d think that the soldiers had literally fought and died to get a hold of this place, and the contractors are making way more than the military people, and you think well that doesn’t really seem fair, you send them out to get shot, and then you come in, and literally there’s a Taco Bell in the Kandahar Square, I mean I don’t know, I feel like they’re kind of getting the short end of the stick with everything, with salary, with when they come back, I know a bunch of guys… it’s just seems that if anyone deserves a free show, it’s them.

MS: Did your experiences in these deployed environments change your perspective at all, change your understanding of the world, of people, in any lasting significant way?

KM: I admired the way that…all of us did jokes about what was going on, all of us…whether it was about the situation, the military base...we didn’t get political about it…just the absurdity of the situation, like I went to one base and the Missouri National Guard was there and they said well the Missouri guys and women are in charge of teaching them how to farm…and [I thought] you really think the Afghani’s are going to be interested in corn, when they can sell poppy for like a billion dollars and corn you’re gonna get like four bucks?  It’s just absurd.  But I did admire that the military people…they didn’t think of the overall picture…they didn’t agree or disagree, they just had a job and they were focused on the job they’d been given and they did it, they knew, they understood the absurdity or they wouldn’t have laughed, but it was still their job and that was that.  Almost like…I don’t know…they just didn’t think big picture because I don’t think you can or you’ll go insane, you go ok, I’m a guard at a prison in the military in Kabul, that’s my job, every day I get up and I go be a guard…and it’s not that anybody isn’t smart enough to think of the big picture, they just go, I’m not going to do that, I’m going to do my job and I don’t know, that was something, because I think if you’d look at the big picture, you’d go this is crazy, because it kind of is, the whole situation is insane…I mean it’s insane…we have video monitors watching a guy with a goat…this is crazy!  There’s so much of it that’s mind-blowingly crazy I think you don’t…you can’t focus on that.

MS: For this next question, feel free to say that you don’t feel like you’re in a position to answer, but I’m wondering if Robin Williams spoke to you at all about what it was like for him to do those shows, what he felt like his contribution was?

KM: Oh, he loved it, I mean he did like a million, I don’t even know, I’m sure more than 25…Robin had been doing this forever and he just thought it was the…but he was a big give-back guy…you know like any free time he had he was doing something whether it was hospitals or whatever, but the military was one of his big things, and I don’t think, from what he described, I don’t think that there was any close tie, I don’t remember him saying my dad was a big military guy, or I have a brother or anything, it’s just was what he…I don’t know how he initially got involved, but he then went on a ton, I mean I’m sure its Google-able, but I don’t know why this number 39 is in my head…but like a lot. He just believed in the give-back thing…and it wasn’t so much for the overall thought of country…it was specifically for those soldiers…it wasn’t like America…it was more like the actual individual people.  Because we met, after the shows we would do a photo thing with all of them, so you’d meet them all.

MS: And what kinds of things did they tell you?  You mentioned earlier that the big thing was helping them escape the monotony of what they were going through, but what did they tell you during those meet-and-greets about what it was like to be at a comedy show in the middle of a war zone?

KM: Most of them honestly were so excited, they would just repeat your resume back to you [laughs], like oh my god, I saw you on Comedy Central, and with Robin it was the movies, and with Lewis [Black] it was his specials, and Lance Armstrong was with us once, and so the athlete/jock guys would be like oh, I remember the Tour de France, it’s almost like any other meet-and-greet, they kind of didn’t talk about… they forgot about it, which was the whole point…which was great…like none of them were talking about what their job was, you had to ask them, like what do you do every day, what’s your gig here? I’m a map guy, I’m a map lady, I’m a pilot, I’m a this, I’m a that.  Actually now that we’ve been thinking about it, it actually worked because they forgot about it in the meet-and-greets, they were just so excited to talk to people…where are you from, oh I know you’re from… like Kelly Pickler is from North Carolina, so a lot of the guys knew that, you know stuff like that, like that’s where I’m from, blah, blah blah.

MS: Do you as a comedian have the mentality that I need to keep myself mentally in shape, or keep my spirits up, to do my job, to be a comedian, to make other people laugh?

KM: Lou (Black) and I always joke that that’s the reason you’re called a professional because you’re supposed to be able to do it even when you don’t feel like doing it, you’re still supposed to be able to do it well.  I’m usually in a really decent mood anyway, but there are times when the road gets so long, you’re like…ok I need two nights off…not that anything’s going to go horrible, but I’ll still go do the show and be fine, but I’d be funnier if I had a couple days down, in my own bed, that kind of stuff...but we’ve been doing it so long we could do it in our sleep, we could do it sick, we can do it sad, we can do it mad, that’s why repetition…that’s why when people say practice…that’s what makes you a professional, the repetition.

MS: Well Kathleen, I really appreciate you taking the time and the work that you’ve done for our Service members and I really appreciate you answering these questions. Thank you so much.

 KM: Ok, I had a great time talking to you.

It was a real pleasure talking to Kathleen Madigan.  She was very thoughtful, warm and engaging.  Kathleen was able to take a step back and reflect on the somewhat bizarre nature of performing comedy in a war zone.  It was clear to me that she enjoyed and found true meaning in her work with the USO performing for Service members.

Tune in for our next blog where I interview Roy Wood, Jr. from Comedy Central’s ‘The Daily Show with Trevor Noah’.  In addition, I spoke with Michael Dillon, an Army veteran who discussed attending a USO event while deployed to Iraq.

Matthew Sacks, Ph.D., joined the Center for Deployment Psychology in 2015 as a deployment behavioral health psychologist at Malcolm Grow Medical Clinic, Joint Base Andrews and now serves as the Assistant Director of Online Programs at the CDP headquarters.