Staff Perspective: Downrange Comedy – Humor in Deployed Settings (Part 2)

Staff Perspective: Downrange Comedy – Humor in Deployed Settings (Part 2)

Matthew Sacks, Ph.D.

Welcome back to our discussion of humor and comedy in deployed locations.  Last time I interviewed comedian Kathleen Madigan about her USO performances over the years.  In this part, I will speak with comedian Roy Wood, Jr. and former Army Specialist Michael Dillon about their experiences with comedy performances downrange.

In September 2015 Trevor Noah took over the reins of one of the most popular shows on television, Comedy Central’s ‘The Daily Show’.  For most of us it was the first time we were introduced to Trevor, and it was also the first time we met Roy Wood, Jr., a comedian who became a contributor for ‘The Daily Show’ at that same time.  Roy had been on the comedy scene for some time, having worked in radio for many years with a knack for prank phone calls.  In 2010, Roy finished in third place on ‘Last Comic Standing’.  I spoke with him back in June of 2015, three months before he began his tenure at ‘The Daily Show’, and one month after Roy had returned from performing on his fourth USO tour in the Persian Gulf.

Dr. Matt Sacks: Hi Roy, thanks for taking the time to do this.  I think given your experience, you bring a real unique perspective to the general topic of humor in deployed settings.

Roy Wood Jr.: Thank you.

MS: Do you have any military background in your family or close friends growing up?

RW: Not really, no real military background in my family growing up…my uncle served, my uncle’s retired Army, but as far as I know on either of my family’s sides from two generations, he’s the only person that’s served.  Unless you want to count me in high school, ROTC, I don’t know if that’s partial credit or not.

MS: We’ll give you partial credit.  My first question is asking you to think back on what made you decide to go on the USO tours that you went on?

RW: I went on the USO tours…the guy that I’ve done all four of them with now is a comedian named Steve Byrne…and his brother served.  And so Steve went, I guess as a way of trying to see his brother and it ended up working out where he fell in love with doing the tours, you know Byrne has probably done maybe seven or eight of these things and he brought me along the first time, and I just saw it as a way to see the world…I mean it was alright, I get to see what the troops are going through and that’s nice, but there’s also an element of travel to it that I love, you know I’m an obsessive traveler, I love going out and seeing different stuff, new horizons, blah, blah, blah.

MS: When we think of deployed settings, Service members on deployments, they can be pretty stressful environments, potentially, certainly from a practical life-and-death perspective, but also stressful based on things such as being away from home, away from family and loved ones.  Given that unique type of environment, how do you think comedy impacts people who are in that type of stressful environment?

RW: My job as a performer with the USO is to give the troops a slice of home, or to report on what’s going on at home.  As a comedian I’ve always viewed myself, I think, with to some degree, a type of journalist, and it’s my job to report on, you know, what’s going on, what I see, what they might have missed, because a lot of them don’t have a lot of connection to the outside world, other than a couple of news articles and you know, a couple of websites they might go to here and there, but I notice, from my observation in interacting with the troops…they seem to be more appreciative of the small talk and chit-chat after the show, then they are the actual show itself…but the show is cool, but the opportunity to come up and just shoot the breeze…when we went to Kuwait last year [2014], I don’t know if it was Camp Buehring or where we went…but after the show, we played volleyball, and basketball, and sat and watched movies…I mean we were probably outside doing…we did more stuff after the show then we did during the show…the actual comedy show itself, if that makes sense.

MS: Yeah, so really just spending time with the Service members, hanging out, getting to know them, kind of on their level?

RW: Yeah.  And with them, with the new faces, someone different than what they’ve been staring at the past four or five months, up until that point, so I think in that regard, we were appreciated.   But to me, this was part of the purpose…is to just be a different face to look at, to be someone with something different to say.

MS: You spoke a little about what your role was, and the place of a comedian in the deployed setting, but I’m wondering if we take a step back, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the role of comedy in general, like why does humor exist?  What is it? How do you understand its purpose in life?

RW: I think the comic’s purpose is the same abroad as it is domestic and it’s just to offer unique analysis and perspective on the world in which we live and hopefully give people an opportunity to laugh and find irony in things that normally would give you pain, you know it’s a coping mechanism to some degree, it’s also a method of analysis to many other degrees…so they’re kind of one and the same in some regards, but I really feel like, as a comic, you have a chance to do that, on a nightly basis, and affect change and, you know, if you look at some of the largest comics…all of the biggest comics are out to answer one of two questions…it’s either who they are as a person, and through in-depth analysis of self, we see an element of ourselves and recognize, through the familiarity and the relatability of it, and so we gravitate towards it.  And the other style…and I’m talking legends, I’m talking Carlin, Cosby, Lenny Bruce, the Chris Rocks of the world.  The other question that’s also asked, it’s not so much who am I as a person, as much as it is who is society? What are we doing here? What is going on?  And it’s an analysis of the world around us…Jon Stewart would be a good example of that, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, Paul Mooney, where the majority of their act is they’re really analyzing the world that surrounds us, you really don’t find out a lot about them as an individual…you find out plenty about the world.

MS: That’s interesting in that the comic has the tools and almost the license to do that, it seems in a more honest way than certainly politicians, but almost anyone in society.

RW: We can move autonomously through all of those different realms…now because we aren’t held to the same standards of professionalism as a politician, some people may write us off, but I think we’re just as effectual.  Humor is the perfect masking device for reporting information, if you want to use it as such, you know, you have the option…not using it that way…but you know, some comics do and it’s a great way to get things done…you look at something like ‘The Daily Show’ on Comedy Central where, that’s where a lot of young people get their news, because it’s funny.  And it’s not ‘CBS News Hour’, you know, and to some people, that’s what they want.

MS: I know that you’ve been doing comedy for years, but I’m wondering if you can go back to that first USO tour that you did, the first time that you went out with Steve [Byrne], did you have any prediction or guess as to what it was going to feel like for you personally to be up on that stage in a deployed environment?                                                       

RW: My first premonition of the USO was that it was going to be, you know, some active combat situation where I’m only mere miles away from some war zone, or whatever, which clearly was not the case…you know we weren’t at FOBs, you know, I’ve heard of some comics who did shows at FOBs in Afghanistan, so, you know, there is that element out there...and hell, when we were in Baghdad this past year we were flying over active…I mean we were wearing flak jackets and helmets and all kinds of flight procedures when they were flying us from base to base, so there was definitely an element of danger but...I didn’t know that people would be in the mood to laugh, I’m like, what’s funny when someone’s trying to kill you every day?  But, found plenty was funny…and once you got on stage, you’re just doing the show for a bunch of Americans, which is what I’ve done pretty much for 17 years of my career.  Every show has been me in front of a bunch of Americans, unless you want to count a couple of international gigs in London and the two times I performed in Canada, 99% of my shows have been for Americans.  So at the end of the day, these are a stressful’re in a strange place, but once you’re on stage, it’s literally no different than every military base I’ve performed at in the States...same people, same job occupation...only difference is the level of stress around them.  So once you get on stage as a comic your instincts take over and once you get the first laugh it’s even more removed, it’s even more of a relief…and you’re not stressed at all.

MS: After the shows you mentioned that you spent a lot of time with the men and women, did they ever tell you what it meant to them to have you guys performing for them?  What it was like for them to laugh and have comedy with them in this stressful downrange environment?

RW: Some people would come over and say something, some people would just shake your hand.  Some people would just leave and then email you two months from then, so it all manifested itself in different ways, I don’t think there was any one particular ‘right way’ that anyone went about expressing gratitude, but you definitely felt…I felt, we felt, appreciated and you definitely felt like what you did mattered to some of the people there.

MS: I imagine that you had the chance to interact with Service members of all different ages and different ranks, did the younger and older folks have any differences in as far as what they found to be funny, or their approach to talking with you, or being there?

RW: The COs do not laugh at the edgy stuff.  They are straight-forward.  Not that they don’t have a sense of humor, but they also have to have a sense of decorum...I always found that, you know, a lot of the rank and file always loved it when you picked on a Lieutenant or one of the Colonels that was there at the shows and that was one thing that was cool was that at a lot of the shows, a lot of the top brass would come to the show.  I don’t know if that was the strategy just to get more of the NCOs to show up or whatever, I think at its core, it definitely, you know, if the Sargent’s there, if the Major’s there, the Lieutenant’s gonna be there, if he’s there, the Sargent’s there, Sargent shows up, the Corporal’s gonna show up, Corporal shows, the Privates show, and you know, it’s kind of a cool thing.  It’s a very cool thing.

MS: You said that the Commanding Officers tended to sort of hold back a little bit when you approached more edgy topics?

RW: You couldn’t do edgy material for the most part, just off of their…just strategically…but also, in the sense of, if you…what the young ones loved is if you picked a little bit on the officers, if you could find an angle, a quick thing on one of them, nothing crazy, but that humor always goes over well.  Always, always goes over well.

MS: In an interview that you and Steve did after one of your last tours you said that one of the reasons you said yes to going was the chance to get into a helicopter.  I don’t know if that was the real reason, but I’m just curious as to why you did say yes to essentially performing in a war zone?  Baghdad is a dangerous place.  So what made you say yes?

RW: You’re gonna die sooner or later, so it don’t matter…might as well have a couple of adventures before it happens.  That’s pretty much how I live my life, man.  If I die (laughs)…this is such a morbid thing to say…if I die doing comedy, it probably’d help my career, so...(laughs) you know, it’s fine whatever, no biggie.  I think it’s a situation where I’ve done comedy in enough strange mundane places that I’ve already been… Tampa’s not going anywhere.

MS: Eventually, but not any time soon.

RW: Yeah, global warming, sea levels pending, it’s not going anywhere, so as far as I’m concerned, why not have something different to throw on the old resume, and have a different experience?  So, yeah, part of the reason why I did it was to see the world for free.  And within that...and embedded within that chance to travel was also an opportunity to see other Americans and hopefully help people and effect a little change.

MS: And when you say ‘effect a little change’, are you going back to that commenting on society or your ability to tell them what was going on back at home, but sort of do it in an honest way?

RW: Exactly, and you know, if what I do on stage makes real life a little easier, then I’ve accomplished…I’ve done my job.  It doesn’t matter what you do for a living.  That’s the goal any night that I’m on stage, so it’s not like I did something extra because I was in Afghanistan and not performing in would always do it with the same purpose...just like you, I’m doing it here, just trying to figure it out, so I’m gonna give you a little bit of analysis of what I think, and if that makes your day a little easier, mission accomplished.  I try not to complicate it or over-aggrandize it, but at the core, that’s what stand-up is to me.  Very simple.

MS: After having gone to all of these places, Baghdad, Guam, the Philippines, did those experiences change your view of the world, your perspective on things, on people at all?

RW: It’s probably changed me some…the military eats a lot better than I thought.  I thought it was all MREs and astronaut snacks, but apparently you can still get a good omelet in Baghdad.  Thought that was pretty cool.  You get to put a face to the mission, so that’s pretty cool.  The military’s such a broad word to define all of these unique individuals that it’s comprised of, that I think we sometimes forget the individuality of that entire…of that job occupation.

MS: Right, these are individual Americans that grew up, went to high school, and watched the same TV shows and YouTube videos that we have all watched.

RW: What’s creepy is meeting people from my hometown, that’s the thing that I forget about, is that I’m from America too, oh yeah, that’s right.  I did morning radio in Birmingham for 10 years, and it’s just something you don’t think about…probably should, but you just don’t consider that a lot of the kids that…there’s a lot of kids that grew up listening to me, that are now serving abroad…and that is a little…’weird’ is not the word…but it’s definitely, it’s not something you normally think about.  You know, I’m a 36-year-old man and I’m with a 23-year-old who’s telling me about how he used to listen to me on the school bus every day, and I’m like, this dude is just a it’s humbling to see the choices and sacrifices that people make at such an early age.  I say all of that to answer the question that you can’t always put a face to everything and everyone, which for me is cool…that’s probably one of the bigger things that I’ve taken from the whole experience.

MS: It sounds like it helped humanize what the military does…it’s made up of these individuals that you actually got to meet and shake their hands and hear that they listened to you in Birmingham growing up.

RW: Yeah, exactly.  Yes sir.

MS: Is there anything that you do as a comedian, as a person, to take care of your mental game?  You know, you’ve got to perform X number of nights during the week and I’m wondering if there are things that you do to keep yourself in mental shape to be able to get there and make people laugh even if maybe you’re not having the best day or you’re not really feeling up to it?

RW: On stage I’m pretty good…stage…for me the stage…for me it’s a life oasis, so I can get up there no matter what.  I’ve had days where I’ve been arguing with my girlfriend and I can walk right on stage like it never happened, and soon as I get off stage I’m mad again, but when I’m up there for 30 or 40 minutes, it’s a happy place…it’s a 100% happy place for me, so I appreciate being able to be up there.  But for me, I don’t really do a lot pre-show, I don’t have a lot of rituals or anything...I try my best to, an hour before the show, gain a little mental stillness…so that may manifest itself in video games or reading, or it could be anything.  But that’s pretty much it, you know, for me, my world can’t pollute what I do on stage, if anything being on stage helps to improve things, because I can get on stage, say something that’s funny and instantly be brought back into a sense of reality, oh wow, yea, yea, yea, that was funny…I should do this next time, and then I’m excited about my work, and sometimes that’s all I need to have a good day.

MS: Roy, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and the work that you’ve done.  I think as a professional comedian you really are in a unique position to be able to go to these deployed settings and give the Service members, like you said, that slice of home.  I think that you had that unique opportunity and you chose to accept that opportunity and I appreciate you for doing that and for taking the time to talk to me today.

RW: Thank you, sir.

It was really interesting talking with Roy and hearing his perspective on performing overseas and on comedy in general.  Having become much more familiar with his comedic voice on ‘The Daily Show’ it is easy to see now that Roy’s humor is seeded in deeply-held beliefs about the role that comedy plays in the world.  He has a unique voice and a hilariously biting take on American politics and society at large.   I left our conversation feeling that Roy’s work with the USO had a greater impact on him than he possibly anticipated before his first tour performing for deployed Service members.

In this last interview I was able to speak with former Army Specialist Michael Dillon about his experiences attending USO comedy shows at home and abroad.  Michael spent five years on active duty in the Army and another two years in the Army Reserves.  As a Transportation Operator, Michael was deployed in 2003-04 to various locations in the OEF theater including Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kurdistan.  He deployed two more times in 2005-06 and 2007-08 to Iraq.

MS: Hi Michael, thanks for doing this.  Tell me a little bit about some of the USO performances that you got to see when you were deployed.

Spec. Michael Dilon: There were a handful of different ones, some of them involved comedians coming on base, I remember in my first deployment to the OEF theater, we had Ron White came through with Trace Adkins, who’s a country singer, and Lee Greenwood...I want to say was there as well.  They performed their acts while we were there, and that was a really cool experience and something that I remember we were all looking forward to when we heard that they were coming there.  

I saw Carlos Mencia, he came to Ft. Campbell [Kentucky] for a special event for the soldiers on base, in one of the auditoriums on base...that was really cool, and that was one of the funniest shows out there, and I think it might get over-looked that even though when we get back from the wars, things like that still matter to us, because we still need things like that that are morale builders for soldiers, because it’s still not always…the job is never done when we just leave the tour or overseas...when we come back...there’s still inner battles going on, so when we can...when a celebrity takes their time away from their families to come do a show for us even while back in the States it’s still a morale builder for us.  I don’t want you to overlook that because that’s definitely something that I’m not sure that anybody’s mentioned, but I still think the battle’s still not over when you get back from your tour overseas, so, things like that, concerts and performances like that still are impactful on soldiers.  There’s always...there’s no...there’s never a bad time for a laugh here or there.

MS: Yeah, I think it’s worth mentioning.  When people read about a performer, a celebrity going overseas to perform for the troops, that is a flashier headline,  I think you’re right...that gets more attention, but I hear where you’re coming from that whether it’s in garrison or downrange, those performances are impactful, are meaningful.

MD: It is, it’s meaningful regardless of what situation if you’re in garrison or downrange, exactly like you’re, I mean, it might seem like it’s a little more overseas, but I think it’s just as important as it is back in the States.

MS: When you saw Ron White in Afghanistan, what were you and your friends thinking before, after the show? What was the mentality about it?

MD: At the time, it was one of those things...because while you’re over there, generally a lot of times you’re just doing... the same job or doing the same things, each day, day in and day out, so it kind of can just get déjà vu, like you’re doing the same thing each day, like in ‘Groundhog Day’.  So I think when the performers came and did their sets, that kind of broke up the everyday ritual that we would typically be in, the monotony of doing things over there, so it kind of took us away from one mindset and we were able to...just to de-stress or just for one time just not think about the job and were able to enjoy a performance and do something different that we haven’t been doing for quite some time, or hadn’t seen in quite some time.  I think that was a big benefit of the performers coming.  Additionally, I think after the performances I know people were talking about whatever lines they thought were hilarious and I’m sure a couple people pulled some quotes away from the people, it was just was a good time and like a few days down the road you’ll think about what we saw and the performances that we saw and think about what Ron White was talking about...because he can be very outspoken, I’m sure you know (laughs) some of the stuff he says, he didn’t sugarcoat nothing, he was very, there was no PC version that he had, there was no filter really, and that was kind of…it’s refreshing because in the military we generally don’t have a filter either when it comes to things we say, so we could relate to what he was saying in the tone and the way he spoke to us as well.  It was a connection that he made through his jokes that we can relate to that made it even more funny.

MS: I’ve seen Ron White’s stand up over the years, but I’m curious to know whether his material for you was his standard stuff, or whether he spoke specifically about the military or about being in Afghanistan?

MD: I’m not sure what his standard set really is, I mean he mixed in various things, some of it was jokes about being in...being downrange, and from his experiences, and going to different bases, and some places you gotta piss in a PVC pipe to go to the bathroom, other places you’ve got the Taj Mahal of toilets, and so he was..he mixed it up, and that was really good, so he was relatable I guess, is the best way to describe it.  And then he also mixed in his...every now and again, his political aspects or side of things in there as well, so, he didn’t...he was all over, and then whatever crazy tabloid headline that was going on in current events that timeframe too, I would imagine, just because, that’s what typically...and I don’t remember exactly what was going on at that time in 2003, who was the jokes of ‘Saturday Night Live’ and Jay Leno’s shows at the time, but I’m certain he was doing that as well, just like the rest of them.

MS: There’s different types of comedians and Ron White is, as you said, outspoken.  Do you feel like that kind of situation, there was almost a relief valve of him being able to say things that maybe you couldn’t say openly or sort of talking about the political or military situation?  Was there any sense of this guy gets it, or he’s able to talk about the stuff we’re going through in a way that we aren’t always able to?

MD: Yes, there were times where he was saying things that there was no way in hell we would be able to say about our political views of the current President at the time, and/or our organizational structure or talk about...or the way we talk to our hierarchy in the military.  It was very...there were times when he was just... he said what a lot of us might be thinking or thought at some time, but we weren’t able to say because of the repercussions that we could face if we were to say something, so I think that was also the reason why it was so funny, because he was saying these things and we were like yeah, we’ve been thinkin' that for quite some time.

MS: Right, and he could say that with impunity, he’s not going to catch any flak for it.

MD: Right, without any recourse.

MS: What are your thoughts about the function of humor during deployments, does it serve a purpose, is it something that’s part of resiliency, something that helps people get through deployments or bounce back if something bad happens, like what’s your sense of the use of humor?

MD: Humor is an everyday thing that is in the military in some way shape or form, and while deployed it’s even more useful I think, or important to be able to have those moments where you are just laughing like crazy because I think that kind of breaks up and helps Service members cope with some other situations they might be in, so it’s not always to be so serious about things...and I mean some of the things that we do, I mean, (laughs), in garrison, I know in the military units that I’ve been in they’ve always been really funny and some of the things that we say and do are kind of off the wall, but I think when you take it overseas because we’re under so much pressure to do our jobs and everything like that we, in times when we do have our moments to escape the job and we’re able to laugh and cut up; it is to a different degree and a different level of funny, and, as you may know, some of the innuendos that are said through the services...there’s’s hilarious.

MS: With the different personalities of people that you’ve deployed with, do you think that having a sense of humor, being able to laugh at yourself, or about the situation, is that something that sort of helps people have longevity over the course of a deployment as opposed to people that aren’t able to do that, maybe wear down quicker?

MD: It makes it easier, that’s for sure, and I think even in the hardest times while you’re over there, and what I mean by that like if...when you lose someone, you’re not thinking about the case of losing somebody...when you’ve lost somebody you’re thinking about all the funny things that that person had done and so it’s….I think laughter in thinking about how funny a situation was helps being able to deal with the stresses of being in a war.  There were definitely tough times and I think the team and the guys...the way we dealt with it was to not think on the negative but think on the humorous side of things and try to make the best of it, and that way we could keep our best foot going forward and there on after, because if you don’t have some type of mechanism outlet to get out of the struggles of being over there, it will consume you and so I think humor and laughter and jokes are a critical piece and a mechanism that helps the military continue on with their jobs.

MS: Michael, thank you, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and answer my questions, it’s really invaluable.

MD: Sure, thank you, no problem.

Talking to Michael Dillon helped me to gain a more clear understanding of the impact of comedy performances on deployed Service members.  As Michael pointed out, there are also many comedians and other performers who graciously give their time to entertain Service members after they return from deployments, which can be just as valuable.

I hope that this series of interviews with Kathleen Madigan, Roy Wood, Jr. and Michael Dillon has been as interesting for you to read as it was for me to speak with these three individuals.   These discussions shed some light for me on the nature and function of humor in the deployed environment.  The comedy performances from these conversations all seem to share some common features and attributes.  Downrange comedy shows can provide an escape, a respite from the stresses of deployment.  They also are opportunities for an outsider to come in and use humor to call attention to the common struggles of deployed Service members and in doing so create a shared experience in the audience that may bring them closer together as well as feel understood and even appreciated for their service.  I have no doubt that the United Service Organizations will continue to find other great comedians to perform for Service members at home and on deployment.  The shared experiences of laughter and humor at such shows will undoubtedly help current and future members of the U.S. Armed Forces continue to do their jobs at a high level.

Staff Perspective: Downrange Comedy – Humor in Deployed Settings (Part 1)

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.