Published on June 7th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson


Punchlines on the Frontlines

The Colbert Report is in the midst of taping shows in Iraq – yes, the Iraq – which will air this Monday through Thursday of this week. (Spoiler alert: he got a buzz cut.)

Since the days of Bob Hope, it’s always a huge undertaking for American entertainers to travel – with the help of the USO (http://www.uso.org/whatwedo/entertainment/) – to a war zone. Physically and emotionally, it puts them through more than most of them have ever experienced. While we’re unlikely to get much out-of-character discussion of his experiences out of Colbert, I want to direct you to the words and images of comedians who’ve recently come before him.

0_0_127353_01_100x150I first saw Jeffrey Ross’s film Patriot Act at the Just For Laughs festival in 2005, and it blew me away. While on a USO tour in Iraq, Ross took with him a simple camcorder, documenting the adventures of himself and a slate of comics including Drew Carey, Rocky LaPorte, and Larry Gelbart. It’s simultaneously gritty and touching, and absolutely worth a watch. http://www.jeffreyrosshomemovie.com

Danny Bevins isn’t a household name, but he’s high on my list of favourite comics who also happen to be my favourite people in general. Great guy, he is. In 2007, he released Comics on Duty: We Love You Mrs. Bevins, similar in style to Patriot Act but more personal. It can be purchased on Amazon or you may luck out at the store (I got mine at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, of all places).

Former Daily Show correspondent Rob Riggle, a member of the military himself (he’s still a reservist) also went to Iraq on a USO tour in 2007. He filmed a series of bits for the Daily Show while there, but he also did many interviews about the experience, my favourite of which is here: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=3509660&page=1

Louis CK recently went to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, and luckily for us he’s an incredibly prolific writer and photographer. His experiences are logged with great detail and passion on his blog. Visit the archives (http://www.louisck.net/archives.html) and scroll down to March of 2009 for the amazing multi-part account.

I’m incredibly drawn to all these stories, despite being a moderate pacifist and a non-American. The circumstances force all parties to face, head-on, the power of comedy and entertainment. It’s an emotional need, something that all entertainers should feel proud to provide no matter what the venue. Being half a world away from home seems to strip away all the toxicity of showbiz bullshit that gets heaped upon the simple act of making people laugh. All that’s left is the humanity of it, and the comedian’s experience of performing in a war zone consistently serves as a deeply stirring reminder of how important their job really is.

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About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

3 Responses to Punchlines on the Frontlines

  1. Bonnie says:

    It’s tough for me to feel grateful to the troops. I can’t figure out how to deal with the whole thing. I think they mean well and they’re trying to do good and they’re brave and they’re sacrificing everything and all that, but I mean… thanks for destroying Iraq and killing hundreds of thousands of human beings for George Bush and Dick Cheney’s delusions? What about that should I be grateful for? Glad people like Stephen can make them happy for a little while though.

  2. I understand what you mean, Bonnie. It’s hard to separate one’s feelings about the war from the empathy towards those fighting it. I just know that those soldiers answered a call to serve, and have gone through hell to do what they hope is the right thing. I imagine there are a hell of a lot of conflicted soldiers over there.

  3. David Kendall says:

    Comedy is a good tool to help us learn about those who are different than ourselves. I remember I saw a documentary once about Arab-American comedians. All of a sudden, after 9/11, their date books just exploded! (Bad choice of words?) Since that day, eveyrone wants to learn more about Muslims, and Muslim comedians tell us that in a non-threatening manner.

    Soldiers are another bunch of people who are misunderstood lately. Like Arabs, there are those that get all the media face time that are the bad apples that are far from what the military actually stands for (Airborne in Somalia, anyone?) and those who do serve their country for the right reasons and who don’t mistreat the people, are considerate to their host country, and yeah, who also think that Bush was completely bat-shit insane, are forgotten. Comics to the rescue to tell people that, again in a non-threatening manner.

    I’m sure there’s Christian comedians out there too who show that we all aren’t a bunch of Harper/Bush-lovin’ Bible thumpin’, James Dobson worshippin’ mysogynists, at least I hope so. The above examples show that whenever there’s a misunderstood group out there, comedy is there to debunk it in a non-threatening accessible manner.

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