Can combat ever be funny? What about a knuckle-whitening firefight?
Given enough time and distance, it’s possible. Sometimes a budding veteran comedian can turn the scariest, most dangerous of moments into laughter, to say nothing of the minutiae of daily military life — that can be comedy gold.
And the laughter that follows can be, if not the best medicine, at the very least, a good release. That’s the idea behind the veterans’ Comedy Bootcamp. Sponsored by The College of William and Mary’s Center for Veterans Engagement, the free comedy classes brought eight veterans to the school’s Williamsburg, Virginia, campus this spring.
“It’s like therapy,” said former Capt. Isaura Ramirez, who has anxiety and depression so severe that she’s been hospitalized for it. “It is. Just being able to say things that are funny, things that I
wouldn’t be able to say otherwise, especially in the military.” Ramirez started out in the Puerto Rico National Guard, and became a transportation then logistics officer after going through ROTC in college. During her time in the Army, she helped train Iraqi soldiers in logistics as part of a 15-month deployment
The program is in no way designed to replace professional mental health services, stressed the Center for Veteran Engagement’s founder, William and Mary senior Sam Pressler, adding that the center has actually used its contacts to get veterans into treatment. The bootcamp followed other self-expression programs at the college, such as the Veterans Writing Project and music therapy.
“On a personal level, I had always used comedy to kind of cope with the challenges I was facing in life,” Pressler said. “I lost my uncle to suicide, and comedy was a way that I felt like I was able to take control of the situation in a sense. … It was a way that I could cope with it.” If it could help him, he figured, why not make it available to veterans, many of whom had been through things he could never even imagine?
Pressler teamed up with Ryan Goss, a comedian from the college’s Improvisational Theater troupe, and the two worked with a local comedy club owner to bring in two professional comedians to teach the free classes: Chris Coccia, who has appeared on Comedy Central and teaches classes at the DC Improv in Washington, and Tim Loulies, who’s performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and teaches at the Funny Bone Comedy Club in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The response from veterans from Virginia Beach to Richmond and beyond was so good that Pressler and Goss are planning to offer future bootcamps in both Williamsburg and D.C.
Both instructors have taught veterans in their regular classes and jumped at the chance to help give back. “I don’t have any military background, said Coccia, but “I thought this was such a great (idea). It’s not like job training, which is important, but it’s ‘welcome back and here’s a way you can kind of have fun and learn something.’ None of them knew each other before they were in the group, so it’s also a social thing. There’s something really important about being creative that I think helps.”
Former Maj. Henry Ramey agreed, adding that comedy also works with your intellect.
“I think that you have to be able to convey your thoughts and put them in a framework that’s appealing. You’re somewhat a presenter and a psychoanalyst at the same time,” Ramey said. “But I think what the advantages were to see others and their thought processes and how they present, how they relate. You can learn from other people and learn your mistakes.”
Ramey, a former medic and then a field artillery officer, served during the Cold War era. He also participates in the Veterans Writing Project, and signed up for the comedy classes so he could learn a new form of self-expression. He’s not planning to make standup a profession, but he figured an extra burst of creativity would help his poetry and short stories.
One of the first things he learned in class was to edit himself. Coccia said that during every class – even the first class – students got up and gave three- to five-minute monologues. He explained that most new comedians have trouble taking a long, meandering story and turning it into a joke with an identifiable punch line.
“I always say the joke starts, ‘A man walks into a bar.’ It’s not, ‘A man pulls up in his car, puts money in the meter, locks the door, walks down the street and then into the bar.’ We don’t need to know all that information. We just need to know a man walks into a bar. That gets us into a scene. … A lot of people, when they tell stories, they kind of want to give you too much of the color,” Coccia said. And that’s where the coaching comes in.
Coccia and Loulies worked with the veterans on timing, adding in dramatic pauses and other tricks. For example, a list of three things – two normal and one weird – is almost always funny, said Coccia. The instructors also assigned homework: Students were told to take things that happened to them during the week and try to incorporate them into their monologues.
Ramirez said the assignment changed her entire way of thinking. In the past couple of years, she and her husband have gotten out of the Army and had a child, and she has opened a frozen yogurt franchise, so it’s been stressful. Even though she said she was ready to get out, she’s struggled with the transition. “I miss it sometimes. It’s part of who you are. … There’s a lot of things that you have to figure out that the Army used to take care of. You don’t even realize all the things that the Army does for you. …And then having the business, having a toddler, finances — it’s been very, very hard.”
The comedy bootcamp has been a bright spot in her life. “It just gives me an outlet,” she explained. “I’m laughing all three hours, and just to vent. … Throughout the week, I’m always thinking, ‘I’m getting angry or I’m getting depressed,’ but at the same time, I have homework every day so I’m trying to find the funny in everything. … How is that funny? How can I turn this into part of my act? It really changes my way of thinking, whereas before, if something bad happened, it just reinforced that everything is bad with the world. I would get out of control, spiral deeper into my depression. Now, being in this comedy bootcamp, I just try to find the funny. It’s just more of a positive outlook.”
According to Loulies, the students focused their humor on their families, their hometowns, their relationships, and they threw in some self-deprecation as well. Ramey, for example, talked about all the trouble he used to get into in college, and about his divorce. Ramirez joked about being Puerto Rican and bad driving, and even the awkwardness of getting thanked for her service. In fact, by the graduation show at the end of the course, many of the veterans were confident enough to throw in bits about their military service, some, about those heart-stopping firefights.
“They owned their stories and they owned their time on stage,” said Coccia. “You can … take back a bad situation with comedy because it’s your story. You can tell it the way you want to tell it, and just by telling it yourself, you own it. Now you get to win that story. Even if you are the butt of the joke in the story, you still get to win it because you’re telling it and you’re getting the laughs for it.”
“You take your stresses, your experiences and your pain, your insecurities – comedy empowers you,” agreed Loulies. “With what the veterans have been through … I would see it more of a benefit to them than anyone else, to be able to take your past experiences or take the things you’ve been through and turn them into an empowerment to yourself by putting it out on stage and getting laughs. It’s the cheapest form of therapy you can find anywhere.”
Although Ramey served during the Cold War and never saw combat himself, he agreed that standup takes your mind off of the “doldrums” and puts you in a better place in life. Although he was happy to get a grade of “F” for the first time in his life (for funny), he doesn’t actually plan to do more comedy – he’s checked it off his bucket list – but it was a fun experience and he learned a lot about human nature.
For her part, now that Ramirez has followed her therapist’s advice and found something she loves doing, she doesn’t plan to stop, and is hoping to start appearing at local open mike nights.
“As a wounded veteran, it really has helped me with my depression and my anxiety, Ramirez said. “I don’t think it’s for everybody, but I do truly believe it can benefit a lot of people.”
Editor’s Note: The William and Mary Center for Veterans Engagement is planning to host another comedy bootcamp in Washington, D.C., and a second in Williamsburg. Check its Facebook page for updates. For more information on how comedy can benefit veterans, read “Still serving, one joke at a time.”