Comedians have gone to combat zones for over 60 years to make the military laugh. Entertainers bring a slice of home overseas, and groups like the United Service Organizations and Armed Forces Entertainment arrange performances on American bases abroad. Many comedians say these sets are amongst the most rewarding they ever do. For service members, these shows remind them that people back home haven't forgotten they're gone, and appreciate what they do. Comedy shows abroad distract from the monotony of work and the ever-present danger of war.
American comedian and actor Tom Arnold went overseas with the USO in 2007. "Your whole job is to go there to, just for a moment or two, take the men and women's minds off of what they're doing. I was fortunate the times I've been that I've been crazy enough not to think about what they were doing until I got back because it's overwhelming," he said.
Arnold says that on the base in Afghanistan, he could hear bombs going off in nearby Kandahar. The USO and AFE must work closely with the military to arrange security for performers, both on and en route to each base. Arnold, who has a Jewish Star of David tattooed on his chest, says that the military also warned him about openly displaying the symbol.
"When we first got there our guard said, 'Yeah, that Star of David, keep that covered up, because if you're taken hostage you'll be the first one killed.' And I said, 'Well, there's four of us and one's a girl, so I wouldn't want her to be the first one killed, that would look horrible. And the last guy has to make the video and that doesn't go well, so I'll take my chances with the Star of David,'" he said.
Arnold says he only slept an hour a night on base and was, as he puts it, a little out of his mind. But not all comedians go into combat zones. Performers travel to US bases all over the world, including peaceful countries like Germany and Japan.
Wherever the performance, however, comedians receive instructions to avoid politics or excessively crude humor.
Bill Dawes, an American comic and actor, said he got in trouble with the USO for deciding to tell a dirty joke after realizing that the audience would enjoy it. "People, they were like high-fiving, and I said, 'wow'. And that was probably about five or six minutes in, and that was my first reference to anything that was sexual or dirty and they went nuts for that. And that's when I was like, 'Oh my God, that's what's going to work for this audience." I just knew it," he said.
The USO knows that comics won't always use clean humor, but it still asks comedians to try. Comedy, the group says, is the most universal form of entertainment they've provided since they began sending entertainers overseas during WWII. Not everyone likes the same music, or is a fan of the celebrity who makes a trip, but everyone, says the USO, likes to laugh. And making people laugh who might need it most, like the armed forces in Iraq, is one of the reasons Bill Dawes says he's a comic.
"It was after the show and there was a little girl and I was going to the latrine and I came back and she was like, 'Hey you, come here.' And she said, 'I saw the show last night.' Just like any other time you do a show. So I was like, 'Well how are you guys doing around here, what's the morale like?' And she said, 'Well, you know, it's a lot better now,' which I took to mean that something about the show helped people feel better about being there. That was pretty emotional," he said.
Private First Class Daniel Rogers, currently serving in Qatar, knows firsthand the effect of a comedy show on the atmosphere on base. He's seen several AFE-organized performances, including a comedy show this past January. "It breaks up the monotony, puts a smile on everyone's face. Everyone's laughing, we cannot stop talking about it," he said.
Rogers, a 22-year-old California native, says that sometimes being so far away from home makes feel cut off from the US. Seeing people come all the way to Qatar to make him laugh, he says, means a lot. "Some people out here, serving year tours, six months, are like, "No one cares, no one ever comes out to see us," and people kind of get that mindset. But when comedians, when they come in, it's like 'Wow, someone's actually acknowledging us, they're actually coming out, they're here to make us laugh, they're giving back to us,'" he said.
And, Rogers says, he can tell the comedians are having fun, too.