Comedians often travel to America’s numerous war zones to entertain the troops. But with this event at SOhO Thursday night the script has been flipped, as three vets with stand-up chops provide an evening of laughs to the civilians, and all for a good cause.
“Our mission and goal is to take care as many of our troops as possible by making them laugh,” says former Staff Sergeant Thom Tran, the executive producer and lead comic of The GIs of Comedy. He along with Jose Sarduy and Tom Irwin intend to make audiences laugh while benefiting the Soldier’s Project. This charity provides free mental health counseling to veterans.
“I never had any aspirations to be a stand-up comic,” Tran says. “I think I did it once in college before I left (for duty). Literally a couple of weeks before I left …They called up and said guess what? You’re going to Iraq. It killed the mood, as they say.”
Four days into his tour in Iraq, April 3, 2003, his squad encountered a firefight as they did a recon of a city. Tran was wounded in the back of the head.
“I had a pretty nasty dry cleaning bill,” he says. Tran got four stitches and insisted on staying and finishing his tour. Just before he was set to return home his friend and fellow soldier was killed. That started Tran’s “downward spiral.”
“I was at such a miserable point in my life after my combat tour,” he says. “I needed something that wasn’t therapy, that wasn’t doctors, that wasn’t medication, to help me achieve some kind of normal.”
Tran had gone back to work at a radio station in Buffalo, New York, and a co-worker asked him to host a station-sponsored comedy night. Then a few weeks later he started writing his own jokes and then prepped a five minute set. Then fifteen minutes. Before he knew it, he was on the road getting paid to tell jokes. “It was a bit of a shock, and it still is.”
In 2008 he moved to Los Angeles. “I had this plan that if I couldn’t be on the line with my soldiers, I could still take care of them.” He began to tour with the USO and entertain troops; he also played numerous benefits that put him into contact with many other vets who were also stand-ups. And although there are vets who are comics — Drew Carey and Paul Rodriguez for example — there was no touring group that was specifically made up of vets. Until 2010, that is, when Tran put his idea into action and teamed up with Jose Sarduy and Tom Irwin.
“We’re as diverse as the military,” Tran says. “Sarduy is a Cuban immigrant and an Air Force reservist. And Tom Irwin was in the military during peace time, so his experience is very different from mine. Tom’s a married man with kids; Sarduy is the perpetual bachelor. I am engaged and trying to balance my personal and professional life. What binds us is that we served.”
As many a vet will admit, the humor tends toward the dark and gallows end of the spectrum. It’s one way of dealing with the stress and horrors of combat. On the other hand, “A fart joke’s a fart joke whether you’re farting in Los Angeles or in Afghanistan.”
Tran admits that while its a laughing matter on stage, his daily struggle with PTSD is not funny.
“Our military is really great at preparing our soldiers and marines and our airmen and our sailors for war. But we suck when it comes to dealing with the issues that come with being really good at war. Nobody tells you that when you come back you’ll never be able to enjoy July 4th. I sit and crank up Ozzy Osbourne and play Angry Birds until the fireworks stop … I’ve been home for 10 years and the only thing that keeps me from (having a really bad day) is this stand-up comedy.”
GIs of Comedy — A Benefit for the Soldier’s Project
When: 8:00 p.m. Thursday
Where: SOhO, 1221 State St.
Information: 962-7776, www.sohosb.com