For a moment, just a fraction of a second, the crowd took a collective inhale, unsure whether to laugh, groan or storm down the stairs and out of the German restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, when John Burton told a whopper of a 9/11 joke Sunday night to kick off his set.
That moment hung -- an unpracticed comic's worst nightmare. But Burton, seemingly expecting the reaction, gave a 'Come on, really?' smirk and flipped the joke into a double entendre about the end of the Afghan war, landing a one-two punch straight to the audience's gut and forcing them to exhale into a burst of laughter with some shocked "oohhs" thrown in. Had anyone else told it, it might have flopped.
Burton, an Army veteran, was one of seven comics that night who had the background to take aim at some of those topics with authenticity and earnest candor. It was the anniversary of 9/11, the Global War on Terror was fading, and everyone in the little bar in Virginia, veteran or not, was there to laugh. And laugh they did.
Wicked Comedy, a stand-up group founded and run by two Massachusetts-based veterans, arranged an all-veteran lineup for the evening. No topic was off limits. In fact, the somber date seemed to fuel the comedy; #neverforgettolaugh, some of the group's promotionals read. No crowd member was safe from the frontal assault of the dialed-in routines that not only touched on military and veteran topics, but really anything.
"It's a voice where we never really had a voice before," Payton Warner, a Marine veteran and one of the founders of Wicked Comedy, told Military.com as patrons ascended the stairs perhaps unwittingly into the comedy kill zone. "Politicians usually speak for us. … This is an opportunity for the people who actually did it to actually go out and say, 'This is how I feel about X, Y and Z. This is stupid, and here's why."
Comics who hailed from almost every branch of service flicked, squeezed and outright ruptured every raw nerve the country had exposed over the last two decades. The crowd -- a mix of veterans in on some of the more service-specific jokes and civilians who may not be -- laughed and laughed hard.
"I think the reason is -- and not to sound at all cocky or overconfident -- but we've kind of earned the right to express ourselves about the things that have happened," said Vinny Lombardi, a 26-year Air Force veteran and co-founder of Wicked Comedy. "Why? Because we're the ones that went."
Laughing Wicked Hard, Finding Community
Five months before patrons flooded the little German bar, Lombardi and Warner were marching down busy King Street, the heart of brick- and cobblestone-laden Alexandria, handing out cards for Wicked Comedy.
Physically, Lombardi and Warner couldn't be more different: Lombardi is roughly two heads taller than Warner, who playfully joked on set about her experience as a gay Marine. And while Lombardi had two decades of service on Warner, both left the service relatively recently, both are from Massachusetts (hence the reference to the word Wicked), and both were looking for ways to pad their transition out of the military and into civilian life.
Both founders, and many of the veterans in the lineup, were acolytes of the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), a nonprofit organization that offers veterans classes in the arts -- acting, storytelling, writing, improv and, of course, stand-up comedy.
"So comedy is a weird thing; in fact, it's very cliquish and it's sometimes really hard to break into," said Dewayne White, the headliner, a 23-year Army veteran and instructor for ASAP's comedy courses. "An open mic can crush your soul. … But the one thing that I love about ASAP and the whole veteran comedy community in general is when you go and you first start out -- you're nervous, you don't know anybody -- but when you walk in, you have a friendly face."
Several veterans at the event told Military.com about the burgeoning veteran comedy community in Washington, D.C., and how the camaraderie during and after the show rivaled even the tightest of fire teams or smoke pits.
"It's a community that I didn't know existed," said Demi Chang, a comic and Marine veteran. "They'll have like an all-Asian show and an all-female show … and I feel like, even though I've struggled with my identity, whenever you meet other veterans, it doesn't matter what branch you're from, or what rank you are -- officer or enlisted -- you have a common thread."
On Sunday, the comics teased each other during transitions between sets and slammed other branches, jokingly referencing stereotypes about the "gay Navy" and dumb Marines.
But often, and sometimes in the same breath, those stereotypes were torn down or given a new perspective. And at the very least, perception of those topics -- from branch quirks to serious topics about suicide or post-traumatic stress -- were given the kind of knowing and raw treatment that reflected the life experience of the comics on stage.
Can You Joke About 9/11 and the Afghan Withdrawal? Sure.
Like many veterans who joined the military before 9/11, Lombardi, who enlisted in the '90s as a cook ("serving and serving," he said), felt that once the Twin Towers fell, his service had irrevocably changed.
"It brought us together as a country," he said, "but also as service members … so I think people will receive it better from us versus a civilian up there," adding that law enforcement and first responders might have a similar effect.
That isn't to say that Wicked Comedy doesn't fold in talent without military service or connection, but when Lombardi and Warner realized that the event would be on 9/11, they decided that the show had to be all veterans.
"It was kind of happenstance, but I think we want to honor it with an all-veteran lineup and have some positive emotion on an obviously tragic day in history," Lombardi said.
"The only people that are going to make it funny, or at least make it more comfortable for the people that are in the audience, are probably veterans," Warner added.
Topics ranged from hot items like the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and abortion to whimsical references to xenophobic deer and the best ways to avoid toxic shock syndrome from overripe menstrual products.
And yes, the veteran and war jokes flowed plentifully. The exit from Kabul was brought up along with dark references to 9/11, veteran suicide, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Department of Veterans Affairs wait times and improvised explosive devices. None of the comics were Navy veterans, which was good -- they might have cried at the number of cracks about sailors.
While some jokes received gasps and groans, no joke bombed outright. There was always a laugh, whether it was the whole room or just some veterans who were in on the joke. And it worked, because beneath the darkness and the ribbing, the jokes were made in good faith and good humor. They were genuine.
"Nothing's off limits, as long as it's funny," said Mike Connell, a Marine veteran who told Military.com that he joined stand-up because it's cheaper than drugs and the VA doesn't answer phones as quickly as you can go to an open mic. "I'm sure you heard a couple of veterans suicide jokes, but that's the way I honor my buddies who did commit suicide."
Many of the comics told Military.com that stand-up acts as a type of therapy for them, especially in ways that pick up the slack from traditional institutions.
Personal issues were deftly worked into jokes -- failed marriages, racism in the ranks, tough deployments and missing out on the "normality" of civilian life when the military took precedence. But some veteran comics warned others to use the stage as a supplement, not a solution.
"We always say in ASAP, 'it's not therapy, but it's therapeutic," White told Military.com after the show. "Therapy is a real, necessary thing that most of us, if not all of us, need, and this is not a substitute for it."
ASAP's own research supports the therapeutic aspect of art for veterans, acknowledging that, while recent data points may be skimpy, art therapy interventions have helped reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries. A majority of veteran participants reported "enhanced self-esteem and confidence" and 14% reported a decrease in stress overall.
And their data also indicates that veteran art performances give insight into the military and veteran population, with over half of surveyed civilians reporting a changed perception of the demographic as a result of attending a performance.
"[It's] just to show a side of us that isn't necessarily a uniform," Lombardi said. "We have a personality. You see a Marine go up there and just floor you with jokes, your impression changes a little bit."
"We're not just a number on the back of a card," Warner added.
Wicked Comedy holds an open mic night for comics, veteran or not, looking to test out new material every Monday at 7 p.m. at the German bar, Village Brauhaus, on King Street in Alexandria. The group also partnered with Honor Brewing Kitchen -- a veteran-run brewery that will sling beers while comics sling jokes every Wednesday at 7 p.m. at their Fairfax, Virginia, location.
"We're here. … Come do some time on our stage," Lombardi said. "It's a very welcoming environment."
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.