‘Comedy saved my life’ — Veterans are turning to stand up comedy after the military, with hilarious results
"I really had no idea what I was doing. I got one big laugh and that was it."
Dakoda Potter stepped onto the stage in the nearly empty Blackthorn Bar in downtown Joplin, Missouri. For the past three years, the Army infantry veteran attended open mics like this one in Joplin and throughout the Midwest. This comedic rite of passage is where Potter goes to try new material and hone established punchlines.
“It’s where you really find out if you have a good premise or not,” Potter said.
Like most Sunday open mics, the audience was small and made up of mostly comics. Potter seemed unfazed as he paced along the small stage with ease and an air of comfort.
“So you can imagine the amount of shit I got with the last name Potter,” he started. “J.K. Rowling ruined my childhood using only a pen and a napkin. I thought I heard it all growing up but I learned quickly the Army takes bullying to a whole new level. They’d say, ‘let’s go Hufflepuff,’ when I’d fall behind on runs.”
His set was well-timed and punctuated with laughter, though he’ll be the first to tell you, that hasn’t always been the case.
“I bombed a lot when I first started,” he said. “That’s kind of how you figure things out as a new comic. Everything is funny in your mind but on stage you learn what is and isn’t funny when you say it.”
Potter has grown accustomed to figuring things out through diversity. After transitioning out of the Army, he felt at odds in his hometown.
“I was unemployed, and it was driving me into a depression,” he recalled. He was forced to find something to do, something that would justify his leaving a steady paycheck, a feeling common amongst veterans.
Many feel a sense of alienation and isolation after transitioning out of the military as highlighted in Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe. “There’s something literally deadly about social isolation,” wrote the author and co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Restrepo” about a combat outpost in Afghanistan. That isolation, Junger posits, stems in part from a general disconnect between veterans and their civilian counterparts after the uniform comes off. Veterans struggle to find relatability within their communities, overcome negative generalizations, and find a sense of purpose.
That’s where laughter comes in.
“My wife took me to an open mic and told me I should try it,” said Potter, “I got one laugh and I was hooked.”
In a sense, there is a community built around that which is funny, said Dr. Robert Provine, a neuroscientist and laugh expert.
“The necessary stimulus for laughter is not a joke, but another person,” he said. Think of the laugh track used in sitcoms or how laughter seems to build after a joke is told; the joke is only a catalyst while the fuel for laughter is the laughter from those around you.
There’s an implicit connection between a joke teller, an individual listener, and the audience as a whole, Provine said.
Perhaps that’s why open mics and comedy clubs have started to see more veterans take the stage: there’s a personal connection between veterans and those who never served. Though the topics may be military in nature, they can be relatable when told in the right way.
“I started out doing zero military jokes,” Potter said, “but eventually I realized if I can make those who have never served laugh about things that happened while I was in, I can bridge that gap a little.”
Veterans leaving the military go from a “sense of the greater good” and a community built around camaraderie and trust to a “civilian world [that] feels alien,” Junger suggests. Comedy, it seems, provides a replacement for a veteran’s former life.
In some ways, that is why Jay Jackson, an Army Reservist and stand-up comedian in Little Rock, is looking to further develop the comedy scene in his hometown.
Discharged from active duty in 2007 under the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that prohibited gays from serving, Jackson has been performing stand-up since 2012. On a night out, he and his friends went to the Looney Bin open mic where several drinks — and a dare from his friends —gave Jackson the courage to take the stage.
“When you’ve been drinking,” he recalled, “everything seems like a good idea. But I like telling stories, so I just got on stage and told some true stories and babbled on for a bit. I really had no idea what I was doing. I got one big laugh and that was it.”
Jackson has since performed throughout Little Rock and was asked to tour with the Veterans of Comedy, a group that performs at Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts across the country.
“I’m gay and out of the closet so most people know that about me,” Jackson said at the Laughing Skull in Atlanta. “What they often don’t realize is I’m black… apparently they think those cancel each other out.”
Jackson’s ultimate comedy goal: own and operate a comedy club in Little Rock.
“If I can get people on stage and bring them together,” he said, “that’s what I want to do. Opportunity is where you make it. There isn’t [a comedy club] here already? Fuck it, I’ll make it myself. I’d much rather build a community myself than ‘make it [big].’”
Some veterans hope that finding a community — or building one — can battle the downsides of social isolation. Studies showing higher rates of suicide and mental health issues among veterans in recent years, despite numerous veterans-oriented programs and nonprofits seeking to assist this vulnerable group, suggest the kinds of negative outcomes the post-service population faces, perhaps as a result of that isolation.
“Some people find a community in spin class or running,” said Monica Daly, an Army veteran and stand-up comedian, “but I like the community of comics.”
Daly, who is quickly finding a home in the Indianapolis comedy scene, began her comedy career with the non-profit organization Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) in Washington, D.C. “I really wanted a way to translate being funny to friends into being funny to strangers,” she said. Through ASAP, she found a way to do that and discovered something else: a unique group of comics, one comprised of veterans and active duty service members.
After Daly graduated and started to work out new material on her own, she began mentoring new comedians through ASAP and eventually became an instructor. “I kept working with ASAP,” she said, “because I was so grateful for what the [stand-up] class had given me.”
When Daly’s father, an Air Force veteran, passed away, comedy and her community helped her process the loss. “I knew comedy had messed me up when I was writing in jokes and applause breaks for his eulogy at Arlington National Cemetery,” Daly said.
As an instructor, her experiences helped her coach new ASAP students through raw and often emotional material. One such student was Marine Corps veteran Cristine Pedersen.
A former Marine linguist and current graduate student at Georgetown, Pedersen started comedy because, “life is absurd for everyone, especially as an enlisted woman in the country’s biggest fraternity.”
Though it plays a large role, community is only one part of the larger appeal of performing stand-up for many veterans. For comedians like Daly and Pedersen, the stage offers something more: being heard.
“I’ve been using humor to get people to listen to me for most of my life,” Daly said. “I found a voice in comedy. If you can make them laugh, you can make them listen.”
Laughter, in this regard, is especially helpful when confronting dark and uncomfortable topics, something Pedersen takes head-on in one of her more unsettling jokes: a risque photo of hers that was shared on the internet by one of her ex-boyfriends.
The first time she told the joke was at the DC Improv during an ASAP graduation show. Her five-minute set meandered through some of her dependable jokes about the Marine Corps and what her job truly entailed. The audience quickly warmed to her.
Then her body language changed. Her pace as she walked the stage increased slightly and her voice rose half an octave. Apprehension crept across her face under the hot stage lights.
She took a deep breath and then explained how she sent her boyfriend a photo, later broke up with him, and came to find out he shared it on the internet.
“If I’d known, I seriously would have invested in better lighting,” she tells the audience.
The punchline landed but a nervous energy accompanied the laughter. It’s the kind of joke you’re not sure if you should laugh at or bristle with unease.
Slowly, the laughter built, eventually turning into an applause break. Pedersen’s apprehension slowly melted as she continued her set.
“I’m fully aware [that joke] makes some men, particularly veterans, uncomfortable,” Pederson said. “To be frank, I’m glad it does. I want everyone to laugh, but if you’re uncomfortable, maybe you’ll take my story and reflect on it.”
But that material itself isn’t what keeps her performing — it’s the people she’s met.
“I’ve kept doing comedy because of the community it brought me,” Pederson said. There’s something awesome about freshly retired officers who spent their adult lives in uniform opening up to me (a former corporal) and being the most vulnerable version of themselves as they sort out who they are outside the military.”
Dewayne White, a former Army infantry major and one of the officers who opened up to Pederson, long dreamed of performing stand-up. He decided to try after retiring and telling his college-aged son to pursue his dreams no matter the paycheck.
“I saw a flyer for ASAP offering a stand-up class for veterans,” said White, who recalled thinking “‘This is an opportunity to prove to your kids that it’s never too late to follow your dreams.’”
The comedy community, and the ASAP community as a whole, gave White an epiphany of sorts during his second class with the non-profit.
After performing their practice set, “the instructor told us, ‘Thank you for sharing your art with us,’” White said. “That phrase stuck with me. I’m an artist when I do comedy. I can’t paint, draw, or play an instrument but I can tell jokes. It’s my art. It keeps me going.”
Like most comics, White was hooked after his first laugh.
“There is no better feeling than making someone laugh,” he said. “It just touches this special place when you know something you’ve been thinking about and working on for hours and hours and hours has made people laugh. It’s a drug.”
On stage, White pays tribute to his kids for helping him chase his dream. “I have a 19-year-old son, a 14-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old vasectomy,” he said during a comedy showcase at his local VFW. “I’ve read all the parenting books. They all said the same thing: ‘if you have a favorite, don’t let them know.’ But they know… it’s the vasectomy.”
As he continues to perfect his craft and come up with new jokes, White has come to appreciate his fellow comics, especially the veterans.
“Being in the veteran comedy community is nice because we all get it and we all support each other,” he said. “There are days when I have to pick up a friend and tell them they’re funny and the next week they’re saying the same thing to me. I’m honestly not sure how young comics do this without a supportive community.”
As the show in Missouri ended and the few bar patrons began to leave, Potter stayed behind with several of the other performers chatting about their sets and the reactions they received. The bartender poured a couple shots for the comics he deemed “best of the night.” Encouragements and critiques are exchanged as adrenaline and nerves are laughed off and chased away with liquor or beer.
New comics celebrate the triumph over their fears and anxieties, seasoned comics give tips and advice to make the former’s sets better.
Potter, clearly the most experienced comic in the room, sat relaxed, surrounded by his fellow comics. The smiles and laughter were unforced, the shared experience of being in the spotlight, completely exposed, and surviving manifests in palpable adrenaline.
Amongst the group sat a full-time artist, a bartender, a computer programmer, a writer, and the lone professional comic; no one uncomfortable or out of place.
After a few beers, Potter leaned over, his voice taking on a more serious tone and said, “it sounds cliche but comedy saved my life.”