Even in Iraq, touring comics manage to find new material
BAGHDAD — Even self-professed funny man Keith Alberstadt has his serious moments.
Like earlier this month, when a comedy performance at a Baghdad-area base ended with an hourslong mortar attack on the base. Alberstadt and his four fellow comedians — all members of Comics on Duty, a stand-up comedy troupe currently on tour in Iraq and Kuwait — scurried into a bunker and waited for calm to prevail.
Days later, in the gaudy comfort of Saddam Hussein’s former hunting lodge on Camp Victory, Alberstadt and his colleagues joked — lamely — about their close call.
“The terrorists were very nice about not interrupting the show,” said Alberstadt, 33, a Nashville, Tenn., native.
Such is the life of a roving comedian in Iraq: Onstage, the comedians elicit laughter and a flood of gratitude from soldiers. Offstage, chaos, uncertainty and the very unfunny realities of Iraq intrude.
The men say they shy away from discussing political issues when entertaining servicemembers.
“We don’t want to make this a soapbox,” Alberstadt said.
Instead, he said, he focuses inward.
“I have this one joke about my naiveté,” he said. “Like they told me, ‘You’re going to leave CONUS on this date,’ ” he said, referring to the acronym for “continental United States.”
“And I’m like, ‘Fine, how do I get to CONUS?’ ”
Another comedian, 45-year-old West Virginia native Tom Foss, said he directs his jabs at his home state.
“I come right out and say I’m happy to be here,” he said. “I’m from West Virginia. This is nice. My tent has lights in it. I don’t have to take the shotgun to the bathroom.”
Alberstadt also chooses to gnaw on that old chestnut: Army food.
“I love the food,” he said. “Because I’m a starving artist. I’d eat a gravel sandwich if it came for free.”
Fellow comic Dave Mishevitz, 33, of Ann Arbor, Mich., said he notes the absurdity of his surroundings.
“I wish my name was Hesco,” he said, referring to the manufacturer whose name is on the sand-filled barriers that seem to surround every structure on the camp. “That would be awesome.”
Alternately, he joked, he wouldn’t mind going into the gravel business.
“There couldn’t possibly be more gravel to walk on,” he said.
But all agree that the basic absurdity of Iraq is beyond any stand-up routine.
“We’re sitting in a bunker,” Alberstadt said. Mortars were flying. “And a guy comes by in full body armor, pokes his head in, says, ‘Hey, thanks for coming out.’
“I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”