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Comedy Bootcamp for veterans that was born in Hampton Roads eyes national expansion

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 20, 2015

WILLIAMSBURG — Bryan Banning takes the stage at a packed theater at the College of William & Mary, grabs the microphone off its stand and nervously begins his comedy routine with a warning.

“All right, all right. An enthusiastic and over-optimistic crowd,” he says to welcoming applause and a handful of chuckles. “By now, you probably already know there are no refunds.”

As he settles in, the crowd of about 130 begins to rally behind the Navy veteran; laughs mount as he describes making sandwiches at concerts on restroom baby-changing stations and his current state of employment.

“A lot of friends complain to me about how much they hate their jobs, but I try not to rub it in their face. Because I love my job. It’s got great benefits, flexible hours and very little stress,” he says, pausing to set up the punch line, just like he was taught. “Yes, I am unemployed.”

Banning was one of 10 amateur comedians standing up last week to riff on relationships, the pains of growing older, workplace issues and other mundane facets of life that can make a crowd roar with laughter when told just the right way.

Some jokes failed, but others kept the audience laughing long after the punch line.

The only thing this group of budding stand-up comics had in common was that they’re all military veterans. While there’s no shortage of programs across the country geared toward helping veterans adjust to life after war, this one – the Comedy Bootcamp – is certainly the funniest.

Veterans say performing comedy helps them face their fears and deal with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of the Comedy Bootcamp graduates say that instead of focusing on the negative, they’re learning to turn to humor to diffuse situations and look for material they could use at nightclubs.

The program of eight weekly classes got its start at William & Mary in the spring. Organizers believe it is the first of its kind in the country.

The free classes are taught with the assistance of professional comedians and are offered to veterans throughout Hampton Roads. Attendees learn everything from writing techniques to stage presence and are expected to perform a five-minute routine at the end.

After initial success, the boot camp’s organizers are looking to expand into other parts of the country with large veteran populations that lack similar services, such as Atlanta, San Antonio and Raleigh, N.C. A second Comedy Bootcamp already has launched at Georgetown University in Washington.

The Armed Services Arts Partnership plans to hone its comedy, writing and music in Hampton Roads and Washington over the next year and begin its first expansion in summer 2017.

While some graduates continue to pursue comedy professionally, others say simply getting up on stage without passing out can be a victory.

“If you can’t find your way back out of it, you go deeper into depression,” said Clifton Hoffler, a graduate who served in the Army in Iraq and saw friends killed.

“I believe a lot of times if you do things with a laugh, just to be able to take a moment and let that go for a little while, you’ll find yourself healing, getting yourself back to what my psychiatrist calls ‘the new normal.’

“Just one laugh, that one subject that makes you smile, takes you away from your moment of stress and makes all the difference in the world.”

Hoffler got one of his many laughs talking about the difference in sex when someone is 20 and after they turn 50.

“When I was 20, I could do Cirque du Soleil,” he said. “I could hang from the top, I could put my leg behind my back. I could do all that.

“So I got with my wife, I took a shower, I put on my good-smelling cologne and I got started. The song was playing and I was in the mood and all of a sudden I realized I have just as much flexibility as a two-by-four.”

The program’s syllabus includes homework and looks like any other college-level course. But this class isn’t for credit.

“We’re very clear right at the beginning of the class,” said Ryan Goss, a William & Mary senior who co-founded the Comedy Bootcamp. “We are not therapists, we’re not clinicians, we’re not providing therapy. What we’re providing is sort of a community of people who share something, in that they have served our country, and sort of an opportunity to practice this craft. And for everyone there is a sort of inherent therapeutic benefit of laughter, of being able to share perhaps a darker story in a comedic way.”

The first boot camp got its start after another student, Sam Pressler, approached Gross about using comedy to help veterans. Pressler already had worked with veterans in a writing program that many found therapeutic.

Pressler said the idea of using comedy really got its start while he was in high school, after his uncle committed suicide. He turned to comedy to help deal with the pain.

So after first getting involved with the writing program, Pressler decided to see if a different approach would help others.

“For writing, it definitely tends more toward the tragic,” said Pressler, who graduated in May and is now the executive director of the Washington-based Armed Services Arts Partnership that runs the boot camp. “Whereas comedy is kind of a way of shifting that paradigm from the tragic to the comic.”

Isaura Ramirez was in the Army for 13 years, including a 15-month stint as a logistics officer in Iraq. She said she felt isolated as the only female officer in her unit. And as a petite Puerto Rican woman, she said, she grew a reputation of being strict because she wanted her soldiers to take her seriously. But deep down, she knew she wasn’t herself.

Ramirez said that by the time she got back to the U.S., she was battling depression and anxiety. She no longer was the life of the party and avoided social events. She left the Army in 2014.

“I pretty much spent the entire time by myself, and it was very hard for me when I got back to get back to being able to call people back, and email. How do you relate to people again?” she asked.

When Ramirez’s husband saw a flier for the inaugural boot camp, he signed her up.

“My husband said that I’m much better to get along with right now,” she said. “You know, I had to sit down every day and think of funny things and positive things. So it helped change the outlook of life. Things that were happening to me that would make me angry, and now I’m like, you know what, that’s messed up what just happened, but this would be great material. So it really helped me.”

Ramirez now assists with the boot camp’s classes and says she tries to perform in Virginia Beach about once a week.

“Most of the days, I don’t want to leave the house, to be honest. But I’ve got to get in a good mood because I’ve got to go make people laugh.”

Marine veteran Scott Farley describes the class as life-saving. Farley said he has struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder since leaving the Marines in 2011. He had served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a sergeant in a transportation unit, where he said they frequently came across improvised explosive devices.

When he returned to Richmond, he said, he had difficulty getting his commercial driver’s license because he had trust issues with having someone else in his vehicle. He also had problems being in traffic, fearing that someone could be threatening him. He began to stay home more.

He graduated from the boot camp last week and said practicing comedy gave him a purpose again. He’s already performing routines at clubs in Hampton Roads and Washington.

“This was really not only life-changing because it’s getting me out there, but it’s also life-saving because it’s a battle, a struggle every day. Just redefining my purpose and all of that is a big help,” he said.

Like many people who take the class, Farley doesn’t focus much of his comedy on the military. He cracks jokes instead about marriage. A lot of jokes the veterans do make about the military focus on what a poor career choice it was, although they’re also proud of their service.

Another recent graduate was P.T. Bratton, an Air Force veteran who was a criminal investigator primarily focusing on sexual assaults. He’s now the pastor of The Life Centre church in Virginia Beach. He said he wants to rejoin the Air Force as a chaplain, and he already infuses his sermons with jokes, against the advice of his wife.

“My wife said, ‘I think you’re funny, but other people don’t think you’re funny,’ ” he said.

On the first day of class, Bratton took heart that at least he wasn’t alone.

“We all kind of sucked together, so that was good,” he said. “It was fun. … The teachers were great. The professional comedians were teaching us. We were learning so much and we had fun laughing at each other.”

Last week, the crowd showed its approval of the jokes of Bratton and the others by offering a little therapy of its own: laughter.

©2015 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com
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