Veterans on mission to conquer comedy
By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: May 23, 2015
(Tribune News Service) — In March, a select group of former service members began preparing for a special assignment. Their former training would be useless. The Pentagon's biggest brains could not help.
These veterans were on a mission to be funny.
No, it was harder than that. They had to be comedians.
They had enrolled in the first-ever Comedy Boot Camp sponsored by the William and Mary Center for Veterans Engagement. The nonprofit center is a student-led organization allowing veterans to share experiences through creative and performing arts.
Veterans advocates at the College of William and Mary have worked with veterans when it comes to writing. But comedy? Seriously?
Over the course of seven classroom sessions, the veterans would try to laugh at life's challenges and get others to laugh with them. In the process, they would gain confidence and ease a few tensions, maybe learn something about themselves.
Week Eight was graduation. Deliver a polished stand-up routine at the Comedy Club of Williamsburg.
If everything went well, they would kill it.
They came to boot camp armed with plenty of material, from deployment to divorces, from getting old to getting dumped. They drew from the richness of experience that comes from serving Uncle Sam, and the adventure of moving into the civilian world.
The co-instructor was Tim Loulies, a professional comic who performs at the Virginia Beach Funny Bone. His credits include a clothed performance at the White Tail nudist resort in Suffolk — "They were naked. They wanted their comedy to be clean" — and firsthand experience at turning troubles into smiles.
Loulies grew up overweight, and the hard truth is a career as a horse jockey still isn't in his future. But he's having the last laugh. His weight loss followed by gain — really, it's a net loss — is a focal point of his routine. How many people can sympathize with the never-ending quest to be thin?
"People like to hear this stuff because they can relate to it," he said. "People understand what it is to be discriminated against or looked down upon for your problems. You take your pain and put it out there in a humorous way. If you can turn it into laughter, they can never tear you down again."
Beating the bullies
When it comes to being put down, Melissa Errett can relate.
Errett retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant after a 20-year career that took her around the U.S. and beyond. She now lives in Yorktown and works for Booz Allen Hamilton.
She entered the Comedy Boot Camp with some encouragement. People always told her she was funny and urged her to try stand-up.
But how she developed her sense of humor is no joke.
Errett was born with a cleft lip. Although not as severe as a cleft palate, it required multiple surgeries to correct. She underwent her first operation as a 6-week-old. Her eighth surgery was last January. Along the way, doctors removed a bone from her hip, drilled her a left nostril and used internal wires to hold things in place.
Today, there is little external evidence to suggest that Errett, now 47 and a mother of two, went through such an ordeal. But the memories remain. It started when Errett, the daughter of a minister who moved around the country, relocated from Colorado to Michigan and started the sixth grade.
"That's when I was introduced to how mean children can be," she said.
Three bullies in middle school kept calling her "flat face" and Beaker, after the character on "The Muppet Show." She responded by imitating the character and making fun of her face. It worked.
"I became the person everyone wanted to be around because I was funny," she said. "It was my armor. It was my way to protect myself from that."
Fast forward to 2005. Errett had been in the Air Force for 17 years, compiling experience as both a ground radar operator and instructor. She deployed to Balad Air Base from May to October of that year. Although she stayed inside the base, the rocket and mortar attacks wore on her nerves. She could not abandon her post.
"When the sirens went off, you had to stay and do your job and hope you didn't get hit," she said.
Some might grit their teeth and bear it. For Errett, it was a great time to crack a joke.
"If I'm gonna go out, I'm gonna go out laughing," she said. "I'm not gonna go out sucking my thumb in the corner."
It helped, although the deployment left a scar. Errett was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. She could not sleep because it was too quiet. At a Norfolk Tides baseball game that honored the military, she flinched at the fireworks. It reminded her of July Fourth in Balad, where the military touched off unexploded ordnance to celebrate.
But the PTSD didn't last. When it came time to develop her comedy routine, Errett did not pull from her military experience, nor did she resurrect those sixth-grade bullies. Instead, she pulled material from her family, relying on the same self-deprecating humor that got her through life.
Stretch marks. Going gray. Things kid say and do.
Kids can read and write from the moment of conception. So my eldest daughter, Erica, she recorded her time in my womb much like a prisoner in solitary confinement. She chronicled her time by grafitti-ing the walls. About halfway though my pregnancy . . . she started with the stretch marks. A blank canvas. She went at it. Shortly after I delivered, I got a call from Rand-McNally, they had me do some modeling for them.... I was able to do the state of Texas interstate system ...
Officer with an accent
Her classmate, retired Army Capt. Isaura Ramirez, took a different tack.
Ramirez spent 13 years in the Army. A native of Puerto Rico, she enlisted in the National Guard at 18 before entering ROTC and receiving her commission as a second lieutenant.
During her routine, she poked fun at spending 15 months in Iraq in 2008 and 2009 — "Now you know why the war took so long" — but in an earlier interview, she talked about the stress of command.
"It's very hard as a leader in the military — as a female. You talk to a female and they'll tell you that. If you're tough, you're too tough. If you're soft, you're too soft. I've never met a female in the military who's told me, 'I've found the balance.' You're labeled either-or. That's to use nice words."
And how was she labeled?
"Too tough," she said with a laugh.
For Ramirez, it meant putting up a wall no soldier could breach.
"I felt like a different person in the military," she said. "I have to be a really tough, mean person because otherwise they're going to walk all over me. Just having an accent, that made it so much harder. People automatically assume you can't communicate, or you're stupid. You really have to get past that."
Ramirez married in 2009, gave birth to a daughter in 2012 and retired from the Army last year. By then, her career had brought her to Fort Eustis in Newport News and Fort Lee near Petersburg. She's now 32, a resident of Williamsburg and owner of a small business.
But leaving the military wasn't easy. She suffered pain from fibromyalgia and was hospitalized for depression and anxiety.
"To me, it was the isolation," she said. "Being an officer, being a female officer, being a female Puerto Rican officer — I mean, it was really hard for me to find someone to relate to in the military."
Ramirez owns and operates the Zoyo frozen yogurt shop along College Drive in Suffolk. Her daughter accompanies her to work. The shop has been in business over a year, and while the winter was tough, she's looking forward to the summer.
Taking a break from business one day, she said, "This is my business. I finally feel like myself. You're talking to Isaura. You're not talking to Captain Ramirez."
That attitude continued through the class, up to the night of her performance.
"I'm just a totally different person now that I'm out (of the Army.) I can say what I want to say. It feels like a weight lifted up."
I know what you're thinking. Didn't she say she was from Puerto Rico? I am, but I'm here now. I don't care what happens to the rest of them. I'm with you. I don't want any more of them coming to the States. When I joined the military, who did you think I was trying to get away from? But it's hard, you know? I also just learned that I have an accent. ...
Chris Coccia, who co-instructed the Comedy Boot Camp, understands the transformation in Ramirez.
When done right, comedy "has a therapeutic element to it, a cathartic element," he said. "I talk about taking back the win."
Coccia lives in the Philadelphia area and performs at DC Improv. He also teaches comedy — co-instructor Loulies is a former student. Coccia said he tells stories onstage "that are not the most proud moments of my life. But I own that story. I'm the one who is getting the laughter. As horrible as that situation was, I get to win."
Not that it was easy. The five-minute time limit proved challenging for the students. Errett, a former Air Force instructor accustomed to spending extended time in front of a class, had to repeatedly hone down her story. But she made it.
Coccia could sympathize.
"I would rather do a 30-minute set than a five-minute set," he said. "What people don't see is the work that goes into building a joke."
People will come up to him after a show and say, "that was great. Did you just come up with that?"
"No," he deadpans. "I've been working on it for years."
Keeping the laughter alive
Sam Pressler just graduated from the College of William and Mary. He was a government major and a finance minor. If the college awarded a Ph.D. for helping veterans, he could have qualified.
Pressler served as president of the William and Mary Center for Veterans Engagement, an outgrowth of his work with former service members on the Veterans Writing Project two years ago. Ryan Goss, who graduates in 2016, is the center's director for comedy programming.
"The idea of doing comedy was Sam's brainchild," Goss said. "It filled in the gaps of expressive arts that the center offered."
The plan is for the comedy boot camps to continue, said Pressler. But he has an even bigger project in the works. He is forming a nonprofit called Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP).
The idea is to help veterans across the nation through arts-centered projects at other college campuses.
Colleges and universities have "tremendous arts resources," Pressler said, plus the facilities to accommodate classes and events. And thanks to the post-9/11 GI Bill, an increasing number of student veterans will be flocking to campus.
Pressler is a finalist for a fellowship from Echoing Green, an organization that recognizes innovative ideas to solve real-world problems, from advancing women's rights in Afghanistan to workforce development in Detroit.
As for the first comedy workshop, Pressler and Goss were pleased.
"You saw a change in mood" as the class progressed, Pressler said. "That was a unique thing for me to see."
Goss said they weren't sure how the comedy classes would turn out, having never tried it.
"But seeing the five-minute sets come together affirmed it was a success," he said.
(c)2015 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
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