COMICS ON DUTY in the Middle East!
Part I (Click here for Pt. II!)
STEVE MAZAN's detailed account of his Comics On Duty
tour of the Middle East! Doing comedy for the armed forces on the
other side of the world!
5/15/05-- The Ides of May, and we've been in the Mid-East for two days now. The flight over took 11 hours from LA to Frankfurt, Germany, and then another 5 to Kuwait.
There are four other comics on the tour with me, plus the show producer, Comics On Duty director, Rich Davis. The other comics are P.J. Walsh, Chris Alpine, Bob Perkell and Jeffery Steele. I am Steve Mazan.
P.J. Walsh is close to my age, early thirties, and we are easily the youngest comics on the tour. I've met P.J. before while he was featuring at the Brea Improv for Bill Engvall. He is Irish through and through, with pasty-white skin, and a sneaky grin that always makes him look like he's been drinking. P.J.'s comedy style could best be described as wild and physical. He uses every part of his body, and every part of the stage during his shows. Chris Alpine seems to be the most experienced of the bunch. He is in his 40's, I would guess, and has a lanky build and a gaunt face. He looks like one of those guys that is so healthy he looks sick. Chris has been doing comedy since the 80's and has done many overseas tours. His comedy is style could be described as smart-ass commentary, combined with a rubber face and voice.
Bob Perkell is a poor man's version of Bruce Willis. (Although, why anyone rich or poor would want to buy Bruce Willis is beyond me.) Bob not only resembles Bruce in the looks, but also in the likable charm department. He is one of those guys who can be alone in a room by himself and still be having fun. Bob is always smiling and laughing at something that probably happened a long time ago. Most of his comedy is based on his life with drugs and alcohol, and his rehabilitation.
The final comic is by his own description not a comedian at all. He is a magician. His name is Jeffery Steele and he is a basically a Jewish Sylvester Stallone. He's got a bodybuilder physique and a New York attitude to follow. Jeffery gets laughs through his card tricks and sleight-of-hand magic, but doesn't do any real pure standup.
We travelled to the Middle East for 23 days and over 30+ shows for our troops. What follows is a daily (or as close to it) log of those days and shows.
5/14 Kuwait City, Kuwait-- After a great night's sleep (for me, and no one else), we did a show in a rec room at Camp Ali Al Salem, outside Kuwait City, Kuwait. The show was scheduled for noon and the idea was that the troops would come on their lunch hour.
We arrived early to set up, and I noticed a cute Army girl playing pool all by herself, and decided to try some of my Mazan Charm on her. At this base, we comics are the only people not wearing camouflage, so we stand out as the entertainment. I was hoping this would help me. It did not. I approached and said to her, "Ya know it's easy to keep winning if you play by yourself." Not the best line ever, but an attempt at humor, and some attention from someone without a crew-cut. Her response makes my top-ten shuns of all-time. She paused to look at me and curl the corner of her mouth, and then quickly returned to her solo match. Sweeeet! Not even onstage yet and I was tanking.
We rotate spots, and I drew the hosting slot, which usually sucks.
However, these people are starved for entertainment. So the usual starting from scratch doesn't apply. With all the tension and stress these soldiers are under they are ready to laugh from the ge- go. I had a very good hosting set and the whole show went well. Well enough that the girl who rejected my advances earlier even came up with a friend afterward for an autograph. She was still not interested in flirting, but did enjoy the show.
I should say here that signing autographs and being treated like a rock-star after these shows is very common, even though none of us are celebrities. But imagine being halfway around the world from home, having one TV station, no alcohol, and a pool table or foosball table makes your Saturday night. Plus, everyone you see, day in and day out, is dressed the same, and in the same stressful war mode as you. Then, some entertainers come in. Any entertainers. They make you forget where you are for an hour or two. The appreciation is incredible. Much has been written about the healing power of laughter. After performing for the troops over the past year, I have my own theory: laughter may not actually heal anyone, but it sure does help people forget that they are hurting.
After the show we drive for about an hour on some "newly-paved-by-the- Americans" roads to another camp. There is literally nothing in between. Just sand and dirt. I expected to arrive at a hole in the sand with gigantic teeth-- a Luke Skywalker-type hazard. That, however, would have counted as scenery. It never came about. We did see a few herds of camels running by. The only thing to ever serve as a landmark was the next base itself. Camp Buehring.
Camp Buehring is in Udari, Kuwait, and is named after a soldier who gave his life over here. Upon arriving we were treated to a dinner of steak and lobster. Sounds like our troops don't have it too bad, huh? Not exactly. If this steak and lobster were to be served to you on a plate in a restaurant, you would punch the waiter. It looks terrible and tastes only a bit better. However, it is still steak and lobster. And sad to say, it is far and away better than the food served at most meals here. So we were very lucky to be there that night.
The show here was outdoors on a basketball court. The courts were filled with folding chairs, and chairs that the soldiers brought themselves. Our stage was the flatbed trailer of a semi-truck. Sounds awful, but still much better than many of the one-niters I've played back home. Come to think of it, on par with some of the clubs, too.
Being outdoors always adds a weird variable to comedy and the show took a while to get going. The crowd was tight on comedy early, and the magic didn't transfer outside well either. I had a good set in the middle spot, and P.J. and Chris closed strong.
We spent two hours riding back to the hotel and we were all very tired.
Everywhere we drive we're required to have two armed soldiers with us. Because of this, we have two vehicles and the comics are split up. I dozed in and out on the drive back and all of us immediately crashed from the long day as soon as we got back. It was after midnight when we got in and we had to be up by 6AM for our flight into Iraq.
5/15 Into IRAQ-- We woke up and had a quick breakfast before heading to the base for our flight. It was hard to leave the comfy bed at the Kuwaiti Radisson, knowing that was the last hotel bed we would see for a couple weeks. It'd be tents with cots from here on out.
I don't know why but we're required to be present for a military flight far in advance of departure. You end up checking in with a soldier or airman and then sitting around in a tent for a couple hours just waiting. Similar to regular flying I guess, but somewhat easier since there are fewer people to deal with than in a normal airport. In any case, we sit around doing nothing. As they say in the military, "Hurry Up, and Wait!"
The flight into Iraq is on a C-130 propeller airplane. They are big and loud.
C-130's are the transport planes you see on the news with the back hatch that drops out to disgorge jeeps, tanks and equipment. No seats on these planes, just cargo nets hanging along the sides and in the middle. You sit in the net and strap yourself to it. Surprisingly, they are not as uncomfortable as you would think. We're crammed in with 45 other soldiers, most of whom fall asleep on the two-hour flight to Balad, Iraq.
Upon landing, we're immediately handed flak jackets and helmets. It's no lei, but this is no Hawaii. These are required to be worn at all times outdoors, and inside whenever the base goes to "red alert," signaling a mortar attack. For the first time I start to realize how far I am from Los Angeles. Still, the soldiers hosting us seem casual and unafraid, so we try to act the same.
We are all still a bit tired from the flight so we nap upon checking into our big tent. It has ten bunk beds, and the beds have actual springs with mattresses and sheets-- no cots, yet. After my nap, I visit the gym which is an incredible facility. Our troops haven't even been here for a year but they already have a gym that rivals any I've ever belonged to back home. It's basically 24-hour fitness in a tent. Any piece of equipment you might need is in here. And it's air-conditioned (as are all the tents).
We are doing three shows in Badal, at Camp Anaconda. One tonight, and two tomorrow. The base has thousands of troops from all the branches of the service, so it is hoped that having three shows will give as many as possible the chance to see us. The shows are at the base theater, which, prior to the war was actually a theater often visited by Saddam Hussein himself. There is even an area in the balcony where Saddam used to have a personal couch. The floor seats 600 people and another 100 or so can watch from the the balcony. Strangely, it resembles the San Jose Improv without the great-looking waitstaff.
The first show is packed. People are standing in the aisles and looking in through the back doors. It's amazing. All the troops are required to have their weapons with them at all times, so it's a bit disconcerting to look out and see an audience all dressed the same, with M-16's at their side. "Tough crowd" takes on a whole new meaning.
No need to worry, though. Much like the first show these guys (and gals) are "on" right away. All of us have rock-star sets, and spend a half-hour after the show signing autographs, shaking hands, and taking pictures with the troops. It's always great to have a good set in front of so many people, but it's even more rewarding knowing what it means to these troops. At this camp, each branch of the service has its own recreation tent with pool tables, TV's, dartboards and a bar that serves non-alcoholic beer. Some Army guys tell us to stop by their tent, which sounds cool. What else is there to do in Iraq on a Saturday night? But then some cute Air Force women invite us to their rec tent. The Air Force has a reputation for having the cutest women, so our choice is an easy one.
We head to the AF rec tent, and have a couple N/A beers and play some foosball. That's about the excitement for the night. There are cute women there. Three of them. And 100 men trying to hit on them as well. The comedy has given us some celebrity, but not enough to overcome the several weeks' of flirting these men have as a headstart. We all decide to call it a night before the curled lips start showing themselves.
5/16 Anaconda Day 2-- We have two shows this day. One in the afternoon, and one in the evening. Both at the same theatre as last night. Most of us sleep-in or work out in the morning and then head to lunch.
For most of the meals at this base, the brass has arranged a special room for us to dine with about 20 or so pre-selected troops. I'm not sure if they won a contest, or if it was supposed to be a reward, but the idea is that they get to mingle with us and talk over dinner. It's a good opportunity for them to talk with someone from back home, and for us to get some insight to their lives here. Overall a great idea. However, not at this lunch.
We arrive and are directed into the room we have dined in before. But this time all the soldiers are a little older, and are all standing as we enter. We start taking off our vests and helmets and there is an uneasy quiet about the room. We start introducing ourselves and everyone is kind, but a bit weird. The looks on their face is a special kind of confused. It's the look that you give when someone knows you, but you are only pretending to remember them.
Eventually a highly ranked woman says, "Who the hell are you guys?" "We are the comics!" "Why the hell are you interrupting our ceremony?" As it turns out, this night we were NOT supposed to eat with any lucky soldiers. The room was being used for a very important meeting that we unknowingly, but confidently, crashed. Madcap hilarity. If it was still on the air, I'd sell the story to Three's Company. Really it was one of the most awkward experiences of my life. Of which I have many.
The afternoon show goes well, but is not the packed house we had the night before. There are even some soldiers who saw the show the night before and came again. I notice this and do a few different bits to make it worth their while. The show is fun, but in no way compares to the next show, which ends up being one not only one of the best comedy shows, but one of the greatest experiences in my life. We have dinner-with some soldiers who were expecting us-and then head to the 7pm show. The theatre is packed for our final show here. There are some return guests, but on a base that has over 15,000 people, we could do shows for a week and still not play to the same audience. Some of the troops that have been our escorts, tell us that everyone is in a great mood because since we arrived on base there have been no mortar attacks. The base was shelled a few hours before we arrived, but not since. This is quite a feat since the longest the base has ever gone without being mortared and going to "Red Alert" has been 48 hours. We have been here about 30hrs+ and many of the troops tell us they think we are good luck. Whatever the reason, it's great to be here during the quiet.
The show starts, and is rocking from beginning to end. All of us probably have the best shows of the tour so far. Rich, the tour producer videotapes parts of all our sets, but I wish I had brought a whole team of sound recorders. This show would have been great for CD material. Easily one of my top five sets ever. P.J. Walsh is closing the show tonight. After my set I go outside and around to the front of the theatre to watch P.J.'s set from the audience. I can't even get close to the doors on the floor level, because of the overflow of people. I go to the balcony and squeeze my way just inside the doors. P.J. is having a monster set, and the crowd is loving him. I half watch him, and half watch the men and women around me enjoying the show, and hopefully forgetting where they are. It's an amazing experience. I hear P.J. start going into his final bit, and decide I better head back down and around the building. The Base Commander is going to be calling us all onstage afterwards to present us with some certificates of appreciation, so I need to be backstage when P.J. finishes. As I walk around the building, in the darkness, I look up and can see more stars than I have ever seen before. They don't turn on lights at night. That way the enemy can't target anything specific. I pause for a second before entering the side door to take in the sky. My Zen moment is shattered by a loud whining siren.
I fly inside the door to see everyone scrambling around for their helmets and vests. P.J. comes running off stage, as he himself would describe later, "like a little bitch." It seemed more manly to me, but cowardice is in the eye of the beholder. The troops escorting us quickly clear us away from any windows, and make sure we have all our protective gear on. They tell us it was most likely an incoming mortar attack that prompted the alarm, which is a "Red Alert." A quick response team immediately tracks where it came from and they go off base to make "teach them a lesson." Until the "All Clear" signal is given, there is nothing to do but stay safe inside and wait. The troops in the audience aren't on the response team, so they are in the same boat. Just sitting and waiting. We decide we might as well keep entertaining them while we wait. The audience is now wearing full Kevlar vests and helmets, and they have their guns at the ready. But they are just sitting there patiently. When P.J. runs back out onstage with his vest and helmet on the place erupts. The applause is so loud that if another mortar went off right outside, we wouldn't have heard it. P.J. does about another ten minutes and then closes. The Base Commander takes the stage and calls us all out onstage for the ceremony. He says some very nice things about us coming over and risking our lives to perform for the troops, and then gives us each a certificate. When he is done, Rich, our producer, takes the microphone and thanks him and all the troops for us. He then tells them that we will be handing out patches and hanging out in front of the stage if anyone wants to come up. They can't go anywhere yet, so this will probably be a busy after-show.
Before we can leave the stage, someone yells, "More show!" Someone else yells, "Yeah, we can't go anywhere!" Rich looks to us, and all of us in a confused state nod okay. We all joke aloud that we have already run through all of our material. They laugh. It's not true. We all have more material. However, as any comic or performer knows, you deliver your best set possible. This being the case, although we all have at least 45 minutes of strong material, we have already done the 20 best minutes of it. There is a good chance delivering the leftovers will not go over well. It'll pale by comparison. Because of this, we are all slightly hesitant to grab the mic without thinking of what bits we haven't told and which will have the best chance of working. In our ten seconds of confusion, someone yells, "Do some improv!" Great idea, I think. I've done lots of improvisation. I've been a regular player with San Francisco's Bay Area Theatre Sports, and have played with a bunch of different groups. I quickly looked at the other guys and started to think it might not be such a great idea. Chris Alpine looked confident, P.J. nodded but his eyes didn't look confident, Bob and Jeff were a bit timid as well. We went ahead and attempted it.
Rich took a couple suggestions, and the first scene went straight to some gay sex act, as most bad, or even average improv does. It got a laugh, but not a great one. We tried another game where we answer an audience question one word at a time. I messed up the game by answering the question with the first word-- a technique that works if the game has been going on for a few minutes, but not right off. It got a big laugh, then a groan, and then a tinge of anger. The question was "When will we get out of here?" I answered, "Never." Again, it got a laugh. Then the moan and anger because I think they might have thought I meant they'd never leave Iraq. I was joking about the theatre. In any case it didn't go well. P.J. bailed on the game, and improv right then, deciding to just do some bits. I think we could have made it work, but that's always the comic mindset-- "I'll get them!" Probably best that we moved on. So we each sat down on the stage and took turns going up and doing jokes we hadn't done already. P.J. handing the mic to Bob to tell jokes, Bob to Chris, Chris to me, and me handing over to Jeff to do a magic trick each time around. When we didn't have the mic we would be sitting on the stage frantically trying to think of a great bit we still had in our pockets. If it was your turn and you didn't have anything, you could pass. It was awesome. Yeah, these guys had nowhere else to go, but it was still incredible. They were loving it. And we were having a blast flying by the seat of our pants. We were making fun of each other, and the soldiers, and they were eating it up. At one point, I had pulled out a bit I wasn't sure would work, and it killed. I handed the mic over and sat down, leaning back on my hands enjoying the success of the last bit. Then I looked up and really took the moment in. Here I was sitting on a stage in one of the most dangerous places on Earth, waiting out a "Red Alert" by telling jokes to some people who have been away from everything they are over here to protect. They were loving it. It was surreal. Here, someone had just shot a mortar round at this base, intended to harm these people, and we were all laughing our asses off. Literally laughing in the face of the fear and reality of what was happening around us. Unbelievable. After about thirty minutes the Commander waved to us and yelled that the alert was over. The whole audience moaned in disappointment. Sad that things were "all clear." Unfathomable. What an experience. We hung out and met what seemed to be every 800+ member of that audience. Shaking hands, sharing stories and taking pictures. We had done almost three hours worth of show, and another hour of meeting and greeting. All of us were juiced by the experience. I'll never forget the night and the feeling that came with it. I hope.
COMING SOON: Part II-- A ride in a Blackhawk, Birthday in Baghdad, a large explosion and When to detonate the F-bomb!