For war vets, getting laughs at comedy camp could be best medicine
WASHINGTON — Michael Garvey has about 2 1/2 minutes of material, and it's rough. It's also heartfelt – and angry. He opens with a joke about being from a Catholic family, "raised off fairy tales and bullsh--." After all, his mother needed something to keep all her kids in line.
Garvey's voice shakes just a touch, but maybe it's only nerves. It's his first time in front of his stand-up comedy class filled with fellow vets. He has taken the stage alone. His service dog, Liberty, is present, but Garvey has left him out of the set he is fleshing out.
Retired from the Marines after just under eight years as a combat engineer that included tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Garvey has, by his own reckoning, grown into a "distrusting and cynical" adult. He wears a dark red T-shirt reading "Suicide Watch," with two stick figures on it. One stands on a chair with a noose around his neck. The other sits in profile, staring at the first, a bucket of popcorn on his lap.
Checking his notes, Garvey rattles through a list of holidays, dismantling the seemingly innocuous stories behind them: The Easter Bunny teaches children to take candy from strangers. Thanksgiving and Columbus Day are for "celebrating rape and genocide." Even the stoner feast day of April 20, which Garvey says you'd figure would be his favorite, is revealed to coincide with Hitler's birthday.
Then there's a perfectly clear-eyed take on the Fourth of July. It was his favorite holiday, he says, because as a kid he loved blowing stuff up, an enthusiasm that eased the way to a military career. But he doesn't see it that way anymore.
Garvey isn't talking about post-traumatic stress disorder in his set, not yet, but in the room, when he mentions fireworks, it's understood.
"Now all I can think about is how it's just a war reenactment up in the sky," he says. "And I don't think anyone really understands that, except my nephews, who have the headphones and sit in the corner with me and the dog, enjoying it from the glass, from a distance."
Nobody laughed at that part.
It's a brave and curious thing to put yourself onstage and say, The war broke something inside of me, and I don't know if it will ever be fixed, and then wait for a laugh – and hope somehow that helps you adjust to civilian life. But that's the idea behind Comedy Bootcamp, a free course for veterans offered by the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), a fledgling nonprofit organization. After six weekly classes, Garvey and nine other students will perform five-minute sets of original material at a graduation benefit show at the Arts Club of Washington.
On this pleasant Sunday in October, Garvey, a thin, scruffy-bearded 28-year-old, has driven from his home in Annapolis, Maryland, to a nondescript room at Georgetown University for the third week of the class. The Arts Club show is a month off. He and the other vets have a long way to go.
Chris Coccia, a comedy pro from outside Philadelphia, is going to help them get there. In a business known for self-destructive types, he's more apples and CrossFit than hookers and blow. And his material isn't edgy. He tells jokes about the traffic on Interstate 95 and the crappy service he gets from AT&T. But he knows how to roll with the crowd. Don't ask them questions. Tell them questions, he advises his students. When you're skilled enough, no one notices the difference. Really good stand-up is like magic that way. It's a sleight of mind so deft that no one suspects they've been tricked.
The room has notes for Garvey. Clifton Hoffler, an avuncular man whose own set features the wisecracks of his grandkids, points out that the nephews with the headphones could be introduced a sentence or two earlier.
"I can't figure out how to make it funny yet," Garvey says.
"Or even try," he adds softly.
The room bats around the idea that civilians could use more surprise in their Independence Day celebrations. Sam Pressler, a slim, confident guy who founded ASAP last year as a spin-off of the William and Mary Center for Veterans Engagement, pipes up: "So one year I started to fire mortar shells at my neighbors or something, like, so they'd understand."
"Just randomly at night, not on the Fourth of July," adds Mike King, a big, bald Army Reservist from outside Boston, who also has PTSD.
"That other thing [that] was going around," King continues, "was those guys with the stupid signs, like, 'A veteran lives here. Don't set off fireworks.' And that, like, really pissed me off," he says.
"Yeah, me too," Garvey says.
"It's like, f--- you," King continues. "Go celebrate Fourth of July. That's why we went to war, you know?"
Another classmate brings up the stoner-day bit. "I'd play up the weed angle, too," says Navy vet John Dorling, originally from Sarasota, Florida. "Because I don't think most people are going to be expecting a veteran who, uh, partakes."
"It's prescription, man," King goofs.
"It started that way," says Garvey, in all earnestness. "My doctor told me to smoke, and I didn't believe him. I thought it was a trick, because I was trying to get retirement at the time" and needed to pass a drug test.
But the doctor explained so long as Garvey had a prescription, it was okay. Everyone in the class agrees he should use the fine line between therapeutic and recreational pot smoking in the set.
"Do you have to get the generic version?" asks Margot Beausey, a Deloitte consultant who used to be in the Navy and is quick to see comic fodder in practical considerations. "Is your co-pay less than a dime bag?"
Garvey says doctors later suggested he switch to morphine or another narcotic – which he rejected – to treat his chronic pain. More than four years after he was shot, more than three years after his last surgery, his jangled nerves won't let him forget it.
"Ooh, I love morphine," coos Ama Lopez, like a teenager fawning over a matinee idol, breaking everybody up.
"Narcotics Anonymous is across the hall," quips King, who stopped drinking about six months ago.
"I had it, like, twice, and the doctor asked me, 'How are you feeling?' " Lopez dreamily continues. "The hand of God just rubbed my ..."
The room explodes, drowning out precisely where the hand of God had paused.
"Write it down, write it down, write it down," says Coccia.
The theory that creating comedy helps veterans heal and readjust to civilian life is relatively new and largely untested. There has been some research on it, enough to convince Pressler that it was worth a try. The D.C. Comedy Bootcamp is his second. The first was at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. To get a better sense of the healing powers of comedy, I head to a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall near the college to see two of its graduates perform.
Neither Melissa Errett nor Isaura Ramirez does a set that dwells on her military experience. Errett's is largely about the physical indignities of aging: undesirable facial hair, sudden incontinence, shelf butt giving way to "mantel a--." "I'm a comedian who just happens to be a veteran," she explains before the show.
Ramirez – who organized the evening's lineup, called "Left, Right, Laugh" – has a lot of material about being Puerto Rican. She also has a killer joke about how buying hair extensions on some sketchy website makes her sound like a pedophile: "I'll take an Indian, 14 to 16, and definitely virgin."
You'd never know it from her set, but she's 80 percent disabled, with fibromyalgia, depression and anxiety, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder that didn't show up until she was in Iraq. There was no one precipitating event. She learned the mind is poorly equipped for the experience of unrelenting fear. Fifteen months of being in "a constant state of alert" left Ramirez anxious and afraid, often expecting the worst. Low-probability calamities loom large in her imagination: "People are going to break into my house or I'm going to get into a car accident or I'm going to be in some place and a fight is going to break out."
But in front of a mic she is at ease and in charge. "I don't know if I am strong enough to be able to joke about some of the things – up there onstage," she explains. "It's something I would like to do. I just haven't done it yet."
The headliner, Vernard Hines, is more of a believer in comedy's ability to shepherd you through adversity, so long as you're willing to talk about what grieves you. Though not a Comedy Bootcamp grad, Hines did a couple of tours in Iraq and spent time in the Green Zone, getting shelled on a regular basis. Coming home took adjusting. "If you've got a disability, just know your limitations," he says. "You know, people tell you you can do certain things. No, you can't! Okay? I don't like stress, I don't like kids, and I can't have a gun."
He also can't stand it when PTSD is cited as an excuse for reckless behavior: "I'm certified PTSD. Not one time have I ever wanted to jump the White House fence," he says. "That man had menopause."
Hines bills himself as the "Laugh Therapist" because "it is a natural rush to be able to talk about my illness and talk about some of the things I'm battling with, instead of keeping them inside. Because every time I go to do comedy, somebody always comes and says, 'Yo, man, I'm battling that PTSD thing, too.' Or a family member will be like, 'I really understand him now.' That's my release, like, giving back."
By the last day of class, Garvey has grown accustomed to talking about getting shot. He got hit twice, and his body armor caught one of the bullets – on its way out. For someone who spent his days "swinging a metal detector, looking for a bomb," it was an ironic exit from the battlefield. Then came Germany and morphine, and as his body healed, his mind began to come undone.
"You're just going about your business, then one day your body says, 'Hey, I'm bored. Let's create a chemical imbalance and kick this sh– up a notch,' " he says. He finds the condition baffling. "It's like, imagine an abusive husband claiming to have battered women syndrome. Which is hard to wrap your unraveling mind around."
He talks about his dog now. Everyone has been waiting for this. Since Day 1, Liberty has been a genial presence in the class. He accompanies his master into the room, his vest is unstrapped and he goes free-range, his good vibes available to everyone. It's easy to see how Liberty, a black labrador retriever, could alleviate the anxiety Garvey feels in public. He is large and warm and sleek. His coat is mesmerizing. You could stare at it for days.
"I don't want people to think that our dogs are on the same level," Garvey says. "Mine's better."
He scoffs at people who call their pound dogs "rescues," when he had to get his from a New York prison, where Liberty had been part of a program called Puppies Behind Bars. "I had to tunnel my guy out of max security, like El Chapo Guzmán," Garvey cracks.
He also does jokes about people who interfere with Liberty while he's working or misunderstand the dog's purpose altogether. "What's the dog's disability?" is a frequent query. "Did the dog really fight in both of those wars?" asks a woman at Jiffy Lube. Five minutes later, she identifies herself as a psychic and tells Garvey, a high school dropout, that he'll go on to write books, something he finds unlikely.
The theme running through Garvey's jokes about his dog, in fact through the jokes of each one of the comics who address PTSD head-on, is that his wartime experience has marked him and set him apart. I ask Garvey if perhaps the seriousness of his injury could be dissuading some of his classmates from talking about their own military experiences.
"Sometimes it seems like people, if they hear something that's more military-y than what they have, they don't want to say it, because it feels inferior," he explains. He has seen himself have a similar reaction. "When I meet Special Forces people, I take a little step back, too. Like, this guy, he knows it all – what am I going to say?"
This kind of distance is a peculiar thing to be working through via stand-up comedy. Stand-up is predicated on relatability. Whether you're Jerry Seinfeld musing on the absurdity of giving someone the finger or Amy Schumer confessing to being New York pretty but Miami ugly, the whole point is to bring the audience along, to make them feel what you feel. Even severe illness isn't off-limits. When Richard Pryor detailed the insidious allure of freebasing or Tig Notaro marveled at the Job-like trials of receiving a cancer diagnosis hard on the heels of her mother's death, their audiences made those journeys with them.
The best stand-up is also about selfrevelation. You can't really hide when you do it. As Coccia says, there are no fact-checkers in comedy. But that doesn't mean you're free to make yourself up out of whole cloth. Your persona is expected to be an extension of who you are. As an authentic stand-up, you make up your best, or at least your funniest, version of yourself. And then you invite the judgment of a crowd of strangers. And you invite them to register their approval through a mechanism that is largely involuntary: laughter.
But the injuries of war open a chasm between the sufferer and everyone around them, even between the sufferer and the self. As Hines observes: "We're trying to get people to understand us, because they're used to us being who we were. We're not that person anymore."
The theater at the Arts Club is intimate and old-fashioned, with oak flooring and a proscenium scalloped with butterscotch swags. The jewel-box scale suggests it could host a family-manse musicale in a Wes Anderson film.
Half an hour before showtime, Garvey still hasn't decided whether Liberty will be joining him. He's concerned the dog could be a distraction. Garvey has on a sweater reading "God Bless America" that looks like Old Glory got run through a shredder then taped back together. One suspects underneath the garishness, the sentiment is genuine. It jibes with the mind-set of a patriotic guy who chafes at authority, who the week before had explained: "I liked the Marine Corps; I never went full-in Marine. I have five Marine Corps tattoos, and that's the only tattoos I have, but I never took it completely seriously."
When Garvey steps in front of the lights, Liberty is by his side and proves to be only a slight distraction, with the "Awww"s from the seats more than making up for any restlessness. Garvey's jokes are killing: The fine line between medicinal and recreational smoking, Liberty's canine superiority, El Chapo, the Jiffy Lube psychic with the career advice for "the jarhead pothead who draws pictures on his college essays."
Garvey has toned up his line about people asking how Liberty was injured. "I don't understand what kind of a--hole people think that I must be to drag a disabled dog around," he says.
Afterward, he seems relieved and a little surprised at how quickly the time went, the set streaming past him in a blur until suddenly there he was, safely at the end.
I next catch up with Garvey right after New Year's, in the den of the Annapolis home he shares with his parents and his wife, Leonora, who recently quit her job as an insurance agent and went back to school for her business degree, hoping to one day work for a nonprofit. She tells me later that she's "in love" with Comedy Bootcamp, crediting it with giving Michael the push he needed to pursue something he'd always be interested in.
Season three of "Maron" is cued up on the TV, and an aquarium containing a turtle the size of a silver-dollar pancake burbles soothingly nearby. Garvey and I sink back into comfy overstuffed sofas. We drink our coffee black.
"I just have trouble making myself happy," he says. "All my old interests" – bowling, paintball, cards, movies – "don't interest me anymore." It's harder for him to get into the music of 311, a reggae/punk/metal band he had followed religiously since high school.
About six months ago, concerned he was becoming dependent, Garvey came off all his prescribed medications for both nerve pain and behavioral health. He had discussed it with his doctors, but they didn't seem to be in a hurry to change anything.
He researched it online, then, without telling anyone, not even his family, Garvey went cold turkey. It's not a path he recommends. He wound up on the treadmill, screaming at the walls.
Later in the week is his first open mic. He'll bring along a friend from the Marines but nobody from Comedy Bootcamp. He's worried about how it'll go.
Garvey has been encouraged in his writing by his professor at Anne Arundel Community College, where he's taking classes, and he's been working on it steadily.
"I do most of my writing in the morning, because it's when I'm most miserable," he explains. "That's when I come up with the most creative ideas."
But he hasn't been performing. "I just need to do it more," he says. "I'm really nervous about this open mic ... I will not have sat through a class for six weeks preparing it."
He's unsure of his new material, all of it a work in progress. "I just keep writing. I'm like, I wonder if this'll work, I wonder if this'll work, I wonder if this'll work," he says. "You gotta say it eventually."