Comedy on the Front Lines
While entertaining U.S. troops, two L.A. comics see the war for themselves
By CARL KOZLOWSKI
It's been a long time since standup comic Butch Bradley bombed on stage. But since 9/11, when the staunch conservative was inspired to do his part in the "war on terror," he has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan on four different trips to perform for U.S. troops in some of the planet's most heavily bombed areas.
That same sense of comedic derring-do also served fellow comic Sarah Tiana well on her own recent trip to Iraq. A committed antiwar liberal before her journey, she wanted to see for herself just what the situation overseas actually was – and she returned with a new perspective.
Although both L.A.-based comedians traveled separately, with Tiana under the auspices of the organization Comics on Duty and Bradley with the USO and Dog Tag Comedy, they represent a new generation of wartime comics, artists who often put aside their own misgivings about the war to follow in the classic tradition of Bob Hope and the USO, providing American soldiers with laughter in dark times. While their backgrounds and careers have taken distinctly different paths, each has learned that, while war is indeed hell, entertaining the troops is a little slice of heaven.
"One base I performed at had been attacked the day before by 20 terrorists, and, though they killed them quickly, one soldier said he was under such duress that he realized during my show he hadn't laughed in months, and said how good it felt," Bradley recalls. "That's why you go. It's the first thing in my life I did that felt completely good. It's also a reality check. Freedom's not free; there's a cost, and these people know and respect freedom so much that they're over there trying to spread it."
Bradley grew up amid the casinos and comedy clubs of Atlantic City, watching masters like Don Rickles and Rodney Dangerfield from the time he was 11. He credits his "cool mom who worked in the casinos" with letting him get this early comedic education, and he never looked back while launching a performing career that's taken him to headlining status in Vegas and his hometown, numerous appearances on Comedy Central and CBS's The Late Late Show, as well as his overseas adventures.
Tiana, meanwhile, realized just three years ago that comedy was her calling, when friends told her to try it just as she was about to give up her dream of acting. She grew up in the small Southern town of Calhoun, Georgia, where people didn't start comedy careers but did join the military. Her innate curiosity about the world – coupled with the fact that many from her hometown were dodging bullets in a far-off desert –inspired her to sign up to make soldiers laugh.
"I would say I'm pretty liberal, but I don't believe in being partisan," says Tiana, a regular at the Improv and the Comedy Store who's also played colleges nationwide. "I just believe in my heart, and I wanted to go over there and see for myself, not to just be told what to think by either side. That's a big problem in this country: believing everything they read, taking everything they watch on the news at face value."
While Bradley and Tiana were both happy about bringing some relief to the troops, they faced plenty of hardships and frightening moments as well. Bradley notes that Iraq's existing infrastructure has allowed it to make many advances, despite the incessant fighting within its borders, yet he found that Afghanistan remains rife with risk. In fact, a Black Hawk helicopter he was on drew rocket fire that came so close he felt the heat when it passed by.
"I did a show at a base called Salerno, where many of the troops were spending their time assisting the victims of the Pakistani earthquake, but the base had still been attacked 46 times," he says. "At night, there's no lights on at all, because they're afraid of drawing enemy fire." When traveling between bases, he adds, they risked fire whether in the Black Hawks or vehicle convoys in which "being successful means that everyone made it through alive. You're taught to constantly look for cellphones that can set off insurgents' bombs, or for single-driver cars and motorcycles that can easily be suicide bombers."
Being female, Tiana believes she was so protected by her troop guards that she was often distracted from the dangers. While her worst moment came when "a rat peed on me while I was using a computer," she found that being a woman among thousands of men with long-term loneliness was memorable in its own way.
"I've never been asked to pose for so many pictures in my life, and so many of them wanted me to pose holding their guns," she recalls. "So many men said I reminded them of their wife or girlfriend, and so I went out of my way to really give them attention. I'd put on extra perfume, and I'd find they'd rub their shirts against it to keep that scent with them, but at the core I was treated with so much respect for having taken the risk of being there."
Thanks to their armed escorts, Bradley and Tiana were able to see life outside the bases' protective isolation. Along the main highway that U.S. contractors have built through Afghanistan, he started to notice signs of modern life never before seen in the desolate country – such as its first fully operational Exxon station. Now, one might be understandably cynical that Big Oil has already set up shop there, but other signs of progress are unquestionably impressive.
"One of the greatest things is going into Kabul and seeing that women are free to work and wear real clothes of their own choice, instead of being forced to wear burqas and being beaten if they want to act on their own," says Bradley. "That kind of radical society they had with the Taliban was just a masculine society controlling women and children, and using the Koran to get what they want."
Tiana's most powerful experience of the Iraqis' newfound freedoms was being able to visit the ziggurat that stands on the site where it's believed that Abraham – a religious leader jointly respected in the Koran, the Torah, and the Bible – was born. Under Saddam Hussein's rule, all visitors outside of the dictator's inner circle were blocked from going there, but now it hosts thousands of pilgrims a day. She also saw the lush vegetation that returned to regions of Iraq after coalition forces knocked down dams Hussein had created along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to prevent opposing Muslim factions' basic access to water.
"I've always hated war and the concept of fighting and violence," she says, "but when you go there and see it yourself, you realize that there is real progress being made. Besides, right or wrong, the decisions have been made to be there, and our troops have to be supported, like family. You always support family."