Comedic Catharsis: Alumnus leads ‘troupe of troops’ in using comedy to help vets, active military
Finding comedy in a horrific situation is hard for most people. But Buffalo State alumnus and retired Army staff sergeant Thom Tran has figured out the secret to finding the funny.
Four days into his deployment to Iraq, he got shot in the back of the head during a firefight near Al Nasiriyah and was medically released from the Army. That started off a series of events that led to where he is now — on stage all over the world, touring with two other GIs while doing his part to help his military brethren.
Tran’s been in his fair share of both scary and ridiculous situations. Now, years removed from them, he can look back and laugh at the less dignified parts of being in the military.
“I s— my pants once during a firefight,” he said. “How is that not funny?”
He believes comedy entails two things: tragedy, plus time.
“You take a s—– situation, let time run its course, and then you find the humor in it,” he said.
And in the aftermath of what has been a major undertaking — setting up and shooting a television special on Nov. 2 that will potentially be aired on Comedy Central on the Fourth of July next year — Tran is hoping others can appreciate the humor that the GIs of Comedy provide.
Upon his retirement, Tran found himself struggling with post-traumatic stress, and he wasn’t alone. In fact, he was one of tens of thousands, something he said the doctors back stateside were unprepared for.
“They were like, ‘We don’t know what to do with all of you.’ So it was ‘Here’s some drugs,’” he said. “I didn’t like them at all. I tried them once, to get the doctors off my back, but… it (wasn’t) making me feel better. It was actually making me feel worse.”
So he looked for a different method of catharsis. He tried music. Then alcohol. Nothing worked. And then he tried something he’d been in love with since the age of 6: Comedy.
Tran’s comedy career had unofficially started at Buffalo State, in a voice and diction class he took to help strengthen his radio career. His professor, Gerry Trentham, allowed him to write five minutes of material in lieu of his original final project (reciting a scene from a famous film in his own voice) — “and it took the entire semester,” he added — and he did well. Then it was a show in Hamburg, in a comedy club inside a hotel on Southwestern Boulevard, where he did “okay,” before he got the call that he was headed to Iraq.
Once he got home, he finished his degree and started working at a comedy club in Buffalo owned by a former friend. There, he began working on his material, and realized that comedy was doing more for him than anything else ever had.
“It became therapeutic for me to make people laugh, and hear them laugh,” he said.
He moved to LA in 2008, and it was there, while doing a benefit for USO, that he realized there has never been a troupe of comics who had also been veterans. That got the ball rolling. Then he found Tom Irwin, another Buffalo native and Army veteran, at another USO benefit, and Jose Sarduy, born in Cuba, raised in the States and currently in the Air Force, at a show in LA.
“I went to Los Angeles and started planting seeds about two years before I moved there,” Sarduy said. “And then I finally moved there, and within six months (Tran) saw me performing, and he heard my military jokes, and he was like, ‘I have a great idea!’ and I was like, ‘That’s a great idea, let’s do it!’
“That was amazing, the opportunities you get in L.A., and that’s why I moved there.”
From there, the GIs of Comedy were born.
The GIs started touring in 2010, and after their first show, a friend of Tran’s named Robert Ben Garant — the creator of Reno 911! and writer of the Night at the Museum screenplays — approached him with praise and a proposal.
“He said, ‘Hey, book another show. I’m going to bring my friends from Comedy Central,’” Tran said. “I’m like, sure you are, so we book a show, and his friends from Comedy Central are there. And they loved us.”
So he’s like, ‘I’m going to get you a meeting with Comedy Central,’ and I’m like, Sure you are. Two weeks later, I’m in a meeting with Comedy Central.” The idea was simple: create a TV special for Comedy Central, both to be aired and made into a DVD to send overseas. Tran had planned to shoot the special in Afghanistan last year, along the lines of the Bob Hope USO specials.
But as he put it, “Hollywood people, it turns out, don’t like getting shot at, and there’s a lot of that going on in Afghanistan, don’t know if you know.”
That, on top of the political climate in Washington in late 2011 to early 2012, made the plan unfeasible, so the troupe looked for other options. At that point, Tran was set to be the commencement speaker at Buffalo State, and in his conversations with then-President Aaron Podolefsky, he mentioned the project, setting it off into a whole new direction — producing and shooting it on campus.
And in about a year, the plan became a reality.
What made this project unlike most of its kind, other than being shot on a college campus, was that it was also produced by a group of students from the communication department at Buffalo State.
“Once we settled on the school being the location, I talked to the broadcasting department, like ‘wouldn’t it be a fantastic idea if…’ and then the seeds just got planted, like ‘how can we do this,’” Tran said. “As a grad of the broadcasting department, I know the caliber of the students, of the professors, of the school’s equipment and the people who run it. So I was like, ‘This is a no-brainer. We’re here, let’s help them and help us.’”
Professor Paul DeWald, who had taught Tran at Buffalo State, led a group of about 17 students as part of his Advanced Television Productions Practicum in working on the special. 9-Ball Productions, a studio in California, brought in a crew to work alongside the students as well.
Early on, both DeWald and Tran made it clear that everyone needed to be extremely focused, for obvious reasons.
“What started off as ‘we’ll do this routine, it’ll be in Rockwell … kind of limited,’ turned into this major network production,” DeWald said. “I was enthused about this, because I need for students to start to see the different pads and levels of expectations. This production turned out to have pretty high expectations.”
Despite the pressure, the students stuck it out, putting in 12-hour days the week of and crewing the entire production, with 9-Ball playing the support role.
“It kind of took over everything,” said Gina Marinelli, the project’s site producer. She spoke with Tran via phone multiple times a day before the fact, and kept everything in order throughout the project. Looking back, she values the unique experience.
“I definitely think it’s one of the greatest opportunities that Buffalo State had to offer,” she added.
The GIs were more than happy to provide the students with an opportunity to work behind the scenes of a major production.
“We wanted the kids to know that they could become this,” Irwin said, pointing at Tran, who deadpanned. “A tired, cranky Asian man.”
The camaraderie of the troupe is obvious, as are the differences in their comedic style. Tran is sarcastic and “larger than life,” according to Sarduy; Irwin is the “token white guy” who rants about technology; and Sarduy is likeable and animated on stage — as he puts it, “the guy at the bar telling stories to his friends,” which are as much about the Air Force as they are about his upbringing in a Latino family.
The one thing linking them together is their experience in the military, which is something Sarduy wishes more comedic vets would play up in their routines.
“It’s a very unique thing, especially for me and the Toms, is that we tell jokes that we wrote for our time that we were there, because it was part of our lives,” he said. “I always wanted to be in that band, where you talk about your life, and who you are.”
The troupe hopes that, through this special and by telling stories about their experiences that make people laugh, they can reach a broader audience and make a bigger change.
“Our shows benefit the veterans community, so the better we do, the better we do for the vets,” Irwin said.
“We’ve had many a night where we’ve driven places — not a lot of money, 16 hours between gigs, driving in a car with four dudes… we’ve done that for two years, and what we’d like to accomplish is to get to a different platform, where we might get a full-size SUV instead of a mid-size.”