Is Director Comic
by Jay S. Jacobs
If you think it’s a tough life being a road comic, imagine when the road is in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, every year hundreds of entertainers fly out into war zones, entering dangerous areas, staying in less than luxurious quarters, not getting paid for their time and their craft.
And they do it all for the troops. Happily.
It is a tradition that goes back to Bob Hope and the USO. American entertainers celebrate the troops who put their lives on the line for the United States by bringing a little of home, a little entertainment, a little levity into a place in which life is in constant danger.
Jordan Brady is pretty much a former standup comedian at this point in his career. He started out playing the clubs decades ago, but had transitioned out to become a film director long ago. At the dawn of the millennium he made four fictional films – Dill Scallion, The Third Wheel, American Girl and Waking Up in Reno. None of them really took off, though he worked with such future stars as Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Lauren Graham, Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Griffin. Then Brady settled in to a prolific and profitable career in filming commercials.
However, he never forgot his roots, and in 2010 he started working on the first of what has turned into a trilogy (so far!) of documentary films on the daily life of standup comedians – I Am Comic (2010), I Am Road Comic (2014) and now I Am Battle Comic. I Am Comic looked at life behind the scenes at standup comedians. I Am Road Comic looked more specifically at life on the road, comedians going from town to town playing at the local Chuckle Huts and Laugh Factories and other small-time gigs.
His latest film, I Am Battle Comic, takes another very specific look at comedians – now a group of comics playing at military bases in war zones around the world. The idea didn’t exactly occur to him so much as being an opportunity he could not resist. An old friend, comedian Don Barnhart, was a big fan of his films. Barnhart has been doing tours of war zones for decades now. Even though Brady had not performed as a comedian for years, Barnhart asked Brady to join in on his latest tour, emceeing the shows and capturing the experience on film. So, Brady joined Barnhart and fellow comedians Jeff Capri, Slade Ham, and Bob Kubota on the road to Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It turned into more than just a passion project,” Brady explained to me as we started to talk. “It’s hard for me to describe, but it definitely has changed me, opened my eyes.”
A year after his time spent in the war zones, I Am Battle Comic is ready for release. Brady told me a bit about the experience.
You started as a standup – and obviously still do that some – but now you are focused on your filmmaking. Was there any point that you started thinking of yourself as a film director rather than a standup, or has that just been a natural progression?
Someone told me that you’re not a director until you call yourself a director. Even then you need other people to recognize. It was a natural progression as I did television shows. When they hired [me as] a comedian to do a part, I started taking an interest in the behind the scenes. Then, I was so lucky, people just would say, “Hey, why don’t you direct this? Why don’t you take the crew and go run the story?” Particularly in the 90s, it was an easy transition. I was doing reality television before the reality boom. You have a crew and I had these great directors and producers. After a while, I did a story on the company that makes Port-o-Potties in Minneapolis. The producer of the show said, “Well, why don’t you just direct the piece? You know the shots to get. You know the talking points. You know how to interview the guy.” It evolved from that.
Your directing career has taken some interesting turns, too, because you started out directing small features with then little-known actors like Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Billy Bob Thornton, Lauren Graham, Charlize Theron…
Then you moved into documentary filmmaking. What was it like doing feature films?
Well, the sad truth is, Jay, if your feature film doesn’t hit it out of the park, after a while you don’t get asked to do new ones. The chore of getting a job as a feature film director [is] you have to develop a script. Is it going to get green lit? Is it going to get a release date? So, I started doing commercials, which have a very short life span for a director. I love that. It suits my ADHD really well.
Why do documentary films appeal to you as a filmmaker?
With the documentaries, I have complete control. This is my third one. I financed them all. I either co-edited, hired an editor, or the last one I edited myself. It’s like a creative sorbet. From doing commercials for ad agencies and clients, and after I did four narrative features – the most fun was the one I wrote, produced, and directed with investors. We did it indie. I just didn’t make it as a narrative feature film director, and the energy to go back there and do it was exhausting.
Your documentaries are interesting, because they are looking at the lives of comedians from the inside – from someone who knows and has lived the lifestyle. What do you feel you bring to the table as someone who has been a standup that a normal filmmaker would not necessarily get?
Man, that’s a great question. Well, Ken Burns makes great documentaries, and he was never in the Civil War.
True, he never played baseball, either…
Yeah, he never played baseball. So, it’s not a prerequisite. But as a comedian – like I Am Comic was my first documentary, that led to I Am Road Comic and I Am Battle Comic – I think I had the trust of the comedians. I knew the inside baseball talk. I knew the world to show it in a way that they trusted me. That’s why I got Louis CK, Sarah Silverman and Roseanne Barr in the first one, because they were like, “Okay, this guy is going to tell the story properly.” I mean, if I’m chucking modesty out, but some of them said that to me, “I’m so glad a person who lived on the road for so many years doing night clubs is telling this story.”
Your films about being a standup have been terrific, and you’ve sharpened the focus on each one – I Am Comic is broadly about the life of standups, I Am Road Comic is about life on tour, and now I Am Battle Comic is specifically about tours of war zones. Was the pinpointing of subjects something that was planned, or is it just how the ideas moved you?
I wish I was smart enough to say I planned it. What happened was, the first movie was meant to be broad. Examining the art, craft and occupational hazards of being a standup. Say the prop comics, or musical comics, or male or female, it didn’t matter. We were just comics. Like I am Spartacus. We are all the same. I Am Comic. Then, all these comedians would go, “Hey, do you want to do a guest set at my club?” “Do you want to work a weekend here?” And I was like, I’m a director now. I make commercials. I hadn’t done standup in 20 years. Then, finally, this guy booked me at a hell hole of a gig. What we call a hell gig. He goes, “Do you want to do this gig?” And I go, yeah. I was tired of saying no. I said yes, and that became I Am Road Comic.
How did you get involved in doing shows in war zones?
Don Barnhart, he’s in the movie, he’s been entertaining the troops since the 90s. He said, “Do you want to come to Afghanistan and Iraq and entertain the troops?” I said: well, you know my act, I don’t have an act. He said, “Well, you’ll work on it. You can figure it out. And you’ll document the story of what we do as battle comics.” So, I didn’t plan [it]…
Will there be more I Am Comic films coming down the line? What subject do you think will be next?
I thought about I Am Prop Comic, I Am Boat Comic. Everybody said, “Oh, you have to do I Am Open Mic Comic.” But, that would be terrible, Jay. If they are not good enough to pass open mic, why would they be interesting in a movie? I would love to do one of these two. I Am Boat Comic would be about cruise ships, but I need to find a cruise line that would let me show the behind the scenes. In my research, so far, they have been very protective. And I would love to do I Am Son of Comic, which would be about sons and daughters of comedians. Like, look at Ben Stiller. I mean, not standup, but Ben Stiller is hilarious, and he comes from comedy royalty. [His parents are comedians Jerry Stiller and the late Anne Meara.] Damon Wayans, Jr. is hilarious, and I don’t need to tell you who his father is. Let me ask you. Can I ask you a question?
What if I departed from the comedian world and did I Am Podiatrist?
(laughs) Well, I’m not sure a podiatrist would be the most interesting profession, but you never know. I have a bad history with podiatrists. In high school, I got a needle from a podiatrist right between my toes, and I’ve never felt such pain. I’ve not been a fan ever since.
Ooooh! Ooh, oh my gosh.
So maybe not that. What about I Am Improv Comic?
Okay, I Am Improv Comic is a genius idea. The problem is… I filmed one of the best improv groups. They started in Chicago, they are a staple in LA, called Beer Shark Mice. David Koechner, who you’ve seen as the sportscaster in the Anchorman movies, he is in the improv group, and a bunch of other guys you’ve seen on TV. And it won’t work. They told me. They go, “It won’t work.” I said, why not? “Because you had to be there.” You have to invest the time as an audience member to get the laughs. Every time someone has tried to film it, I mean except Whose Line Is It Anyway? [it doesn’t work].
I can see that. There was a great movie about improv comedians I saw last year called Don’t Think Twice. And while I loved the movie, the improv scenes didn’t really work as well on film.
I loved that movie. I went to a Q&A with some of the filmmakers. The year before that movie came out, I worked on different commercials with Keegan Michael Key [who is also in the film]. I asked him about it, and they went and rehearsed as an improv group before they shot the movie. A lot of the improv in the movie was scripted, because it feeds the narrative. There are plot points in the improv. So, it’s more faux-prov. But I loved that movie. It captured the spirit.
Don Barnhart has been doing these tours for 25 years now. How did he decide to approach you? Why did you feel his tour would make an intriguing film?
I’ve known Don since he used to work at the Improv. We did Evening at the Improv together. For the youngsters, that’s one of those shows, they had a brick wall and showed comedians. So, he’s always been a dear friend. Based on what we were talking about on the trust that comedians have, he knew I would tell the story that he thought needed to be told. Everyone knows about Bob Hope. I hope everyone knows how wonderful Robin Williams was, how generous he was with his time. And I think Drew Carey has done a bunch of tours. But there are rank-and-file comedians – no disrespect to Don, or Slade Ham, or the [other] guys I went over with – but they are not household names. Yet, these entertainers are still flying to remote parts of the world to bring a little piece of home to the troops. I think Don knew from the first two movies I’m not going to make fun of it, I’m not going to deliver a B-minus documentary.
The cool thing about I Am Battle Comic is that it gets together a group of very different guys – who are friends and yet have different comic styles and lifestyles – and have them working together for the greater good. And yet much of the life almost seems like camp, bunking together and dealing with each other when bigger things are going on around them. What is that feeling of camaraderie like? Normally road comics don’t deal with each other so much.
Right, if you’re on the road, if you’re the opening act, you probably see the headliner at night for 20 minutes before the show. If you’re the middle act, maybe you hang out with the local comedy group that you meet there. The local comics are usually really friendly and supportive. Or, you’re opening up for the headliner, so you spend a few hours at the mall. Here, we are getting fitted for flak jackets and bulletproof vests. (laughs) When I was traveling with the battle comics, the train had been bombed in Brussels [Belgium]. That part of the world was on high alert. We were then going to fly from Kuwait to Afghanistan, so it was a little tense. The only way to break that mood is through humor and camaraderie. I stayed in a little box of a barrack. Sometimes those guys go out and they stay in tents, on a cot. Or, they bunk up together.
What did you do?
You’re traveling every day. You’re not going to see a movie during the day. You are going to – like we show in the movie – the meet and greets. You’re shaking hands with the troops. You’re telling them stories. Maybe telling them some jokes. But you’re learning where they are from. Most comedians have traveled so much that if you say you’re from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I probably went to the Comedy Zone there. You are doing that, that one-on-one interaction with the men and women that serve. You’re with just two or three other people. You’re getting up at seven or eight to travel to a base. You’re going from unit to unit for six-seven hours, then you’re doing a show for two hours. You get to know someone.
Wayne Federman said that the film should be called In the Vicinity of Bravery, because you guys aren’t brave, the soldiers are. And while that is true, you are still in some of the most dangerous areas in the world. Were there any instances when the reality of war intruded, or you may have feared for yourself and your friends?
Yes. There was an attack one night on one of the bases. For a brief moment, there were sirens, there were what all happens when there is an attack. I felt well protected, but it was a little scary, as a civilian that’s never been attacked by IEDs, improvised explosive devices. Then, watching the news from a hotel in Kuwait, when we stayed at one of the plush places, you feel like: oh, the news here is more than Trump tweets and who got kicked off the game show. The Emir had bombed Syria. Inner fighting in Iraq. Different religious sanctions fighting. ISIS was on the news. And I’m talking BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, news organizations I couldn’t even pronounce. Flipping from channel to channel to channel, I saw that the villain of my documentary was the world events. That was the sense of danger, if that answers your question. There’s more going on outside the United States than we are probably aware of.
You guys make a point of avoiding politics, which I totally get – it’s about the soldiers, not the war. However, just as comedians in the era of Trump, when so much of the best comedy is political, is it ever hard to stick to that rule?
(laughs) A documentary takes, like a fine wine, it takes time to ferment. So, when I’m there in the spring of 2016, Jeff Capri – whose father is in the movie, Dick Capri, a legendary Catskills comedian, so for Son of Comic, there’s two stars right there – Jeff Capri was doing Trump jokes, but they were candidate Trump jokes. And they were killing. Some of them I took out, but I think there’s a couple in there.
Can I just tell you, I Am Battle Comic is a terrible name for a movie. I love In the Vicinity of Danger, because that sounds like a documentary title. But I was tied to the I Am Comic series. This is the Return of the Jedi of the trilogy. So, terrible name, but I think I’m stuck with it. If you have a better name, I’ll change it right now.
I’ll think on it. Maybe something will come to me by the end of the interview. Speaking of political humor, that can bite back. You have worked on at least one film with Kathy Griffin. While I personally didn’t find her picture funny, I am not sure she deserved the vilification she got – it was just a joke, even if it was a bad one. In a world where so many people get offended by things, do you find that comics must toe the line a lot more than they did when you started?
I think that comedians have to push the envelope a little further. I think you shouldn’t back down. The court jester was the only one in the King’s court that would tell the truth. Obviously, I’m not trying to diminish comedians, I’m trying to put them up on a pedestal. Bill Maher goes too far every now and then and says something stupid, but I would say 95% of the time it’s pretty good, biting comedy.
The funny thing about looking at the archival footage of old USO shows is that while a lot of the humor of, say… Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jr., or Joey Heatherton… does not exactly translate to the modern era, it is put over with a similar sense of love and loyalty to the troops. How does it feel to be part of that tradition?
It feels wonderful. It feels like I’m finally able to pay tribute to those that are volunteering to protect our freedom. To be able to give back a little bit. Before the film came out – it’s coming out now on DOD, digital and everything – I did a tour of seven cities. There’s an eighth screening coming up. We would just do one night. We do a Q&A. We pick a charity that helps military families. Vets, or even active duty, like Operation Gratitude sends Care packages all around the world to the men and women that serve. To be able to give back with the film, like physical dollars, has felt great. And to be able to tell the story feels great. What changed along the way, from just setting out to make a movie about comedians telling jokes, was hearing these sound bites that are in the film from the troops themselves. From the young soldier who said how there are people that are going a little stir crazy out here, and they might hurt themselves, but the laughter is going to give them a reset button. Or the Master Gunnery Sergeant that says, “This is at a time in our deployment, we are over halfway there, but this is a little taste of home.”
Yes, it is.
George Lopez, who is clearly one of the biggest names in the film, in his interview, he said, “It’s like a virtual reality trip back to the neighborhood. They can forget about being on alert 24/7. For those two hours, they can laugh and I can take them back to the food and different cultures and the neighborhood and the gangs they used to hang out with.” Not gangs, but you know, the friends you hang out with. It provides an escape. That feels so good, to have been a part of it as a comedian. The opening act, but… And as a filmmaker, to be able to tell that story. That was a long answer. I’m really sorry. That question really sparks something. It really hits my heart.
Robin Williams is pointed out as one of the greats of comedy and the tours. Obviously, he was a comic genius and left us way too soon. Do you have any special memories of him?
When I first moved to San Francisco, as a standup comedian, right as the first comedy boom was starting to swell in the 80s, Robin Williams would hang out in this club called The Holy City Zoo. He was already a star. I got to meet him there, and he was just quiet and reserved and humble. Then, years later in LA, I met him at a management company we shared and again, quiet, humble and unassuming. People told this story a million times. As soon as you would have more than three or four people in the room, he would explode into the charismatic performer that we all know. So, the archival footage that I put in the film, he does his trademark “Good morning, Vietnam!” wherever he is. Good morning, Kabul! You see these crowds erupt, and you watch him feed off of their energy.
I can imagine…
He was so well loved. One of the biggest names ever in comedy, going to a little makeshift stage to perform for the troops. Very giving of his time. Just watching the various [performances], it became repetitive to put too many clips of him in. So I didn’t, but I watched just show after show of him ad-libbing about the huge cafeteria he’s in. Or there’s a famous clip that I love – people should look online, you’ll love this – he’s in the middle of a show and the reveille starts (mimics a horn playing). So, the whole crowd stands up, turns its back on him and salutes the flag. He thought they were being attacked. He was like, “I’ve never had a whole crowd stand up and turn their back on me.” He does it in such a funny way. He was always in the moment.
Now that you’ve experienced this and immersed yourself in that world for the film, what are the hardest part of the tours of the war zones?
Oh, my gosh. Well, the hardest part is just that I was away from my wife and my kids. That was hard. Three-four weeks is a long time. But, then you think that the troops are deployed for a year. That shut me up about complaining about being gone. The other hard part was just… (laughs) this is going to sound funny, but the hardest part for me was just making sure that I got the laughs to start the show. I’m traveling with four comedians show do this night night, and I’m 22 years out. And I’m first, so I’ve got to go from zero to 35 miles an hour. I have to get the show started. I can BS my way through, do some crowd work, so that actually helped. I would write jokes about the base. But the pressure I put on myself, I was a one-man [film] crew with one camera. Sometimes I would use the camera that the base would use to film the show. I had sound gear. I knew the filmmaking. I knew the craft of filmmaking. I knew the story would present itself, but doing that standup comedy and getting some jokes that would really make them laugh, that was my biggest fear going over. More than getting killed.
What is the most rewarding part?
The most rewarding was, here I’m this no-name guy doing jokes, and after the show the troops line up. Men and women that I met during the day, that showed me how they wear the bomb suit, that showed me what they do in their unit to keep the helicopters ready, they are out at the show and lined up, saying, “Thank you for coming over.” You know what I really hope the film does? I want the military and active duty and their families, I want them to love this film, and so far, they have. But what I really hope is that civilians watch it and they get a peek behind the curtain of what daily life is out on the front lines. So, when they see somebody when they come home, we don’t have happen what happened with Vietnam. I think our culture embraces the veterans of all these gulf wars better. And I hate the war. I’ve protested against it. I don’t know why we’re there. But, we are there and the troops need our support and love.
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 8, 2017.
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