Laughter in a war zone


Yesterday Baghdad, tomorrow Kilkenny – for comedians who have tested their material in front of troops on active duty, the audiences at the Cat Laughs Festival, which opens today, can hold no fears. JAY RICHARDSONhears some of their stories

TOMMY TIERNAN and Doug Stanhope may have provoked controversy at the Cat Laughs Comedy Festival in recent times with their comments about, respectively, Madeleine McCann and Irish women. Generally, though, the relaxed atmosphere of the five-day festival in Kilkenny ensures that the world’s best comedians return year after year to appreciative crowds.

But not all audiences are predictable, nor is every situation conducive to laughter. Alonzo Bodden arrives in Ireland this weekend having just come home from playing to US troops at Camp Liberty in Iraq, to the north-east of Baghdad. Only three days after he left, on May 11th, Sgt John Michael Russell walked into a stress counselling centre on the base and shot dead five of his comrades.

“I can understand it,” reflects Bodden on the eve of his gigs this weekend at the Carlsberg Cat Laughs Comedy Festival. “It was the guy’s third tour. Just being there for a week, I could see the stress they were under. It’s absolutely tragic, but you could see how someone could snap in that environment. Although they try to make it as normal as possible, with television and fast-food outlets on the base, it’s still just really hot, dry and brown everywhere.”

The former Stealth bomber mechanic adds: “I have so much respect for the military and I know the pride they take in what they do, and their discipline. They’re still human though, and in stressful situations, sometimes people crack.”

Entertaining the troops is an established US tradition, a patriotic calling heeded by Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and the Marx Brothers during the second World War. Later, Vietnam movies, such as Apocalypse Now, popularised the image of hard-rocking bands and beautiful girls dancing for drunken, whooping marines. The reality is perhaps less gung-ho, but since the 1990s, Bodden has delivered a vital psychological release for personnel stationed in Kuwait, Israel, Panama, Jordan, Honduras, Cuba, Egypt, Spain, Turkey and Guam.

His compatriots Lewis Black and Kathleen Madigan, also appearing at this week’s Carlsberg Cat Laughs Festival, spent their winter in Iraq and Afghanistan sharing platforms with musician Kid Rock and champion cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Few comics have been as outspoken in their condemnation of the war in Iraq as the splenetic Black, but, as Bodden explains, “when Lew flies out, he acknowledges that the troops are just doing their job. Comedians tend to be on the progressive, liberal side. Even though most didn’t agree with George Bush or right-wing politics, there isn’t any negativity towards the troops. We have tremendous respect for them. These guys are wearing flak jackets in 120-degree heat and using porta-potties. Okay, so I guess that is kind of funny.”

IN COMEDY, of course, respect only extends so far. A few years ago I asked Irish stand-up Ed Byrne (who has featured in previous Cat Laughs) what sort of audience British squaddies were.

“Rough, it’s gotta be said,” he replied. “I told them they could heckle me all they wanted, because in a week they’d still be there, whereas I’d be back home with my 21-year-old girlfriend! There was a massive cheer and they were great after that.”

Bodden’s experience chimes with Byrne’s. “Yeah, they enjoy hearing about home and the things they don’t have access to,” he says. “Like women. And they love it when you pick on their superior officers.

“I’ve even had officers request we riff on them because their men aren’t allowed to talk back. They understand that they need to blow off a little steam sometimes.”

He maintains that every military gig is different, remembering a performance he gave in Germany at a party for 2,000 troops who had just left Iraq. “They were so drunk and rowdy you just couldn’t do material for them,” he says. “When they’ve been away a long time and had it tough, you can only try to yell louder than they do. But some of these bases in Iraq only have 50 people, so they’re always thrilled to see us. At one base, the commander told us: ‘We didn’t actually believe you guys were coming.’ ”

Rhod Gilbert, who returns to Kilkenny this year, has found that his exasperated stage persona adapts surprisingly well to theatres of war. The Welshman’s most popular routine, a rant about baggage-handlers that has been played more than 4.5 million times on YouTube, is easily turned into a tirade against the British Royal Air Force, which, it transpires, has a reputation for misplacing luggage to rival any airline’s. Moreover, Gilbert’s experience of Afghanistan has inspired one of his standout routines, in which he recalls fleeing to the desert to escape his oversexed girlfriend, before condemning the luckless Taliban to phone calls from his mother.

Yet he has also recalled being genuinely scared. A couple of years ago he told a newspaper about how, as his group was moving by Land Rover through Iraq, “suddenly our communications went down, the whole convoy stopped, all the army personnel got out, knelt on the ground and faced outwards like some Zulu thing, protecting me and my fellow comics. I later found out that a roadside device had gone off behind us.”

BODDEN STRESSESthat “they’re not going to take you any place where it’s really dangerous. If there’s a firefight or bombing, they just cancel the show. The last thing they need is a bunch of comics getting in the way. Though I can think of a few comics I’d happily use as a human shield.”

As the host of a television show called 101 Cars You Must Driveand an avowed petrol-head, Bodden laughs recalling how he stunned Stealth pilots in Kuwait with his classified knowledge of the plane.

“I knew about it before they did,” he says. “It’s great though – every now and then we’ll be on a remote base, we’ll have some time and they’ll let us play with their toys. My first time driving a Hummer was on a base in Honduras and they just said: ‘Go ahead. You can’t break it. Go anywhere!’ They haven’t let me blow anything up yet though, no grenade-launchers so far.”

Intriguingly, he’s also had a close-up view of the interior-design tastes of a tyrant. During the Camp Liberty trip, he stayed at Saddam Hussein’s former guest house, now converted into a hotel.

“They gave us a tour,” he says. “Saddam had foreign contractors build it because he didn’t want the Iraqis to know what he had. A lot of it looks impressive but it really isn’t, and the stained-glass windows are just decals.

“Saddam was constantly pressuring the contractors to finish. They knew he was crazy and he might shoot them, so they just slapped everything together as quickly as possible.”

  • Alonzo Bodde, Rhod Gilbert, Kathleen Madigan and Lewis Black – and nearly 60 other comics – appear at the Carlsberg Cat Laughs Comedy Festival in Kilkenny this bank holiday weekend;

Watch what you say: why Christians, kids and corporate types can be tricky audiences too

A practising Anglican, Milton Jonesoccasionally performs stand-up for his fellow Christians.

“Christians are either the best or worst audiences,” he says. “The worst, because by definition there’s a real cross-section of people of all age groups, so you can come a bit unstuck. The other downside is that the acoustics in a church can be terrible. That’s fine if you’re singing a hymn, but if you’re trying to get a roll of laughter going it’s quite difficult. And often people will look at the vicar before laughing, just to check it’s okay.

“On the plus side, they’re often so starved of comedy that the laugh is far bigger than the joke. Once they realise that the vicar hasn’t made a booking error and I won’t start shouting and swearing, they’re so desperate for something to release the tension that anything signposted as ‘this will be funny, you will enjoy it’ goes down extremely well.

“I went to a very Blues Brother-y sort of church once, very ‘hallelujah!’, and said to them: ‘Christians need to get away from religious cliches. Amen?’ And the whole room came back with ‘Amen . . . whoops!’ You couldnt do stuff like that in a comedy club, though I tend to think whatever I do should be accessible, to those both inside and out. Churches should exist for everyone, and as soon as you start doing material only members understand, it becomes self-defeating.

“That said, I’m not doing any church gigs this year because I don’t want to promote an unhealthy subculture. I’m a Christian comedian with a small ‘c’ and not seeking to preach in any way.”

David O’Dohertyrecently finished touring his kids’ show, I Can't Sleep, with fellow comedian Maeve Higgins. He also writes children’s books.

“Kids are an honest audience,” he says. “I freely admit that the first few times we did our show in schools around Ireland, we got killed. If you’re looking for interaction you have to look for it in a very specific way, because often you’ll get 60 voices at the same time and if you don’t deal with them all you’re in serious trouble. Kids will come up to you half an hour after the show ended with suggestions for improving the first five minutes.

“A lot of children’s shows have the same problem as childrens publishing – it’s possible to commission, write, edit, market and buy a book without a child being consulted at any point. When I was little, I had a book about a magical duck who was Jesus, and even as a five-year-old I remember thinking, ‘this is just terrible’.

“At so many kids’ shows, you hear: ‘Mummy, can we go now? When does this end?’

“Of course, there will be a pram in your front row and somebody rocking it before a child wakes up and screams. Audience members will be breastfed. But it’s nice not having any of the conventions youve learned from stand-up to fall back on. You have to develop a whole new set of reflexes.

“I honestly don’t think the sense of humour is too different. I don’t know when it stops developing, but I suspect it’s early on. We all love clips of people falling over, and from about the age of four onwards, nothing ever gets any funnier than that.”

Andrew Maxwellhas imbibed and absorbed a few things at corporate gigs. He is contemplating marketing his alpine comedy festival in France by playing the comedians’ football match at Kilkenny in a yeti costume.

“If people have come to sit in a room to listen to stand-up comedy, it’s always possible to win them over, no matter how different their background is from yours. It’s when they aren’t in any way invested in you, when they’re at corporate events in a dickie-bow, getting shitfaced and taking more interest in having a soon-to-be- regretted sexual assignation with a co-worker, that’s when theyre the tough ones.

“Broadly speaking, it depends on whether the boss wants comedy or not. If you’re on after the hypnotist and then there’s a burlesque show, it’s like being the jester at a kings court. Nobody cares, the bar’s free. ‘No one wants your left-of-centre opinions on life – we’re a tiling firm!’ Its futile.

“But if the boss is a comedy fan, he’ll sit at the top table and ring you beforehand. ‘Ah Jim, the regional sales manager, what a character! And he’s got a club foot!’ he’ll tell you.

If they’re approaching it with that attention to detail, it doesn’t matter what they make or sell – it’ll be great.

“I always tell them: ‘Look, I’ll pick my own w***ers, thank you. If you want to see somebody roasted, somebody will get roasted.’

“Someone always pops their head above the parapet, and I smash them. Invariably, it turns out to be Jim, the loudmouth arsehole in the company that they wanted you to spank. They love it, he loves it, and afterwards he comes up and shakes your hand.”