A Laughing Matter: Vets Go to (Comedy) Boot Camp

Veterans learn to perform stand-up comedy in front of a live audience.

ByABC News
November 11, 2015, 11:18 AM

— -- In a nondescript community meeting room at Georgetown University, ten veterans were sent back to boot camp -- comedy boot camp, that is.

As if transitioning back to civilian life isn’t challenging enough, these current and former service men and women have taken on a new challenge: learning to perform stand-up comedy in front of a live audience.

“It’s terrifying. It’s terrifying,” said Marine Corps veteran Michael Garvey with a laugh. Garvey served two tours of combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This has been a really incredible group to work with because it’s incredibly diverse,” Sam Pressler, founder of the eight-week long Comedy Bootcamp, told ABC News. He had 45 applicants for ten slots. “You have mostly post-9/11 veterans but from all the different branches of service who have had combat experience, non-combat experience, so you see that their personal experiences really come out.”

Comedy Bootcamp is part of the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), an organization founded by Pressler while he was in college. ASAP offers writing, music and comedy programs free of charge to current service members, veterans and their families.

“When I was a sophomore at the College of William and Mary, I was doing a research paper for my class on the veterans’ claims backlog,” Pressler said. “I learned a lot about the mental health challenges in the space, specifically suicide, and at the time the running number was 22 veterans commit suicide a day and that really hit close to home for me.”

Pressler’s uncle had committed suicide several years earlier. For Pressler, comedy helped him deal with that loss, and he wondered if comedy could help others.

“Watching comedy but also writing comedy and performing comedy...that was really my outlet for catharsis," he said. Shocked by the mental health statistics for veterans, Pressler thought a comedy class could possibly help.

He enlisted the teaching talents of professional comedian Chris Coccia. “There is something that makes comedy work that is digging into yourself,” Coccia said. “Some of the best stuff comes from those darkest places.”

Garvey suffered from PTSD and brought his service dog Liberty to class. “If I am making light of getting shot then people might ask more questions instead of just assuming things,” Garvey said.

Testing out his material with fellow veterans and getting a laugh back helped. “It does make me feel better," he noted. "Every little victory...sometimes you just can’t find an excuse to keep going. But now you just have these little victories where you overcome your own obstacles.”

“[Veterans] can really use comedy as a glove to touch on a lot of things they wouldn’t be able to touch on otherwise,” Pressler said, hoping these Comedy Bootcamps will spread across the nation.

ABC News' Sarah Kolinovsky and Pat O'Gara contributed to this report.