To someone who has survived the rigors of military training and frontline combat, addressing a room full of people may not seem as difficult. But when the mic is in your hand, and the crowd falls silent, chow hall food suddenly doesn’t seem so bad in comparison.
The William & Mary Center for Veterans Engagement (WMCVE), however, has turned the fear of public speaking into powerful tool for self-expression in the most unlikely of genres: stand-up comedy.
In an eight-week Comedy Bootcamp held on the William & Mary campus, the brainchild of WMCVE President Sam Pressler ’15, seven veterans have discovered their comic identities under the tutelage of professional stand-up comedians, culminating in two showcase performances on April 19 and April 24.
‘Comedy for a Greater Purpose’
According to Pressler and WMCVE Comedy Chair Ryan Goss ’16, the idea behind organizing a Comedy Bootcamp for veterans began in August 2014.
“We essentially built the class from scratch. We said that we want to provide a free-of-charge comedy class for veterans – now how do we get there?” Goss said.
They reached out to Navy veteran Ed Kappes, owner of the Williamsburg Comedy Club, who helped them find their lead instructor, Chris Coccia, a stand-up comic who teaches “Five Minutes to Funny” at the DC Improv. Joining Coccia is Tim Loulies, a fellow comedian who hails from the Virginia Beach Funny Bone.
“This is the first class of its kind,” said Pressler. “The fact that it is, in a sense, pioneering, makes it all the more powerful.”
Pressler noted that the Comedy Bootcamp not only provided veterans interested in comedy an educational outlet; it also fit into the larger goals of the WMCVE.
“We’re providing for these veterans an expressive outlet, opportunity for sustained learning and a community centered on common interests and mutual understanding,” Pressler explained.
“This is first and foremost a comedy class, and secondarily something that could be therapeutic. It might not be therapeutic for 100 percent of those involved, but if it’s therapeutic for one of the seven people, then we’re adding something to their lives that was not there before.”
Participation in the class was open to the entire community of veterans in the Virginia Peninsula region, and the organizers had little trouble filling the class.
“Our participants come from various backgrounds across branches of the military, and many are dealing with combat-related psychological and mental challenges,” Goss said. “What I’m excited about is putting together a really high-quality program. This is a community that deserves the best, and the fact that we from-scratch created something with really talented instructors – to me, that’s exciting and worth putting in the time.”
Both Goss and Pressler have backgrounds motivating them to undertake the Comedy Bootcamp project.
“This project was a really unique blend of my personal interests: service work and comedy,” Goss said. “Being able to combine these two areas to have comedy for a greater purpose, you couldn’t sign me up fast enough.”
Although Pressler grew up in a household that valued service work with veteran-related initiatives, the loss of an uncle to suicide convinced him to do something to help this at-risk population.
“When I learned that 22 veterans commit suicide each day, it really hit home to me,” Pressler said. “If you use that statistic, over 30,000 veterans would have committed suicide since my uncle had committed suicide during my junior year in high school.”
A Fulfilling Journey
In each class, the cohort of veterans gathers for a lecture on tips and techniques by Coccia and Loulies. Given the group’s small size and informal environment, the veterans have learned a great deal about one another’s stories and are able to ask personalized questions.
The goal of the class is for each veteran to develop a five-minute “bit,” or comedy routine, that they ultimately will present at the graduation showcase. Following the lecture, each member takes the mic and delivers a practice version of their bit.
Because many of the routines are drawn from the veterans’ personal experiences, the close-knit nature of the class truly shines through during the feedback sessions following each practice round. Coccia, Loulies and the other students offer their classmates specific tips.
For all the participants, this supportive environment has been a cornerstone of the class.
“I was made fun of a lot in middle school, and the only way I could get past it was to laugh at it and laugh at myself,” said Melissa Errett, one of the participants. “We have friends that tell us, ‘hey, you’re pretty funny, you should try stand up,’ so when this opportunity came open, I had to take it. If Ryan and Sam hadn’t given me this opportunity, I definitely would not be trying this.”
José Roman, another student, agreed that the class was all about overcoming insecurity.
“It’s the biggest fear in the world, to get on stage, and especially to get on stage and try to be funny,” he said. “Everybody here has got this fear of bombing, but overcoming that fear is like therapy. If I can get up there and do this for five minutes, then I can do anything.”
Although the Comedy Bootcamp was Errett’s first interaction with the WMCVE, both Roman and Henry Ramey, another participant, had worked with the WMCVE’s Veterans Writing Project before.
Ramey, a former medic and artillery officer, first began working with the WMCVE to pursue his writing and saw comedy as a way to improve his style.
“I took on comedy as a challenge,” Ramey said. “It’s a different genre from writing short stories and poetry, and it’s another vehicle of self-expression I thought would be transferrable into my writing.”
The Comedy Bootcamp will culminate with a WMCVE showcase performance featuring not only the comedy students, but also participants in WMCVE’s other outreach programs.
“The William & Mary show will have our music, comedy and writing in a year-end program,” Pressler said. “We’re going to have public readings from our writers, performance from our musicians and stand-up acts.”
The William & Mary showcase performance will take place on Sunday, April 19 at 7 p.m. in the Ewell Recital Hall. The show is free and open to the public, but those planning to attend are asked to reserve their seats online.
In addition, the Comedy Bootcamp camp participants will perform in a graduation show at the Williamsburg Comedy Club on Friday, April 24 at 8 p.m.