Comedic troupe of troops to invade Jamestown

JAMESTOWN – The GIs of Comedy, a group of three veterans who also serve as stand-up comedians, will perform during the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival in August. The show is free for veterans as well as active duty personnel.

The group will appear at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, 116 E. Third St. in Jamestown, on Friday, Aug. 2, at 5:30 p.m. as part of the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. Doors to the center will open at 5 p.m. However there will be a number of events located outside the venue before the show begins. John Cross and the Babalu band will entertain attendees at 4:30 p.m., and after the show, Broadway star Jan Horvath and women of the Drama Enrichment Program will perform the “Boogie Woogie Medley,” a color guard presentation, the National Anthem, a salute to the troops and a number of other surprises are in store. The Blue Star Mothers will also host a post-show meet and greet with the GIs of Comedy. Following the GIs of Comedy show, headlining comedian Kathleen Madigan will take the Reg Lenna stage at 8 p.m.

Founding GI of Comedy, Thom Tran, is a retired United States Army Staff Sgt. who travels the country with two other veterans with the goal of bringing the healing power of laughter to every veteran and service member. In addition to being a stand-up comic, Tran is also a radio personality who cut his teeth at stations in Buffalo as a traffic reporter and jockey.

Tran, who served in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, returned to the U.S. to find that the mental and physical toll associated with combat affected him, and so many other veterans, and that it was his duty to bring the therapeutic benefit of laughter to them. So, in 2010, Tran created the “GIs of Comedy Tour” and recruited U.S. Air Force Maj. Jose Sarduy, a native of Cuba, and U.S. Army Pfc. Tom Irwin, an Amherst native, to round out his comedic troupe of troops.

According to Tran, although he loves being a stand-up comedian, his dream was actually to become a rock guitarist.

“If I had it my way I would be Eddie Van Halen – that’s what I grew up wanting to do,” said Tran. “But, then when I turned 18 I realized I wasn’t going to be him, so I joined the Army.”

POWER OF LAUGHTER

When Tran returned to Buffalo he kept doing radio, but, when he turned 24, he had a heart attack and realized that he couldn’t handle a self-destructive lifestyle any longer.

“If you’ve ever seen ‘The Hurt Locker’ at the end of the movie they describe combat as a drug, and that’s exactly what it was for me,” said Tran. “After I left Iraq, where I had been wounded and my roommate had been killed, I came home to not have that drug anymore but still have the pain of losing friends, and the constant worry that if I get a phone call from a Fort Bragg area code that it’s going to be bad news – because it always was. Many combat veterans turn to drugs, alcohol and extreme behaviors that take over for what they are missing now that they are not in combat – and I went through that.”

So, comedy became Tran’s therapy. And, only in the last few years did he realize that comedy actually became his drug of choice, he said.

“Comedy took over for all that, which was a lot healthier and less expensive,” said Tran. “I created the GIs of Comedy Tour because when I came home I saw these young guys who had lost arms and legs and I could see in their eyes that they were headed down that road that I was on. … The culture of our country is to not look at the warriors and say, ‘You need help and I’m going to help you,’ but rather, ‘Man up, drink some water and walk it off.’ These guys don’t have an outlet to turn to, so the GIs of Comedy was created to say to these soldiers, veterans and service members who are either getting out of the military or are still in, ‘Hey, you can laugh at this because if you don’t you will lose your mind.'”

Tran had been there at the brink of losing his mind, and if it weren’t for a good-belly laugh from his “Eddie Murphy Raw” DVD, he would have snapped a very long time ago, he said.

“I take this tour, my comedy, my talent and my friends all over the country performing for everyone,” said Tran. “Anyone can relate to our material, because we’re fathers, brothers, sons, comic book geeks and athletes, but someone who just spent a year kicking down doors in Iraq will laugh even harder because he can relate to what we’re talking about. And, if just for 90 minutes someone can laugh and forget about a year’s worth of combat, pain and loss – then that 90 minutes is worth it.”

According to Journey Gunderson, executive director of the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center, the type of show the GIs of Comedy put on is right in line with the mission of the center.

“It’s a celebration of our veterans, and the GIs of Comedy’s mission is really in line with ours, which is laughter heals,” said Gunderson. “Nobody deserves a laugh better than our guys coming back from overseas.”

Bill Stevenson, event chairman, has spent the last couple weeks ensuring that every area veteran was aware of the event. So, he has been in touch with the local veteran and service clubs to garner interest. As a result, in addition to tickets being available via the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center, tickets can be reserved through many of the veteran and service clubs.

“The veterans are very excited,” said Stevenson. “For non-veterans the show is $10, and for veterans it is free, but you still need the ticket in case the theater fills up.”

To make a donation, or to become a sponsor of the event, contact Stevenson at 664-0707.

Tran and the GIs of Comedy also donate 50 percent of the net profit of their merchandise sales to Special Operations Warrior Foundation. For more information visit www.gisofcomedy.com.

For more information, or to order tickets to the Friday, Aug. 2, event call 484-0800 or visit www.lucycomedyfest.com.