A program in Williamsburg helps the military and their families deal with stress through humor.
Comedy saved William Breckenridge’s life.
To see him perform, you’d never guess he’s anything other than a happy-go-lucky comic, delivering punch lines that leave crowds in stitches.
Onstage, he recounted being chastised at the dinner table as a boy. His father would lash out with whatever was handy, he said, including fried chicken. “Do you know what it feels like to be slapped with a hot breast?”
The audience erupted with laughter.
Breckenridge seems like a natural funnyman, a born entertainer, but he’s quick to concede the veneer conceals pain. His 21-year Army career included six deployments to tough locales, including the Middle East and Haiti, experiences that shook him. Military doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder a couple years shy of retirement. “I was on the verge of self-destruction,” he says. Four times, he seriously contemplated suicide.
But Breckenridge found something that makes his day-to-day struggles a bit easier to handle: a program designed to help military members deal with problems through humor.
Earlier this year, he and 10 classmates took part in Comedy Bootcamp, an initiative sponsored by the Armed Services Arts Partnership and the College of William & Mary. The program, led by the school’s Center for Veterans Engagement, gives current and former service members, as well as their families, an outlet through stand-up.
Over eight weeks in Williamsburg, the students learned the craft from volunteers, alumni and professional comic Tim Loulies. Though Bootcamp is expressly not clinical therapy – organizers are adamant that they’re not professional counselors – participants say they find performing therapeutic.
“I joined the military at a young age, so it was the only thing I knew for most of my adult life,” says Breckenridge, who found military routines comforting. “When I was getting ready to be out among the civilian population, it was frightening.”
He wasn’t sure how he’d adjust. Even job applications seemed daunting. But the chance to make people laugh offered a purpose.
For his classmate Mae Brayton, comedy provided an outlet for frustrations. Her husband, a surface warfare officer stationed at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, has deployed twice during their marriage.
With one daughter, and another baby on the way, long separations are challenging for both. And the time apart is merely the beginning of what service families sacrifice. Facets of life that civilians take for granted – school, careers, roots – are interrupted by constant relocations. Military families often dislike the federal bureaucracy and the lack of control over their future.
Brayton has stayed busy during her time alone. She has two master’s degrees, a law degree and a real estate license, but it’s stand-up that has allowed her to vent in a healthy way.
“Exposure to the military provides a lot of material for comedy,” she says. “It’s true that military life is often painful and difficult, whether it’s the family dynamics or long deployments. Being able to see the humor in that provides relief.”
I believe strongly in monogamy, really, as a higher art form, like poetry. In haiku, the limitations of the 5-7-5 structure are what make it both challenging and beautiful, much like sex with one person for the rest of your life. That’s usually enough of a challenge for most people, but not for us! No, we take it to the next level by being apart for about half our marriage with deployments. So it takes a lot more creativity to stay connected, but because we are both sensitive artists, I like to send him my poems, like this one:
Like poetry because most
Will find it boring
Because I know my man loves some haiku.
Jim King knows firsthand how comedy is a universal pick-me-up. He was an Army chaplain who served for 28 years, including combat tours in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Along with leading religious services, King, an ordained Baptist minister, counseled soldiers of all faiths who came to him for personal and spiritual guidance.
As he neared the end of his military career, King recognized that he needed direction, too, and that comedy could help.
“After 28 years of doing much the same thing at different levels, I didn’t see where I was going next,” he says. “What Comedy Bootcamp did for me personally is that it opened up another venue to practice and express creativity.”
King says he learned that stand-up is much more technical and difficult than it appears. He had always used bits of humor in teaching and sermons, but jokes that are the sole purpose of a short moment in the spotlight require deliberation, constant reworking.
“In stand-up, you have to be quick, sharp and to the point. You can’t waste words. Every word has to be carefully measured and have value,” he says. And that, he says, offers a lesson in precise communication that’s hard to find in a traditional workplace, whether that’s in an office or in the ranks.
What’s more, King says the advocate in him sees stand-up for the help it affords performers who carry heavy burdens. The laughter is a stress reliever for the comic and for the audience. But it’s something more, too.
“For someone questioning their value, what they’re going to do with their life, the laughter is immediate, positive feedback,” he says. “That kind of charge, that kind of affirmation, is powerful.”
Chaplains are clergy who become soldiers. We train like all the other soldiers, but without a weapon. They don’t give us weapons, but our Bibles have full metal jackets. When I deployed to combat I had just these hands … and a few thousand friends armed to the teeth. When I did finally go to the firing range, I hit 39 out of 40. That other instructor is still running.
Breckenridge knows acutely the transformative power of stand-up comedy. The promise of being the center of attention, of telling jokes that knock the crowd over, of fleeting moments that let him forget the heartbreaks that have brought him to the present, is well worth the work it takes to get there.
“For that five minutes onstage, I’m not that guy with PTSD, who’s paranoid, having nightmares, operating on three hours of sleep,” he says. “For that five minutes onstage, I’m someone else. I wish it could go on forever.”
To see an intimate glimpse of a class of students, including William Breckenridge, Mae Brayton and Jim King, make their way through Comedy Bootcamp, tune in to WHRO-TV for Comedy Bootcamp: The Documentary at 9 p.m. November 14. The documentary will also be available online at ComedyBootCampDoc.org. For more information on the Comedy Bootcamp Class visit The Armed Services Arts Partnership (asapasap.org)