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Afghanistan 2008

At 5pm on Tuesday, March 18th I was sitting in the LAX Airport waiting to board a United Airlines flight to Frankfurt, Germany, when my phone rang. It was Mike Burton, the tour coordinator, and he informed me that the other comedian, Richard Villa, had forgotten his passport and was trying to zoom home and get it and come back within an hour. During rush hour in Los Angeles.  Yeah right, THAT’S gonna happen. This was the exact way my last Afghanistan tour started, only that time the other comedian made it with five minutes to spare. Richard was not so lucky. As I settled into my seat getting ready for the eleven-hour flight my phone rang again.  “How much time can you do?” Mike asked.  Apparently there was a chance I would have to do this tour on my own. I’ve filled in for other comics before so I knew I had the time, so I wasn’t too worried – I can always pull out what I call my “Wedding Set” – something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue… a lot of the blue stuff. It just wouldn’t be as fun.


As it turned out, Richard caught a flight the next day and after sampling the wienerschnitzle and beer, we caught a c-something from Ramstein Airbase nonstop to Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan which took seven hours. Two soldiers we came to know as AppleJacks and Reggie met us at 1am.  They were both short in stature but made up for it in personality. They were constantly cutting each other down for being short. AppleJacks proudly boasted being one quarter inch taller. After sleeping four hours in the B hut (a plywood shack where all the entertainers stay) we were loaded onto a huge heavily armored bus called a “Rhino”. Everyone had full armor on and was armed to the teeth. We were given the “comics armor” which consisted of an old vest and a helmet with no chinstrap.   “Just go John Wayne style,” they told me. 


The 45 min. ride seemed a lot longer as we bounced along the semi-paved 2-lane road from Bagram to Kabul. We passed colorful Jingle trucks and flocks of goats and camels, catching glimpses of the weathered faces of the native people, some waving, some angry, and all the while the same thought kept racing through my mind: “What the hell am I doing here?”.  At one point we hit a big bump and a soldier’s sidearm flew out of its holster and landed on the floor pointing at me.  I’m not gonna lie… a little pee came out. We made it to Camp Eggers in Kabul, and were met by Capt. Mack and shown to our quarters.  We hit the jackpot and got a VIP room with TV and internet, very close to the bathroom. 


We flipped a coin and Richard was the headliner for the first show, I would headline the next, and so on. The show was at the clam shell and it was packed. After the show the General gave us a commemorative coin and we chatted with some of the soldiers. One guy told us about going out on missions through the city and dealing with suicide bombers. Just recently he had a literal run-in with one who was determined to blow up his convoy. The soldier remembered making eye contact with the crazed bomber as he passed, and he turned his vehicle into him pushing him over and causing him to crash through the windshield before he could detonate the bomb.  A buddy of the bomber who was video taping the incident, pushed the mangled body off the hood and drove the car bomb away. We played Texas Hold’em with these guys until 2am. 


The next day we had an armed escort across the street to the Camp Q .  We had to put on our vests and helmets (Sgt. Dooley got a chin strap for me) and walked the 100 or so yards through a concrete corridor passing through two checkpoints. It was Easter and coincidently the birthday of both Richard and me. The camp went all out with egg tossing, and Easter egg hunts and baskets of chocolate rabbits, which so aptly remind us of the suffering and death of our savior.  The Afghan Nationals who worked at the Camp just stared and shook their heads as the tossed eggs exploded.  Maybe their mothers told them not to play with their food.  During the day we were taken on a tour in a normal SUV of some of the reconstruction projects that were going on in Kabul.  It was danger level 4 out of 7 and Trina, our guide and work overseer, did the driving with our bodyguard in the front passenger seat.  People drive with reckless abandon in the city, with no dividing lines or traffic signs it was survival of the gutsiest. An occasional lone traffic cop stood in some intersections in a futile effort at order.  It made LA rush hour look civilized. Trina said her upbringing in Brooklyn helped a lot, and it must have been because she barreled and jostled with the best of ‘em. She showed us the schools and other public buildings going up, and it was nice to see first hand some of the good that we are doing in the country. We did a show that night at the gym to a very receptive and appreciative crowd before being escorted back across the street.


The next day we were met by four Navy personnel in a two Humvee convoys to take us to camp Blackhorse, a twenty-minute drive from Eggers.  We armored up and halfway there they asked us if we’d like to drive. Of course we said yes, and they took us to an isolated gravel road and we got in and took off. The Hummers were heavy lumbering vehicles that absorbed the deepest potholes with ease. We went to a clearing that they use for target practice and we shot a few clips at some insurgent water bottles with their rifles and visited some friendly national guys who lived in shacks at the top of the hill.  When we got to Camp Blackhorse we quickly realized why we took our time getting there. There was nothing to do. It was one of those isolated camps where more than one soldier would get so bored that they “were almost gonna read a book!”.  


We did a show at the mess hall and that was the best crowd of the tour. It is nice to be appreciated. The next day we used the same convoy to go to camp Kia, about 20 min. drive. Kia was an international camp and the rules were not as strict as they are in the American camps. We ate at a Thai restaurant and did the show in a very informal outdoor setting with no sound system, or a Capella, as Richard called it. The crowd really enjoyed the show and afterward we went to a plywood bar with a pool table and actual beer and wine. The only service people not allowed to imbibe were the American and the Dutch. We had a few beers and some stogies and had a few laughs with the Turks and Swedish soldiers until the mandatory 10pm closing.


The next day was Wednesday March, 26th marking one week since we left LA. We had an 8pm show at Camp Phoenix, which was about 10 Kilometers away, but a very dangerous 10 K. They decided it would be safest to fly from base to base, so we went to the airfield and found ourselves looking at a ’93 Russian MI-17 helicopter. This was the same copter that some the soldiers had been making fun of the night before. Apparently a few of these airships were left behind when the Russians were ousted and the Afghans had kept them running somehow. A lot of them were held together with rope and duct tape and they shook so violently during flight that on a mission you would lose a few pounds of unwanted fat. The one we got on was owned and maintained by Americans who have slightly higher standards and was perfectly safe. Really, Mom, it was. The briefing took 15 minutes and we were instructed not to photograph the crew because, "they didn’t exist". The flight itself took all of 5 minutes and was fun and uneventful.


We were met by Sgt. McLoud who showed us to our rooms (yes separate rooms for the first time) and when we saw the bare mattress and no pillows we asked if we could get some linens. “I’ll see what I can do” he said. The next day after prodding we got a sheet and a thin blanket and a sleeping bag. The show was not advertised at all and it was in a huge meeting room. It was sparsely attended and our voices bounced off the cavernous walls and off into space. The few who came seemed to enjoy it but it was hard to tell. 

We spent two nights at camp Phoenix, and were told to be ready to fly out at 4am Friday morning. It came and went and at 7am an excited Sgt. McLoud banged on our doors telling us to hustle up and catch a convoy or we will be stuck there another day. Apparently we missed our flight to Bagram and a convoy was just about to leave. No time for breakfast, we just got in and took off. This two-Hummer convoy had gunners in the turrets. They joked with me that I would be riding up in the turret. That’s the last time I call shotgun. It was an even bumpier route from Kabul to Bagram than we had taken with the rhino a week earlier. There were lots of huge holes where IEDs had exploded and we were told that there was a suicide bomber in a blue Toyota with license plate starting with 17 that we should be on the lookout for. One of the guys in my humvee told me that a sniper had hit the gunner on his vehicle on the same road the week before. At one point our lead vehicle smashed the rearview mirror off an unfortunate Jingle Truck that had strayed too close to the center as we passed it.  My first thought was “shouldn’t we stop and exchange insurance info?”  There’s no stopping for any reason once the convoy starts.  And those boys drive fast. 

We got to Bagram and found out we had no show that night.  We were supposed to be in Kandahar.  Someone dropped the ball and those guys in Kandahar would not get a show this tour. The next day we flew a fixed wing plane to Camp Jahalabad. This was a 45 min flight and Jbad was extremely hot. Our tent had AC so it was nice and Sgt. J took us to the Bazaar and showed us how to haggle for 15 minutes and get 2 bucks off a piece of crap we didn’t want anyway. The show was in the mess hall and Sgt. J did a great job with sound and lights and we had another packed and fun show. The next day we were loaded into a huge C-something plane and flew back to Bagram landing at 6pm.  We did our 7th and final show at 8pm Sunday, March 30th, at the Clamshell theatre for a good-sized crowd who were very appreciative. Now we had to figure out how to get home.


In order to get home we had to fly from Bagram to Rammstein air base in Germany, then catch a noon flight on April 1st from Frankfurt to Los Angeles.  It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. There were few, if any, non-stop flights to Ramstein.  Most flights went through Manas, Kyrgyzstan, which was the main hub and almost impossible to leave. The last comedian got stuck there for a week before finally catching a flight to Germany. Applejacks did some research and found one iffy flight that left at 2am on April 1st. It was a Medivac mission designed to transport two very wounded soldiers to the better medical facilities in Germany. We were told that due to the serious nature of the mission, they rarely took on passengers but he would see what he could do. The next flight was in 5 days and was full. We went to the airfield at 9:30 pm and spent an uneasy 4 hours in a secluded room waiting to hear something. At 1:30am I went out to see what the status was and a guy said “Are you the comedians? Get your bags and meet me outside.”  Just like that we were on!  It was a huge C-17 transport plane and we watched as they loaded the two wounded soldiers with their team of doctors and nurses. Then we boarded with about 6 other passengers. There were all of a dozen people aboard a huge plane that could seat hundreds. 


The flight was seven and a half hours and when we got to Ramstein no one was there to meet us. It was 8am and we had to get to the Frankfurt airport which was 2 hrs away. We called Corby and he had not been informed that we got a flight out. In fact he was told we probably wouldn’t make it so he cancelled our flight to LA. We decided to try to go standby and we zoomed to Frankfurt on the autobahn as Corby took his Mercedes up past 120mph. We made it to the airport, and at the ticket counter they told us they had a seat for me but Richard’s was cancelled. He got a standby pass and we made it to the gate with a full 20 min to spare. Richard got his seating assignment, then realized he left his camera bag at the security gate. He ran all the way there and back, got his bag and had just enough time to call his ride in LA. Talk about close, but we made it. I didn’t mind that I was squished in the middle seat in the middle row for 11 hours, the time just flew - literally!  We were back in LA at 2:30pm April 1st after 14 days, 6 flights, 4 convoys, and seven shows. Just another day at the office.


Afghanistan 2004

Monday, Nov. 15th – 6 am:  The wake-up call came too early.  I had just finished a week at a comedy club in Reno, NV, and now I had to catch a plane to Los Angeles to make my plane to Afghanistan for a two-week, nine-show, twenty-one flight comedy tour for the Troops.  It would be my 11th Military Tour in as many countries, and it wouldn’t be my 1st time in a war zone, but it would be the closest I’d been to actual danger spots.  As I waited for the shuttle to the Reno airport, I decided to stick one quarter in a slot machine to see what kind of luck I’d have that day.  It paid ten bucks – a good omen.  Now I had to deal with a pocket full of quarters at airport security.  There’s really no such thing as pure good luck.  It was a quick flight to LAX, and Mike Burton, the guy who booked the tour, met me at the airport right on time.  The plane landed at 10:30 am and my flight to Frankfurt left at 2:45 pm.  This gave me about an hour at home to unpack from Reno and pack for Afghanistan.  We got to the airport in plenty of time and LA Hardy, the other comedian on the tour, was there waiting for us.  We said goodbye to Mike after getting some last minute instructions and checked in for our flight. As we got to the Lufthansa agent, LA said “Oh no, I forgot my passport!”  What a joker, I thought… no he meant it.  We still had an hour before the flight actually left, so he called his wife and she zipped down to the airport with his passport.  Crisis averted.  We made it to the gate with ten minutes to spare.  The flight to Frankfurt took 11 hours, and I got about three hours of sleep.  After going through surprisingly easy customs, we were met by two military personnel who drove us to the military airport where we got our orders and boarded a normal ATA 737 to Incerlik, Turkey (3hrs), and then on to Manas, Kyrgyzstan (5 hrs).  We got Lucky and caught the next plane out of Manas after a four hour wait, during which we played pool and quaffed our two allotted Kyrgyzstani beers.  This would be the last alcohol we would imbibe for the next two weeks.  The plane from Manas to Bagram, Afghanistan, was a C-130, a military cargo plane with canvas seats, and we were packed in like sardines.  The flight was four and a half hours, and it kicked our already tired asses.  It was loud as hell even with earplugs and impossible to sleep or even move.  We arrived in Bagram thirty-six hours after we left LAX, and I felt like an extra from “Dawn of the Dead”.  It was great to finally get out of the stuffy C-130 and breathe in a lungful of fresh dust.  Afghanistan had the dustiest air I’ve ever breathed.  You get used to the taste and grit in your teeth after awhile.  Now we had to find our contacts.  We just assumed they would be there to meet us, but they had no way of knowing exactly when we would get in.  Manas is one of the hardest places to get out of – some people are stuck there for days – we just got lucky.   After waiting for a few hours in a sleep-deprived stuper, we got the bright idea to try and call someone and let him or her know the comedians are here.  A few minutes later Chuck Younglove burst through the door.  At 6 foot 7 and weighing around 350 lbs, Chuck was a veritable mountain of a man.  An honest, laid back, tell it like it is straight shooter, he reminded me a little of an oversized Wilfred Brimley on steroids.


Chuck had a devil may care relaxed attitude which helps when dealing with the military’s hurry up and wait policy.  We were informed that we had no show that night (It was Wednesday noon by then) and we would leave the next day by Chinook helicopter to do three bases (Orgun-E, Shkin, and Carlson) with Lt. Wnuk in the southeastern region; and then Chuck would take us on the second half of the tour mostly on the western part of the country.  Our accommodations in Bagram consisted of canvas cots for beds in a plywood hut called a “hootch”, equipped with a refrigerator and a DVD player and monitor.  If we wanted to make a call to the States or check email, we just went next door and got in line.  Every base we went to, no matter how remote, had an email connection.   After getting eight hours of much needed sleep, we met the Lieutenant at the Chinook bright and early Thursday morning.  The Lieutenant was a slender, attractive young woman with a quick smile and high pitched feminine voice – the polar opposite of Chuck.  It was a two-hour flight to the base and we were given an extensive tour and had Chai (sweet green tea) with a native Afghanistonian in his mud hut as his camels stood watch.

         Then it was time for the first show.  LA and I decided to Flip Flop (Switch off going on last) and I would open this one, he would open the next one, etc.  We just had to do a half hour each, which is cake.  LA killed with his bit about the one lone woman on base with all the horney guys.  The one lone woman was the only one not laughing.  She just sat there clutching her rifle and glaring.  That’s the intimidating thing about doing shows for soldiers in a war theater.  All the audience members are armed.  You learn to stay away from bits that cut down a state or sports team.   There is a no alcohol policy on all the bases so we didn’t have to deal with drunks, just less than ideal sound equipment and bad lighting.  It always takes a few minutes to warm the crowds up to the set-up-punch line cadence of standup.  The first few jokes I did were about being on the base and dealing with everyday life in Afghanistan and then I just did my normal set.  The soldiers really enjoyed the show and we were given a certificate of appreciation and a coin commemorating the war effort and we signed tons of autographs on printouts we brought.  They let us crash on cots in the heated headquarter room.  It got very cold at night and all the soldiers had to use heavy sleeping bags.  Going to the toilet (or piss tube) was an uncomfortable experience.  All the bases had Piss tubes, plastic tubes protruding from the ground just about crotch level.  I always tried to find them at night, but usually ended up peeing on the ground.  The toilets were another story.  Many of them were portapotties and some were plywood with improvised tire seats.  I found the Michelins to be the most comfortable.   The next day we were allowed to shoot the 50 caliber gun, a huge weapon, the kind you have to climb into.  It was the first gun I’d ever fired and, man, that thing can inflict some damage. It’s amazing having that kind of power at your thumb tips.   Friday morning we flew by Blackhawk to Camp Shkin, set up the speakers and did a show at 11 am, got back in the bird and flew to Camp Carlson and did a show at 3 pm and flew back to Bagram.  Carlson is very close to the Pakistani border where the Taliban retreated to and where Osama Bin Laden is supposedly hiding out.  There were some cool Special Forces guys on the helicopter who let us shoot their machine guns at targets in the desert.  I was starting to get good at hitting my targets.  The three-hour flight back to Bagram was at dusk and the ride was freezing, but it was cool to see the sunset from a helicopter.

          We made it back to Bagram around dinnertime Friday, and we got to sleep in on Saturday because our next show was right there in Bagram on Saturday night.  This was a much more organized show because Bagram is a pretty big base with about 14,000 coalition forces living there. They packed the Clamshell theatre(with an actual stage) with about 500 mostly US uniformed men and women.  You looked out from the stage and saw a sea of rifle butts pointed your way.  We had a killer show and signed autographs until our hands were sore.   After the show I went back to the hootch by myself and popped in a DVD (Louis CK Short Films).  Five minutes into it I heard a huge BOOM that shot through my entire body.  I ran to Chuck’s hootch next door and banged on his door.  He calmly opened it up and said, “Yeah, whadda ya want?”.  I said, “What the F**k was that?”  “Oh, sorry about that”  he said, “That was me, the PX meatloaf didn’t agree with me.”   Everyone’s a comedian.  “C’mon, what was the boom?”  I pleaded.  “What am I Kreskin?   How the F**k should I know?   If you hear ‘red alert’ just put your long pants on and meet me in the bomb shelter,”  came the Brimleyesque response.   I went back to my cot and had a restless night listening to the airships taking off and landing.  The next day I found out the boom was an IED (Improvised Exploding Device) that had been fired from a nearby mountain range and had landed less that 500 meters from me.  I was told that the Taliban followers put crude timers on rockets and send them into Bagram base at least once a month.  It had been two months since the last IED, so they were due. 

            The next day we were up at 6 am to catch a flight to Herat on the Iranian border.  We waited until 6 pm (12 hours!) and finally heard that the flight was canceled.  We spent the evening talking to the Lt. and Mike, a special forces dude, who filled us in (as much as he could) on what it was like to do his job.  The Special Forces  are like the cowboys of the military.  They get their mission and McGyver their way around Afghanistan carrying out their orders.  This guy was out to get Osama, but was not eligible for the 25 mil reward.  I made a deal with him – he catches the asshole, brings him to me, I turn him in and split the dough.

            We were in bed by midnight and at 4 am there was a bang on the door.   I stumbled through the dark and unlocked the door and saw a soldier standing there.  “You sirs leave for Farah in 15 minutes, sirs”.  He said in a Radar O’Reilly way.  Yes we were “Sirs” on this tour.  Our Military rank was GS-15, which is quite high for a civilian.  It’s kind of like being a Corporal.  It’s pretty odd to waltz onto a base and outrank most of the people you see.  It’s cool during the show though, because when I got a heckler they’d have to say stuff like, “Respectfully request permission to tell you you suck, sir!”  I’d just deny the fucker and make him do 50 pushups.  So there we were at 4:30 am at the airfield with all our bags and the sound system and we didn’t take off until 8 am.  More hurry up and wait.  We boarded a small plane with actual seats and flew quite close to the ground giving us a close up view of the villages and camels along the way.   Some people would wave and others threw stones.  We made two stops on the way to Farah – one of which was Herat, the base we were supposed to go the day before.  There were pieces of downed aircraft, mostly Russian MIGs, littering the ground.  The pilot was a grizzled, chain-smoker who flew daily missions in Afghanistan, and in the States he was a daring firefighting pilot in Oregon. 

            The Farah Base was the smallest one we’d seen so far.  Up to this point they never had any live entertainment of any kind – we were the first.  We set up chairs outside the PX, backed up a Hum Vee and used the headlights for a spotlight.   It was a great show and everyone seemed pleased.  They had excellent showers and toilets so I finally had a decent wash’n’poop.  We slept in a building with at least ten other guys, side by each on cots.  A whole lotta snoring going on.  The guys we met at this base were very bored.  One guy told me in a southern drawl that he was so bored that the other day --he almost read a book!   They should change the missions name to “Operation Enduring Boredom” for those guys.  Maybe it’s Bush’s plan to build an army that is invincible….. at Madden ’05.  Those guys are good.

            The next day (Tuesday Nov. 23rd) we took a three-hour flight to Kandahar, one of the largest bases.  Once again we flew very low to the ground, barely missing the jagged mountain peaks.  We fly low because the sound travels faster to the people on the ground.  If we fly high, they can hear us 5 miles away and that would give the AMC (Anti- Military Coalition) time to set up a rocket launcher or something to shoot us down.  By flying low they can hear us  only a mile away.  On the Kanahar base we had VIP lodging.  This was an actual building with a real bed. LA, Chuck, and myself, roomed together, and another snorefest ensued.  Once again we were all forced to wear earplugs. 

        At 7 pm we did an indoor show in the game room.  This room had pool tables, foosball, ping pong and rows of TV’s set up for any kind of video game you wanted to play.  Most soldiers were playing that violent San Andreas game where you are a gang member and you go through cities car jacking and robbing and killing people.  Good clean American fun.   The show was not easy.  The microphone did not work at first and when it did it was so tinny that it hurt your ears.  My voice was like an annoying mosquito to them.  Good sound is so important to a comedy show.  The next day (Wednesday, Nov. 24th) we had off so we could rest up for the big Thanksgiving shows.

            Chuck woke me up at 6 am on Thursday, Nov. 25th and asked where LA was.  I told him it was not my turn to watch him.  He was probably checking email or making a call home.  We figured we’d run into him at the PX, so we went there to get a bite of breakfast. After the powdered egg and unidentifiable meat omlet , we went back to the room.  Still no LA.  We drove all around looking for him but no luck.  Finally we realized that we probably had to do the shows without him so Chuck and I started working out a two man act.  We got to the airbase and went to the Chinook 15 minutes before we had to take off, and there was LA waiting for us.  He told us he couldn’t sleep so he went to work out early in the morning and when he got back to the room we were gone.  He said he looked all over for us and just sweet talked his way to the helicopter.  Good security, huh?  Oh well, all’s well that ends well.  The Special Farces were back in action and ready to roll!  Our first stop would be Lashka Gah, and on the way they let us shoot the Chinooks’ fixed guns (M60’s) into the Sahara for fun.  We had a great show in Lashka Gah at 11 am.  The homesick soldiers enjoyed the show so much they almost forgot they were in Afghanistan, away from their families on Thanksgiving.   Then we jumped on the Chinook and flew to Tiger.  The crew of this particular helicopter were called“The Fat Bastards”.  They were a ragtag team of fun-loving fly-boys who really knew how to handle the bird.  We went careening through the mountain passes and canyons like a roller coaster.  It was exhilarating!!!   We found out later that they had bets to see which comedian would puke first.  We never even came close to horking.  Every time they’d look back we were laughing and whooping it up.

            We got to Tiger around 2 pm and right away the whole atmosphere seemed sad.   We set up the speakers on a flatbed truck and started the show, but it was like pulling teeth to get a laugh.  Complete opposite of the previous show 3 hours ago.  It was our toughest show by far but we pulled it off like the pros we are.  It wasn’t the soldiers’ fault; they were pissed off that they had to spend Thanksgiving in that godforsaken place and my little dick jokes didn’t make it any better I guess.

           Then it was time for the quick 20 minute ride back to Kanahar.  The Fat Bastards let LA sit in front and I got to sit on the open tailgate in back.  That was scary and cool at the same time.  It was “scool”.  It was wild taking off and watching the ground just leave and get smaller.  I got some great video.  They actually let LA land the thing.  I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time.   On the ground the Fat Bastards commended us for being such fearless flyers and gave us one of their “Fat Bastard” sew on patches.  Way cool day at the office.   We got back to Kandahar in time for Thanksgiving dinner, and boy, were we hungry, having had nothing to eat since breakfast.  They served roast turkey, Cornish game hens, lobster, mashed potatoes, and a bunch of other stuff.  We were exhausted and hungry so we just dug in.  We overate but that’s the American way. 

            We got  to bed early because we didn’t know what time our next flight to Sahron (our last show) would be.  We were told around 4  am, but nothing was certain.  LA and I took some sleeping pills at 9 pm, which seemed like a good idea at the time.  At 2 am Friday morning (Nov. 27th)  Chuck flashed on the light and said we had to be at the airport in 15 minutes.   I thought it was a bad dream.  Sleep deprivation is like a bad drug.  I can see how it can be useful in torture.  We got to the airfield and waited until 4 am, when we were told our aircraft was broken.  This meant that the show in Sharon had to be scrubbed, and the tour was completed after a total of eight Afghanistan shows on eight bases.  Now we had to try to get home.  We knew it was gonna be difficult and iffy as the flights are never certain and they’re always packed when it comes to getting out of there.  It’s a case of being at the right place at the right time and being persistent and lucky and knowing the right people.

             Luckily, Chuck was well connected and he had been doing favors for people so he could call in a few.  Chuck is like the Radar O’Reilly of Afghanistan.  He can get things for people and get them to far away bases so people want to be his friend.  We finally got out of there and caught the midnight flight (a C-130) to Bagram.   We arrived an hour later at 1 am and immediately checked in for a flight to Frankfurt.  We were told to be back at the airport in three hours (4am).  We did and then we waited around for another five hours before boarding the C-17 to Germany at 9 am on Saturday, Nov. 27th. 

             Of course we didn’t know it at the time, but one of the planes that left Bagram that day did not make it to its destination.  I read in the paper that a Casa 212 civilian fixed wing transport plane that left Bagram on Saturday Nov. 27th with three US soldiers and three American crew members aboard went down in the Hindu Kush mountains southeast of the city of Bamiyan with no survivors.  They don’t know why it went down but it really shows how dangerous flying in Afghanistan can be.

             The C-17 we were on was a huge military cargo plane that carries large metal containers.  The “passengers” sit on canvas “seats” that line the inside edge of the plane.  The flight from Bagram to Frankfurt took eleven hours including a two-hour fuel stop in one of the other “Stans” (I think it started with a “T” and was desperately in need of buying a vowel).  Having had a sleepless night the day before I was pretty tired, so I put some blankets on the floor and tried to sleep.  Some Marines were on board and they graciously let me have one of their MREs (meals ready to eat) – Beefsteak with mushroom sauce.  They showed me how to heat it up with a chemical packet and water. The meal was pretty cool, and not bad tasting either.                        

        We landed in Frankfurt at 4 pm local time on Saturday.  I set my watch back from Afghani time. It was very confusing for the past two weeks coordinating flight and show times.  I had my watch on Afghani local time, LA kept his on Los Angeles time and Chuck used the military Zulu time (whatever THAT is).  Chuck would  say “Show’s at 4 am” and we would have to do algebra to figure out when it was.  I guess you do use that stuff you learned in high school eventually.  Our scheduled Lufthansa flight to Los Angeles left at 10 am on Monday.  That was almost two days away.

             No one told us what we were supposed to do once we got to Frankfurt so we decided to try to get to the main civilian airport and get an earlier flight home.  We yanked our bags out from the palet on the C-17 and tried to get on a bus going to the airport.  The guy wouldn’t let us on, and thank goodness he didn’t because when we went into the military airport there were some people, Bill and Monique, waiting for us at baggage claim.  They told us they were there to pick us up and take us to the Sheridan Hotel that is right off the Frankfurt Airport. 

            We had Saturday night off and on Sunday we were to do a show at the Rein Mein base just a few miles away.  Good thing we didn’t get on that bus!  The driver was Bill, a 28 year old southern good ole boy with a sly grin and a lead foot that made his beamer fly down the autobahn.  Checking into the hotel and having my own room was like a dream come true.  Just walking on flat ground was a treat.  In Afghanistan we walked on rocks all the time.  Stumbling became a way of life.  I’ve never appreciated a shower and toilet more in my life.  I must have used the latrine about five times in the first few hours. I didn’t even have to go - l just liked sitting there.  We were tired but we figured if we went right to sleep, then we would not sleep through the night. 

            Bill picked us up two hours later and we went out to the Frankfurt bar scene – Sachsenhausen, to be exact. We had some Vienerschnitzle und Spatzzle and a few alcholholic beverages at various cool bars and by midnight I was in my own room sawing logs.  It was my first earplug free night in two weeks.  It poses the question; “If a man snores in the middle of the forest, and no one is around to hear it, is he still an asshole?”.  Boy, did I sleep!  10 much needed hours. 

            The next day (Sunday), Bill took us around the city and out to dinner and we did the show at 8 pm.  The American football games were on and they left all the TV’s on during the show.  At least we got them to turn the sound down.  It’s a lot different crowd when you do a base in a big city as opposed to a small isolated base.  They have so much else to do on the big bases they don’t appreciate the comedy show as much as the smaller bases. 

            The show went well though and then it was time to have a few festive beverages.  Maybe a few too many  for our driver because he took off and didn’t tell anyone where he was going.  This would have been all well and good, but I had left my stuff, including my passport, in his car.  I had to be at the airport in 7 hours and I had no passport!  We got a ride back to the hotel from some kind soldier and I just lay in bed cursing my luck.  To have come so far, and to be so close to going home, and now I was going to be stuck in Frankfurt until I got my passport back.  I had to do a show in La Crosse, Wisconsin, on Tuesday;  now that would have to be cancelled.     As I lay there berating myself for leaving my passport behind, a knock came at my door.  It was 5 am, and it was LA with my stuff!!!!  I tried to kiss him but he wanted nothing to do with that kind of behavior. He said something about meeting in the lobby in the morning, but I was pretty delirious and it didn’t compute.   I was too happy to sleep – so I just packed and went down to the lobby at 7 am.

             I tried to call LA’s room and I pounded on his door, but no answer.  I asked at the front desk if he checked out but they said they could not divulge that information.  I thought he must have gone to the gate so I just went ahead and figured I’d meet him there.  It was harder than I thought to get through German customs.  There were at least five check points with metal detectors and searches.  I finally made it to the gate, but no LA.  He showed up a half hour later very angry.  He said we were supposed to meet at 7:30.  I messed up. 

            The flight back was 11 hours long.  I slept about four hours and got a cab to my apartment and had one hour to unpack from Afghanistan, pack for Wisconsin, and get another cab back to the airport for my flight to Milwaukee for my next week of work.

            Whew, no rest for the weary.  I’m not complaining – I like to be busy, but it would have been nice to have a day to recuperate.  As it was, I had to drive to La Crosse on Tuesday, Dubuque on Wednesday, and Madison Thursday through Saturday.

            Sunday was my first day off since Nov. 9th and I really appreciated it.  Now I have a few Corporate gigs in the Midwest and then it’s back to Los Angeles for a week or so.  I have some fun gigs coming up so stay tuned for the next road story.


Cheeseball Tour ’13

OK, it's May, but 5 years later... I took a little break...

Back in June '12, Comedians Mike Merryfield and myself, Rob Brackenridge, started working on a plan to do a month long comedy tour in our home State of Wisconsin.  We originally wanted to do 31 shows in 31 days and drive the whole tour in Mike’s dune buggy, and we enlisted fellow Wisconsiner, Steve Hartman, to be the middle (gravy) spot.  We call it the “gravy” spot because you don’t have to open the show, you walk onstage to a warmed up crowd, you only do about 20 minutes, and someone else does the bulk of the time and closes up the show.  The idea was that I would open the show with a 20 to 30min set, Steve would do 15 to 20, I would go back up and do some time  and introduce Mike, and he would do what it took to take us to 90 min.  It’s a pretty good idea because no matter what type of crowd we would have - bad or good - we could fill in the time without stretching.  With over 40 years of collective experience in Standup (25 years for me, 17 for Mike, and a few days for Steve) we knew we could handle almost any situation and put on a professional show.

We contacted the Appleton PAC (Performing Arts Center) and set up a tester show for Jan. 12th at the Kimberly Clark Theater which seats 300.  We charged 25 bucks a seat and advertised the heck out of it.  Now, Mike and I have been doing stand up for a combined 40 years and we have a pretty loyal following in Appleton, so we figured we would make a few bucks if we did two shows.   What we didn’t account for was that four months later when the Jan. 12th show was to take place, the Green Bay Packers would be playing the San Francisco 49ers in a do or die playoff game to see who would go to the Superbowl.  The kickoff was right when the first show started, and the final whistle was when the 2nd show ended.  For those of you who don’t know, the Packers are the biggest thing in Appleton and the surrounding area, and to imagine that we could go up against such an important game and expect anyone to come was just plain crazy.  There was no going back, we just hoped that we could make enough the to pay the PAC for the use of the Theatre.  For the first show we had about 200 people!  We made enough on that show to break even.  The second show was about 80 or so, but we were overjoyed that we actually made a profit.  The Packers lost big, by the way. 

This convinced us that we had something going here and we started working hard on booking the Tour.  We decided on the month of May and we got two great clubs, the Skyline in Appleton, and the Comedy Cafe in Milwaukee to bookend the tour.  Between those solid bookings we proceeded to fill the dates with one nighters, bars, casinos, colleges, and just about any place that was interested.  We quickly found that 31 shows in 31 days all in Wisconsin would be pretty tough to do, especially Mondays and Tuesdays.  We decided to make those our days off, and we got the month filled up with about 25 shows.  Some of the gigs were good paying, some not so good, and some were door deals where we took a cut of the ticket sales.  Also, the dune buggy idea got kicked to the curb after experiencing just one block of bone jarring riding. 
As the May 1st gig came around, we found that we each had a hard luck story which somehow landed each of us living at our respective Mom’s place.  Steve had an enlarged heart and had a device implanted in his chest that would basically keep him alive, Mike was going through a messy divorce, and I had to escape from my crazy girlfriend in Los Angeles.  This truly was the perfect time for a month long getaway.

The week at the Skyline went great.  Packed crowds, and we broke our old records at selling Merch (Tee shirts and CDs).  One show got a little out of hand when the crowd started sending Mike shots on stage, but I jumped up on stage and bravely downed the shots that would have undoubtedly killed Mike.  We ended up signing a woman’s breasts after the show, and the rest of the night was a little hazy.

Week two consisted of 5 diverse gigs; Whiskeys in Altoona, The Landmark in Egg Harbor, The Best Western in Wausau, Brewskis in Beaver Dam, and Lawrence University in Appleton.  Whiskeys was aptly named because when we got there it seemed like everyone had downed their own body weight in the stuff.  The “showroom” was a 40 by 40 foot curtained off area with a sound system that made a drive thru speaker sound clear.  The lighting consisted of what I can only describe as a food warmer, and during the show I couldn’t help but think that someone’s fries were now getting cold.  We got through the 75 min minimum requirement, and the crowd of about 40, who repeatedly shouted random non-sequiturs, seemed to enjoy themselves.  The next day we drove across the state to the beautiful Door County Peninsula, where we performed at a swanky resort called The Landmark.  They put us up in a very nice three bedroom unit and we were told to keep the comedy clean.  It was a packed house and the average age of the crowd was about 70.  It was fun adjusting our sets from the night before - and nice to know that we can work both types of crowds with equal success.  The next day we drove to Wausau where we performed at a large conference room that seats around 200.  We had 15.  Not a fun show, but we made the most of it and the people who showed up had a good time.  You never know why some gigs have small crowds.  Sometimes it’s lack of advertising and sometimes it is good weather that keeps people from coming indoors.  I think it was a combination of both in this case.  Luckily we did not do a door deal on this one, or we wouldn’t have made any money.  The next night was a bar called Brewskis in Beaver Dam.  This was a free gig and they didn’t do any advertising so basically the “crowd” was just a bunch of bar patrons who were a bit miffed that someone was talking into a microphone and disturbing their conversation.  Needless to say we did a short set and skeedadled out as soon as we could. The next night was Sunday and we did a show at Lawrence University, my alma mater.  This one was fun, with an attentive, smart audience.  Quite a whiplash start for the beginning of the tour.

Week 3 consisted of Uncle Mike’s M Pour E Yum in Hudson, Rookies in Stevens Point, The Elbo Room in Rhinelander,  and The Park Theatre in Hayward.  I booked Uncle Mike’s about 3 months earlier on a suggestion from a friend.  It was a verbal contract so there was no guarantee of getting paid.  When we got there we found it was a bar/trucker motel and our advertisement consisted of chalk words on the sidewalk.  There was no one in the showroom, but about 20 people were drinking in the adjoining bar.  After waiting around for about 30 min the owner came up to us and said “that’s the last time I book gigs when I’m drunk”.  It looked like all was lost, but we decided to give it the old college try.  I asked the owner for some free drink chips and went into the bar and announced that a comedy show was starting.  I then lured the entire bar over to the showroom with the promise of free drinks, jumped up on stage and it was fun!  They turned out to be a great, if somewhat vociferous crowd, and we all had great sets.  It ended up being our longest show so far, and the club owner was overjoyed.  He wanted to know when he could book us back!  The next day we drove to Steven’s Point and played a sports bar called “Rookies”.  This place was packed and the crowd consisted mostly of softball teams from Point Beer and Oso Beer breweries.  Very Wisconsiny to say the least.  The next gig was in Rhinelander at the Elbo Room.  This is a place where Mike had performed many times in the past and they were there to see him.  They barely put up with me and Steve, but when Mike hit the stage it was like watching Elvis perform at Graceland.  Once again, shots were sent up to the stage, but this time I didn’t feel like intercepting them, so Mike got a little tipsy.  OK, a lot tipsy.  OK, he was plowed.  But it did not stop him from killing.  They carried him out on their shoulders and I believe there is now a statue of Mike at the town’s entrance.  The next night we went up to the far northwestern part of the State in a town called Hayward.  It is a resort destination for many Twin Cityonians and all the bars have lots of stuffed dead animals in glass cases.  We performed during a thunderstorm for about 15 octogenarians in a theater which could hold about 300.  Luckily they were fun people and a good time was had by all.

A couple of gigs fell out of week 4, so we just did Friday and Saturday.  Friday was our one and only Casino show at the Menominee Casino in Kashina.  We were told not to do any derogatory material about Native Americans.  Steve had to change his whole set.  The show was in a big ball room and was quite well attended.  Again we kept it clean and had a great response.  The accommodations and food were great although we did lose some bucks at the Texas Hold ‘em table.  Next came a bar called “Beavers” in Townsend.  I expected it to be a strip joint, but they really named it after the animal!  It was an unfinished bar with chicken wire across the stage.  We convinced them to take down the wire, but later on in the show we kind of wished it was still up.  They were by far the drunkest crowd of the tour, and there were a few who never stopped putting their two cents in.  The owner asked us to do a three hour show.... I told him we would try to do 2.   We did two hours only because Mike did seventy minutes.... and they loved it!!!  He didn’t do a lot of material, mostly just made fun of whoever shouted stuff out.  The guy is a pro.

The fifth and final week of the tour started out on Wednesday with an experimental show.  Mike had contacted the owners of a restaurant called “Spats” that was right on College Avenue, the main drag of Appleton.  They have a patio (The “Spatio”) that faces the street, and with a rented speaker and microphone we set up shop.  We didn’t know what to expect crowd-wise because we just used word of mouth advertising and charged $5 a head and we were very happy to find that the place was packed!  With an ominous looming thunderstorm inching up on us, and the daylight fading, we did our thing and packed up just as the first raindrops fell.  Another successful show for the ‘Balls, and the next day we made the easy drive down to Milwaukee to do a Thursday through Saturday run at the Comedy Cafe.

The Cafe is a great club, and has been around almost as long as I have.  I always feel like I’m doing something illegal when I work the room.  There are aways guns around and they look around nervously when they talk to you.  They put comics up in a “comedy condo”.  The condos have always been sketchy to say the least, but this time I think they outdid themselves.  It was a third floor apartment above a nightclub in a real urban part of town.  The door had been kicked in by the police a few days earlier so we had easy access.  Apparently some homeless dude had been occupying the place and he helped himself to the TV as he left.  We found out later that the door had been kicked in because the guy in the apartment above us had tried to hang himself from the fire escape with his belt and that was the only way the cops could get to him.  So the place had been quite busy since the last comics left.  We had to take our valuables with us whenever we left the place, and we expected to see homeless people wearing our clothes when we got back.

We put two chairs together and wedged them between the door and the wall when we were in the place just so no one would push the door open and steal Steve.  When we told the Manager about our door situation he offered his gun to us.  We graciously declined the offer and somehow survived the first night as the thumping nightclub Techno music sang us a lullaby until 2am.  The next day a guy fixed the door, and we finished up the tour in relative security. The Comedy Cafe was a great place to close up the tour;  we had good sized crowds, sold some merch, and the people who ran the club treated us like the pros we are.  So that’s it for the first attempt at The Cheeseball Comedy Tour.   The final count was 22 shows in 31 days, about 2,500 miles all driven in a Volkswagen Jetta that now smells like three Wisconsin comedians.  We all got along great, I got to brush up on my hosting skills, Mike got to show his versatility in working clean and dirty shows, Steve got to work on his set with very little pressure, and we made a few folks laugh in our home State.  If you’d like to see photos of the tour check out, and for our individual standup schedules (I’m in Milwaukee Aug. 9th - 10th, Mike is there Sept. 12 - 14th)  check out and  We also did a wrap up of the tour on Mike’s Podcast, “Irrelevant”, which can be found on Mike’s website as well.  We’ve got some big things in the works for the Cheeseballs  - some TV stuff and more tours - so stay tuned.  Until then we will catch ya on da flipper (whatever that means)!