The lighter side of war

Armies march, Baghdad is bombed, and hilarity ensues.

Flying low into Baghdad, with an aerial view of a cityscape pocked with bomb craters, comedian Jeff Ross covers his nervousness with – what else – a joke:

“Hasn’t there been enough bombing here? Do they have to bring in comedians?’’

Four performances later, Ross had the answer and a new perspective on the uses of humor. Islanders can share those insights April 19; Ross filmed the four-day USO tour he and fellow comics made to Iraq last September. His documentary, “Patriot Act,” debuts with a benefit screening here.

The junket began for Ross with a chance encounter outside a Hollywood improv club, where he and his girlfriend ran into a friend, Kathy Kinney. She told Ross about the upcoming USO tour that Drew Carey – the comic actor with whom she co-stars on Carey’s television show – was putting together. Kinney was going along, and asked if Ross wanted to go too.

“I had a drink in me,” Ross said. “I said, ‘really?’ I jumped at it, and the next day I woke up and said, ‘What have I done?’”

The decision wasn’t completely impulsive, Ross says, but also reflected his interest in the career of comedian Bob Hope, a perennial USO entertainer.

“He had passed away that summer, and I was fascinated with his life,” Ross said. “Thinking about the old comedians, when they pass away, people forget about them. But this is a guy everyone remembers because he did something special.”

But once he signed on, Ross was something between bemused and bewildered to find himself – with a small cadre of comics that included Andres Fernandez, Kyle Dunnigan, Vietnam veteran Blake Clark and Kinney – strapped into a military transport on a descent into Baghdad.

The group lands in a surreal world of heat-scorched desert landscapes and empty palaces.

Beset by sleep derivation, 130-degree heat, and a malady the troops call “Saddam’s Revenge,” the comedians are initially tentative about their ability to be funny under the circumstances, but soon find their footing before immensely appreciative audiences.

They learn to pick up on the immediate circumstances of the soldiers, poking fun at the brass while boosting morale.

There is little time to assimilate anything as they are whisked from one part of the country to the next.

But since humor is the group’s stock in trade, discomforts and dangers that include a show on the well-lighted open-air stage in Tikrit, where nightly mortar fire is a fact of life, are so much raw material.

The bizarre, grandiose palaces provide some of the film’s comic highlights, as when the group “searches” an enormous swimming pool for weapons of mass destruction, or when Ross – perched on Saddadm’s throne – quips “I feel like a dead dictator.”

While Ross restrains himself from politicizing the film, wry commentary includes the subtitle “Bovines of mass destruction” below a placid herd of Iraqi cows.

If Ross believes that the documentary is less about the soldiers than about what it’s like to be playing comedy in a war zone, the small interviews with troops are revealing. While the young soldiers don’t mention fear, the reality of combat is reflected in the faces Ross filmed.

“It’s not so much what they say, but how they look,” he said. “You get their unguarded emotions. What you see is a lot of fear in their eyes.”

One soldier stationed in Tikrit, his face still healing from a shrapnel wound, shows Ross the crater from the hit right next to his tent.

“I’m married and I have two kids,” he said. “I don’t tell them nothing. I don’t have the heart to do it.”

As the comics move from venue to venue, ending in the bleak Tikrit outpost where soldiers sleep in tents fortified by sandbags, the gratitude of the young men and women for the USO entertainment is striking.

“You don’t know what this means to us,” they tell the comics again and again, “you can’t know.”

But with the USO comics mindful that they leave for home soon while the young soldiers must stay, the gratitude cuts two ways, Ross says.

Back in the States, Ross crafted his home movie into a film – doing some of the editing on Bainbridge Island, where his sister and nephews live.

Although a seasoned comic with many TV appearances to his credit, Ross found that viewed through the lens of the Iraq experience, comedy looked different.

I think I see my job description differently since then,” he said.

“Stand-up comedy, it’s always about me, me, me, what I’m making, and is this good for the career.

“I don’t think I understood what it means to be a comedian until I did it there.”

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