This summer Atlantic City is distinguished as one of the few stops on an extensive tour by the GIs of Comedy — a troupe of stand-up comedians sharing a bond of service in the United States Armed Forces — that takes place outside of a U.S. Air Force base. The GIs perform 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa’s Music Box theater.
The difference in setting is not entirely without its parallels, however.
This year’s Atlantic City Airshow, which takes place 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday in the skies above A.C., is themed “A Salute to Those That Serve.” Similarly, the main mission of the GIs of Comedy since its 2011 founding is “to help heal their fellow soldiers with comedy, and to bring laughter to all those who have supported our brothers and sisters who wear the uniform of the United States Armed Forces.”
“When we’re performing on base, and particularly when we’re on a Department of Defense Tour like we’re on now, we’ll make light of some of our military experiences, but probably no more or less than when we’re at a comedy club,” says Thom Tran, an eight-year U.S. Army veteran and founder of the GIs of Comedy. “Comics tend to talk about who they are as people, and as people we just happen to be brothers and sons, husbands, veterans, hockey fans, nerds, musicians and things like that. It’s just part of who you are.”
Atlantic City is not only among a handful of non-military installments on a tour that includes more than 30 U.S. Air Force bases, it also holds the honor of being the first town east of the West Coast ever to host the GIs of Comedy as a stand-up act. That took place about eight years ago at the Comedy Stop Cafe, which has since closed but was an entertainment mainstay for about three decades at Tropicana A.C.
“That was actually our first national tour stop ever,” Tran says. “Until that point we had only done shows in L.A. and Ventura County (California), but that was our very first out-of-state, national, on-the-road tour stop we ever did.
“Since that New Jersey gig, things have gone really well for us,” says Tran, who will be joined at Borgata by fellow GI comedians Jose Sarduy and Walter Campbell, both U.S. Air Force veterans. “By the end of this year we will have performed in 22 countries and 40-plus states for service members. Last year alone we did Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Japan, Poland and Germany. There was a lot of overseas touring last year. This year is all stateside stuff, although that can change before the end of the year.”
Tran is a musician who sometimes parodies songs while playing guitar during his act. He says that A.C.’s home state not only helped boost his comedy troupe’s success in general, it had a personal impact on him specifically.
“New Jersey isn’t just a big part of who the GIs are, it’s a big part of who I am as a person,” he says. “The first song I ever learned on guitar was ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ by (Jersey rockers) Bon Jovi, and I own about four Richie Sambora guitars. And I used to joke that more Jersey girls have broken my heart, per capita, than any other state in the Union. So as a state, New Jersey has a special place in my heart.”
A retired Army Special Forces staff sergeant, Tran’s motivation for starting the GIs of Comedy stemmed from a near fatal injury he sustained in 2003, when he and his unit were deployed to fight in the war in Iraq. He made a full recovery from a bullet wound to the head, but subsequently learned that his best friend was killed in the war, which led to a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
A fan of stand-up prior to enlisting in the Army, Tran turned to comedy as a stress reliever, and ultimately launched the GIs of Comedy with four other military veterans who also found cracking up crowds to be medicinal. Tran, Sarduy and Army veteran Tom Irwin are three of the original five GIs of Comedy vets still touring. The troupe has grown to include 11 veterans representing every branch of the U.S. military.
“The idea of the GIs of Comedy was never to make any of us famous, it was just to go and entertain the troops,” Tran says. “If success came along with that then great, I’m not going to argue with it, but that was never the main objective.
“And it isn’t just the combat guys who have issues,” Tran adds, “it’s anybody who’s been deployed overseas or gone downrange (military lingo for being in a war zone), who has sometimes suffered combat stress. It’s a big part of who I am, but it’s a part of who they are too. They still have to deal with it, and they still have friends who are deployed.”
Trans says that bringing the laughs is the only requisite to a veteran joining the GIs of Comedy. Well, that and maybe leaving the President’s name out of it.
“I tell my guys, especially when we go on bases, ‘Look, don’t even say (the President’s) name,” Tran says. “Don’t even say it, because no matter what joke you have, it’s going to be insulting to half the room. That’s just the way it is. Otherwise if it’s funny, it’s fair game.
“I mean, you’re never going to please 100 percent of the room with every joke every time, but if you can find a way to take everyday life experiences — even if it’s a touchy subject — and make it really funny, then anything’s fair game. As long as it’s funny, that’s all I care about.”
Billy Ray to save the day
The GIs of Comedy are providing folks with some entertainment after the big Airshow on Wednesday, but what about those of you who are in town early and looking to have some fun the night before? Fear not, Airshow devotees, Billy Ray is coming to the rescue. That would be Billy Ray Cyrus, of course, the legendary voice behind the 1992 hit single (and line-dancing anthem) “Achy, Breaky Heart” as well as a string of more recent singles. Come 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 20, the country star will head to Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa for a live concert on Airshow eve.
Anyone hoping for a sighting of his daughter — pop princess Miley Cyrus — in the crowd can likely forget it, as she is nursing her own achy breaky heart, being fresh off a recent breakup with husband Liam Hemsworth. The starlet may be unlikely to be making any public appearances for a while.