After losing a close family member to suicide, Sam Pressler turned to sketch comedy as a means to cope, and later, to grow from the trauma and its consequences.
While in college several years later, he learned that the suicide rate among veterans at the time was 22 deaths per day.
“My mind immediately jumped to standup comedy as a solution,” he says, softly chuckling as if to acknowledge his slightly unconventional way of thinking.
Pressler created the first comedy class for veterans while still a college student. Today, as the founder of the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), his organization holds comedy stand-up bootcamps and improv workshops at no cost for veterans, service members and military families.
Comedy is a salve… For the veterans and military families, but it’s also deeply impactful for the audience. Too often, the veteran and military experience is focused on tragedy and ignores all of the ridiculous things that happen while you’re serving. Comedy plays to the other side of that, but it also gives a space to process experiences and flip them on their heads. Things that used to upset soldiers now become the basis for their material. It turns anger into something positive.
Performing… Is a very deliberate movement to bring civilian and military worlds closer together. Fewer than 20 percent of ASAP participants have engaged in the arts in the previous year. Anecdotally speaking, that’s a result of the civilian-military gap creating apprehension in engaging in the broader civilian world. Performing allows civilians to connect with veterans in a military space. It also shows veterans and military families that their community cares about them and that they belong.
When you laugh… You form a connection with the people around you. Comedy is a communal art form. Laughter requires community. You lean into one another; you feed off of one another. You also form a connection with the person performing. When veterans are on stage, it gives them the feeling that they have an engaging, accessible voice in their community.
Once you’re an artist… You’re often drawn to use a unique voice to speak on behalf of others. One of our comics who has a service dog advocates on Capitol Hill for service dog organizations and has become an advocacy leader in other parts of his life. Another speaks at conferences about what life is like after three traumatic brain injuries.
To help veterans reintegrating… Communities need to boost their understanding and connection to returning service members. A very important part of the reintegration process is not feeling isolated. Veterans need to feel like they belong and that they’re respected. People should listen to their experiences and not just thank them for their service. We need to understand how their service impacted them.
Reporting by Chris Peak