Sometimes the sound of silence is strangling. Sometimes the stares of an unmoved audience are so disconcerting you lose your place, your words, and your confidence. Sometimes you wonder why you took the chance getting on stage in the first place.
Afghanistan is not a funny place. It is a place of death, war, and beheadings. There is also no comedy scene on my base. I’ve heard of comedians visiting other bases, but never ours. So I took it upon myself and my comedy skills to bring humor to our little outpost in this barren graveyard of empires.
My attempt failed miserably.
I’ve only been performing stand-up for two years. In that short time, I thought I learned the art of failure quite well. My first ever performance, for example, was boondoggle of afro-wigs, nervousness, and poor punch lines. Every open-mic since has had a few jokes that really weren’t. But never in my short time struggling with the art of comedy have I had a worse experience than I recently had in front of 100 or so military personnel from over 20 different countries in a troop lounge on my current base in Afghanistan.
As every failure is a learning experience, here is what I learned:
Some cultural humor doesn’t translate
“Afghanistan is world’s hipster bar. It’s dirty, poor, and run-down, yet all the rich, white countries spend their money here.”
I was proud of this joke, but I guess hipster humor isn’t “in” in some countries. Either that or military people don’t find hipster culture worth laughing or even talking about.
“How great would it be if the Taliban grew weed instead of opium? Cell phone bombs would be a thing of the past. How many potheads do you know who know where they put their phone?”
Although one of my co-workers said she liked this joke, it received no reaction from the crowd. I’m sure there are smokers all over the world. Maybe the culture of weed humor doesn’t fly in military circles.
Observational humor isn’t always good
“The base front gate is a lot like the dance clubs back home. We wait in line, they check IDs, and there isn’t a clean bathroom in the place.”
After my performance, a few colleagues told me sometimes they didn’t want to be reminded about what sucks in their world. They are in the lounge to forget and relax, not be reminded that the toilets get clogged, entrance gates get crowded, and the bathrooms sometimes stink to high heaven. Lesson learned.
Wordplay is tough when telling jokes to an international audience
“Accents are tough. For the first month I was here I thought the Taliban were founded by Afghanistan’s illegal puppy trade. And general told me the key to winning the war was to burn all the puppies. Not the cute, cuddly puppies!”
I thought this joke had a great concept, but it fell flat. Perhaps because puppy/poppy sound so close, many of the international audience failed to recognize the difference I was getting at. As English is their second, or some cases third or fourth language, maybe they didn’t quite get the nuances of the wordplay. Maybe it was my delivery. Or perhaps a simpler play on words such as “fuck/fork” or “sheet/shit” would have worked.
Although I had only a seven-minute set planned, less than halfway though I noticed nothing was working. I saw some people get up to get a drink, some leave their seats to use the bathroom, and some just leave. The blank stares of the rest increased my nervousness and caused me to rush and fumble many of the remaining punch lines. Making matters worse, halfway through my set the DJ tried to run me off the stage by verbally telling me to wrap it up as I was in the middle of a joke, completely decimating what little flow I had. After I looked at him quizzically, he then changed his mind and told me to keep going.
I could say I had a horrible set because I was scheduled in the middle of karaoke night and crowd was in the mood to sing. I could say my set was not well-received because of language barriers and cultural misunderstandings. I could say it was because no one on the base or in the crowd can consume alcohol.
But I’m honest with myself: I didn’t do well because I was way over my head. I wasn’t ready, I barely tried out my material, and I had no gauge on what the audience may or may not find humorous. Now I am stuck with a reputation in my office for not being funny. Which I can only grin and bear.
Since that night, I’ve started visiting the base lounge in the middle of the day to do what I should have done more of: practice. I stand on the same stage but perform only in front of a bartender and usually two or three people playing pool in a corner. They may or may not have any clue what I am saying.
On a positive note, after my set an American walked up and told me he liked one of my jokes. He just didn’t laugh because he didn’t want to be the only one.
“Afghanistan’s not all that bad. Here the men walk around in robes and the women aren’t known for their intellect. It’s just like the Playboy Mansion.”
So I bombed in Afghanistan. But thankfully I didn’t lose my head.
Mike Lortz is currently working with the military in Afghanistan. He continues to write in his spare time at MikeLortz.com and stockpile comedy ideas for his return in March 2013.