When a person gets critically injured, surgeries, prescriptions and physical therapy may be able to help their bodies, but what about invisible wounds? While therapy may be the first road to healing, as the saying often goes, “Laughter is the best medicine.” In the 2013 documentary, “Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor,” such a concept is explored. Cofounders John Wager and Ray Reno, with support from the Wounded Warrior Project, reached out to veterans aspiring to be comedians to encourage audition tapes. A-listers like Bob Saget, Lewis Black, Zach Galifianakis, B.J. Novak and more were recruited to act as coaches. The chosen warriors were Rob Jones, Darisse Smith, Steve Rice, Bobby Henline and Joe Kashnow. Henline and Kashnow are the only two still practicing comedy today. They will bring their jokes to Wilmington on Saturday, February 15.
After joining the military at 17 years old and serving in Desert Storm at 19, Bobby Henline was an Army veteran at age 20. In 1991 he retired from the military, then 9/11 happened and inspired Henline to re-enlist. He completed basic training all over again after being out of duty for 10 years. Three more tours in Iraq followed; 12 months in 2003 with the 82nd Airborne division; 13 months in 2005 with 3rd Armor division; and a 2007 tour back with the 82nd Airborne.
Three weeks into his 2007 tour, Henline’s life was flipped upside down … literally. His Humvee was struck by a roadside bomb, leaving him the only survivor of five men. 38% of his body was covered in burns and his head burnt to the skull. Henline was medevaced to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas within 72 hours and was placed in a medically induced coma for two weeks. His stay extended to six months.
Over the span of 12 years, Henline has undergone 48 surgeries and a left-hand amputation, all of which serve as inspiration for his stand-up routine. “I used my sense of humor to help me, starting in the ICU,” Henline says. “I started working with an occupational therapist when they took my hand. She thought I was funny and talked me into trying stand-up.”
Awarded with a Purple Heart, Henline did stand-up for two years when he auditioned for Comedy Warriors. He wanted a chance to learn from professionals in the business.
“Seeing that my face was burnt really bad, Bob Saget told me I should do a joke about saving face—I loved it,” Henline says. “I think Lewis Black gave me the best advice: He said I got the timing down, now add more details to the joke, build it up. You got their trust.”
When Henline steps on stage, he immediately addresses the elephant in the room, diving right into his looks. He makes a joke out of everything: his trauma, homeless vets, divorce, dating, children and everyday life. “It’s not easy tackling tough subjects, but I’ve learned over the last 10 years of doing comedy how to take something so dark and make it funny.”
Comedy has opened doors for Henline, motivating him to go back overseas to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait to do stand-up for the troops. It also has led him down the path to acting. He starred in “Coming Back with Wes Moore” in 2014, “Sophie and The Raising Sun” in 2016, “Shameless” in 2017, and “Dangerous World Of Comedy” in 2019.
While shooting the documentary, Henline met fellow soldier Joe Kashnow. Kashnow served in Iraq in 2003. On a mission to buy gym equipment for spare-time workouts, he escorted an empty cargo truck from base camp in Baghdad. A roadside bomb went off and severely wounded him, leading to the amputation of his right leg.
Kashnow’s dead-pan sense of humor is apparent when he talks about not having a “cool” story surrounding his injury—like, say, during a shopping trip rather than high-speed combat, driving over minefields (which he’s done at least twice). “I don’t regret serving my country,” he clarifies. “I regret having been injured on a mission that wasn’t essential.” Comedy helps him work through it; he finds ways to incorporate his amputation into his material. “In fact, this Friday, it’s 15 years for me as an amputee,” he notes. “And I’ll be honest, I’m really starting to give up hope that it’s gonna grow back.”
In January 2012 Kashnow performed for the first time at an open-mic night at Baltimore’s Magooby’s Joke House and won their new talent showcase twice in a row. Stage-fright never bothers him because he’s experienced horrors far more terrifying than talking to a crowd of people.
“Once you’ve been shot at professionally, it really does change your perspective,” Kashnow says. Only his self-doubt held him back from initially pursuing a career in comedy. At first, he was intimidated by writing material, a skill that was refined by his time filming the documentary and learning from mentors.
During the first day of filming, he recalls how the veterans each took turns on stage with their best jokes. Bob Saget never looked up from his phone, and so Kashnow believed he wasn’t paying attention. Really, Saget was taking notes on every single joke and how to fine-tune them. Kashnow jokes about burying his leg, having his gallbladder removed, basically finding a way to die on an installment plan. “Essentially as a Jew I’m offended paying full price for anything,” Kashnow says. There is a lot of material he could use combining his injury with his Jewish heritage. Saget told him he would have “a leg-up in comedy because he’s Jewish.”
Though not a part of the documentary, Marc Price decided to take Kashnow’s and Henline’s comedy on the road with him as “Skippy and the Comedy Warriors” in 2019. Price is better known as “Skippy,” star of the 1980s hit television show, “Family Ties.” Bernadette Luckett, coproducer and coach of the documentary, introduced the trio, impacting on Price’s life perspective.
“These guys are an inspiration, with what they’ve been through and the outlook they have, making everybody laugh and cracking me up all the time,” Price says. “It’s hard to dwell on your problems too much. Everybody has problems, you’re allowed to be human, but how much can you complain when you know Bobby and Joe and what they’ve been through, and they don’t complain.”
“Skippy and the Comedy Warriors” will bring their hour-long show to Thalian Hall on February 15. Attendees should expect to see Kashnow’s service dog, Chico, on stage as well. “He will be performing juggling acts and false advertising,” Kashnow promises.