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Meet the Veterans on a New Mission to Make You Laugh

Humor from uniform as warriors swap battlefield for stand-up

spinner image Demi Chang, Dewayne White and Bobby Henline are all veterans who have turned their experiences into stand-up comedy careers.
Demi Chang, Dewayne White and Bobby Henline turned their experiences into stand-up comedy careers.
AEC Staff

Bobby Henline steps out onto the stage in Las Vegas to loud hoots and applause as he takes the mic with his one remaining hand, then stands in silence, long enough to let everyone get a good, hard look at the severe wounds from the flames that engulfed him some 15 years earlier.

He builds up the suspense just long enough for the audience to start to feel awkward, then drops his deadpan opening line: “You should see the other guy.” The crowd bursts into laughter.

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“I am a burn survivor,” the retired staff sergeant from the 82nd Airborne says, eliciting more shouts and applause. “Thank you,” he quips, moving on to the subject of his meager income as a veteran and touring stand-up comic. “I’m so cheap that I asked for a discount in my cremation.”

Sometimes it seems the audience isn’t sure whether it’s alright to laugh at his jokes — and that’s just fine with Bobby Henline. It’s part of what makes him so funny. And it’s his mission to give people — and himself — the freedom to laugh at his predicament.

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On April 7, 2007, a roadside bomb struck Henline’s Humvee. He was the only survivor of five in the vehicle and sustained severe burns over 38 per cent of his body. It took three long years and 48 surgeries to recover.

“I prayed to God every night to take me as I laid down in bed for the first two years,” Henline told AARP Experience Counts. “I was always joking with the hospital staff, and with my family and friends—partly as a coping mechanism, and partly to help defuse the worry and discomfort of others around me,”

It wasn’t until his hand was amputated, Henline quips, that things got really funny. After the surgery, an occupational therapist named Susy who noticed his keen sense of humor and suggested he should try stand-up comedy.

“I told her she was crazy and it would never work,” he recalls. “I knew I was funny with friends and family but I never thought I could do stand up.

“But Susy kept bugging me so I pinky promised her I would try it.”

Asked if he was nervous the first time he got up on stage, Henline replies with what he calls his “cooked” sense of humor – “Nah, I figured I’ve bombed way worse before and that turned out OK!”

His act was so well received that it soon blossomed into a career. Henline regularly tours across the country and he’s performed for military audiences in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait through the Troops First Foundation.

Henline also runs the Forging Forward Bobby Henline Foundation together with his wife, Jamie, hosting retreats for veterans and first responders.

“Getting things off your chest in a comedic way is definitely way better than anger,” Henline says. “Find your local open mic and go for it.”

That’s what former USMC officer Demi Chang did. After leaving the service, she says she wandered aimlessly. “Eventually, when I felt like I had nothing to lose, I decided to look for an open-mic comedy night. At a time when I felt completely helpless and invisible, there was something intriguing about speaking into a microphone to a crowd of strangers,” she told told AARP Experience Counts.

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“I found an open mic opportunity online at a restaurant called Rock Bottom and took it as a sign since that’s where I felt I was,” she says. “The anxiety I felt waiting for my turn made me empathize with runaway brides. But the moment I stepped onto the stage and into the spotlight, I felt a sense of calm.”

“Comedy is extremely therapeutic for me and is, regrettably, my primary form of therapy,” says Chang, who lives in Austin, Texas. “Most of my comedy is drawn from real life experiences or things that are weighing on my mind. So, all of these aspects of my lived experience can become fodder for material—gender, race, relationships, socioeconomic status, mental health struggles, life changes, insecurities, daily absurdities.”

Like Chang, Army veteran Dewayne White is a graduate of the Armed Services Arts Partnership boot camp. White joined the Army at age 17, served two tours in Iraq, and worked as a Russian interpreter.

One day, he was in a Washington D.C. coffee shop before a meeting and saw a flyer for a standup comedy class for veterans. “I remember thinking that this was a sign and that I'd be the world's biggest hypocrite if I didn't at least give it a try,” he says. “So, I signed up. I took the class, fell in love with comedy, and never looked back.”

“It's definitely therapeutic for me, but also for the audience,” White says. “I can't tell you the number of times I've had vets come up and tell me stories after a show. It's also nice because comedians and veterans have dark senses of humor. It's a defense mechanism we've all developed. 

“It allows us to process hard topics like war, family separations, veteran suicides, PTSD, that aren't funny. But, if we add some humor in there, maybe we can get the ball rolling on healing.”

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