How a comedian can go from Hollywood to Kabul
"It was like walking onto the surface of the moon," Graham Elwood says of his first experience walking off of a C-17 in Afghanistan.
His experience was not unlike many of our own first times deploying to a far-off edge of the world. We take a long, long C-17 (or god help you, C-130) ride for seemingly endless hours. There are no windows. The plane is packed. Forget about an in-flight movie or looking out the window. And when you walk off, it's invariably the middle of the night and you and the hundred or so people you're with walk off the flightline in a single file.
From there, who knows? There's a good chance the "hurry up and wait" has just begun. For civilians visiting war zones for the first time, it's no different – except they have no idea how to speak the acronym language.
"They said 'When your bird hits the LZ, find your POC, they'll take you to the MWR tent then you can go to the DFAC,'" he jokes. "It's like... what are you saying to me right now, man?"
Elwood is a Los Angeles-based comedian with appearances in comedy clubs across America, on college campuses, and even CBS' Late Late Show. He's also a veteran podcaster with shows like Comedy Film Nerds, and The Political Vigilante, and he's a co-creator of the Los Angeles Podcast Festival.
None of that prepared him for performing for U.S. troops deployed in combat zones. His first documentary, Laffghanistan: Comedy Down Range, is about his first time volunteering to go do just that. It's amazing how fast you can go from playing the Hollywood Improv to playing Bagram Air Base.
Elwood's film documents his personal journey from the sunny beaches of Southern California to the sun-baked moonscape of Afghanistan, where the military's Department of Morale, Welfare and Recreation enlisted him to entertain the troops. Elwood's psychedelic travels through a war zone are simultaneously hilarious, harrowing, and heartbreaking. His journey becomes unpredictably personal, creating a documentary that no one expected, least of all Graham.
For someone who admits he's pretty far removed from the Global War on Terror, it all came home to him when went around the small firebases of Afghanistan. It was his first time in helicopters, driving in unarmored vehicles on the ground in Afghanistan, and seeing minefields. It got real for him for him real fast.
"What was said to me and what I've said to other comedians," he says. "Well don't go over there if you don't want to be changed. It will change you. You have no idea. This is no joke."
Now that Elwood has done a number of these shows and tours around deployed military bases, he looks back at his first experience in this episode of Mandatory Fun.
Nothing could adequately prepare him for performing a comedy act in Afghanistan. All the dive bars and sh*t holes he played as a young comedian is the best thing he could do to prepare. He was still freaking out but couldn't help but put himself in the shoes of young troops.
"I'm here for two weeks," Elwood says, "and MY family is freaking out. Imagine them and their families and how much they're freaking out."
But they quickly realized that they need to be the comics. They were there for a reason: to give American troops fighting overseas a few laughs, a taste of a normal night, and a show to help ease their tension, even if it was only for a short time.
Mandatory Fun guest: Graham Elwood has been a stand-up comic for over 20 years working comedy clubs, colleges, TV shows, Holiday Inn Lounges, war zones, dive bars, and one time on the top of a double-decker tour bus in Chicago (not joking) . You've probably seen him on the TV as the host of the socially relevant game shows "Cram" (GSN) and "Strip Poker" (USA), along with making the world a better place by appearing on shows like "Best Bodies Ever" on VH1. Don't forget the time when he told jokes on "The Late Late Show" (CBS). He has also starred in the theatrical plays Speed the Plow, Light Sensitive, and Cash Flow, and co-wrote the one act play Brothers. Learn more about Elwood:
Mandatory Fun is hosted By:
Blake Stilwell: Air Force veteran and Managing Editor
Tim Kirkpatrick: Navy veteran and Editorial Coordinator
Orvelin Valle (aka O.V.): Navy veteran and Podcast Producer