"When the Iraqis can do standup, then we will stand down."
How many times have I heard that? Actually, only once, but still, it was more farce than fact. It could be "irony," but my thesaurus program doesn't work in Ramadi so I can't be sure.
As I watched Blackwater CEO, Erik Prince, testify to Congress, I had to laugh. We all knew he would tapdance around the truth. He was, afterall, a former Navy Seal, Hoofer Division. But no matter how much Henry Waxman sought to dig out the real story, Prince would never give up the deep secret that Blackwater and the Defense Department knew would blow their operation wide open.
"It was never about winning the hearts and minds. It was about killing...in the most theatrical terms."
I work for Gagwater, a Burbank-based corporation that was secretly set up as a Blackwater subsidiary formed to meet the entertainment needs of Iraq, outsourcing comedians and comedy writing.
Gagwater came to be when the White House privately admitted that they were totally unprepared for the post-invasion clubs and sitcoms. The Neocons had thought that all we had to do was show up with a stage and microphone, then just wait for Craft Services set up the wrap party. The cost of putting on the shows was profoundly underestimated, the Iraqi audience reception, sorely misjudged. Their attempt to connect Iraq with the hideous 2001 bombing of "Emerill," was shameless, as anyone with half a brain knows, most of the Emerill staff was made up of Saudi comedy writers.
Gagwater had started off quietly, furnishing unpaid open-stagers and street mimes, but soon became the chief supplier of comedy consultants, training comics in Afghanistan, punching up sitcom jokes in Azerbaijan, and even sending heavily-armed prop comics to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Today they make their money providing the things we used to assume only the U.S. government run USO provided -- weekend comedy nights, Wednesday open-stages, one-joke concept fixes, protection for our comedy bookers and club owners traveling overseas, appropriating material and modifying it so that the comic you appropriated it from doesn't recognize it (see: Carlos Mencia), interrogation of suspected insurgent humorists as well as engaging in comedy-club-building - something President Bush had heretofore swore he'd never do. Since its founding, it has trained over 50,000 consultants who can be booked into fledgling comedy club hell-holes anywhere in the world.
Why book another show, with all the bother of convincing Congress, if you can quietly hire a private theatrical agency to book it for you? Why steal jokes if you can outsource the whole messy business to the Wayan Brothers? Why go through the tedious process of training comedians if Gagwater will handle it instead.
Gagwater is brimming with comics who have outlived their hook. Andrew Dice Clay, Pauly Shore, Gallagher. Dane Cook and Andy Dick are expected to join the effort no later than next year. And there's a plethora of TV over-30 comedy writers who have aged out of the sitcom biz. Larry Gelbart has been writing classics in Sadr City for two years.
I had spent the past fifteen years out in LaLaLand writing television sitcoms and doing standup comedy, but with when you hit the big 3-5 , the network VPs deem you brain dead and drum you out of the comedy biz faster than a...um...see, they're right. So the chance to use the tools that I was sorely overpaid for and turn it into a humanitarian effort spreading satire to a budding democracy, that I would be overpaid for, was a slam dunk decision.
The gig paid headliner money, solid backend points (on gross, not net) and came with full health insurance and fresh fruit replaced daily, but what was soon to come wasn't printed in the brochure. (Dad-da-dum sting here)
The arrogance of Rumsfeld and Bremer created a ass-backwards entertainment abyss, attempting to teach Iraqi audiences English and the subtleties within our language and culture instead of teaching our own comics Farsi. I don't care how many times you say there are no 7-11's or McDonalds in Mosul, they'll find their way into the scripts. Talk about putting Americans in harm's way. Two AM at the Comedy Store was a cakewalk. Not only did we embolden the enemy, we basically became Al-Jazeera TV's Friday Night Lineup's greatest recruitment tool.
The missteps were criminally irresponsible. We disbanded Sadam's comedy booking services and canceled his long-running successful sitcoms: The long-running "Torture And Rape Rooms" had a "Hogan's Heroes" sensibility that defied the critics' lambasting that you couldn't do an abuse-based comedy, and "The Odai and Qusai Variety Hour" had "Sonny and Cher," sans the collagen, written all over it. Call Sadam a cruel and inhuman piece of sh*t, but the man knew funny.
We attempted to create a U.S-oriented comedy development department that never took into consideration that we were dealing with a country that for thousands of years has never understood satire let alone cornball. Think Larry, The Cable Guy in Carnegie Hall. "Git 'er done?" Come on. If New York City doesn't see what's funny with that, how do you expect an Iraqi audience to? An audience that is in reality, three different audiences. It's a little like taking the Jewish-reference that kills at Manhattan's Catch A Rising Star and expecting it'll work in a Mississippi (where I might add, the Tuscaloosa) club.
We had said we were fighting for creative freedom, but the reality is, we're now were stuck in the middle of a network war that had been going on for years. As much as we'd like to say we were there to fight for job security against the young snot satirists, there were no twenty-one year old YouTubing amateurs spoofing films in Iraq until we got there.
If we don't make them laugh there, they'll make us laugh here.
I know that's not actually funny, or even makes any sense at all, but that's the point. We were in a no-win situation that's ended up being a joke. And not a very well-written one at that.
A lot of material just won't translate. A double-entendre might kill in Dubuque, but not in Dubai - which I know isn't in Iraq, but that's the point. The comedy license Gagwater is permitted to get away is a major part of making the work so desirable for those searching for the easy joke, but it won't bring honest satire to the Iraqi screen any more than Fox's Half-Hour Comedy Hour brings laughs to the O'Reilly retirees.
I'm not saying that we aren't good at what we do. Most Gagwater comics are battle-ready performers.
"I followed Michael Richards at the Laff Factory," said one comic who asked not to open. "This is nothing."
But no 2AM open stage Monday prepared me for what awaited us in Iraq.
I had thought my Iraq gig would bring me satirical satisfaction folded in big bucks, but me and my buddies found that most of the work was not about laughs, but about supporting those who were standing in the way of Iraqis finding their true talent.
I know the White House is fond of saying that the comics over here are in favor of finishing the job we were sent there to do, but the recent slaughter of eleven innocent Iraqis at the Fallujah Improv, or what Gagwater officials call a "mistakes happen in standup" snag, is only the tip of the iceberg.
Believe me, escorting convoys of Network executives who had asked Iraqi writers to make their jokes "10 percent funnier," can do nothing but lead to more "mistakes" and worse, reality programming. It's no longer about success or failure. It's about syndication vs cancellation.
Sure, it will put a lot of aging comedy writers out of the business, but if it makes for desirable television, America will be better off for it.
I implore the Congress to have the guts to cut off funding - and assigned parking spaces - and bring our boys (almost no girls on staff) back home where they belong...writing for unpaid Internet blogs where hopefully Fx will invest some development money to build a sitcom around a three-minute video.
Our audiences deserve no less.
Just A Guy Trying To Do What's Write
Steve Young WAS an award-winning television writer and author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful" www.greatfailure.com
. His newest book, "The Power of Satire," is mired in seventh rewrite hell.