By Maggie Phillips
It’s been three years this month since I first stepped onto the stage at the DC Improv to perform my first stand-up comedy set. Family and friends who have known me virtually my whole life came out to see me (my husband was deployed, of course, even though the whole thing had been his idea). Before the performance, I joked that I was “Mrs. Maisel-ing”; it was the same year that, like the heroine of the Amazon Prime show, I had gone back to work after staying home with the kids, and now I was doing stand-up comedy.
I said the whole thing had been my husband’s idea. I told him that I had seen somewhere that the Armed Services Arts Partnership was taking applications for a three-week comedy boot camp that met on weekends, just for Veterans, servicemembers, and their families. He’d been telling me for years I should get into stand-up, but like the way he always tells me I still look great after three pregnancies, I figured he was blinded by love.
As an Army brat and a theater kid, I had known my whole life that the military community was chock-a-block with talent.
However, I filled out an application. When they asked something along the lines of why I was interested in the boot camp, I responded, “Because my husband keeps bugging me about trying stand-up, and whether I get in or not, at least he’ll have to leave me alone about it.”
From the Soldiers in my dad’s unit who were in the band and on the stage in a community theater production of Godspell in Vilseck, Germany, to the annual Tournament of Plays — where servicemembers, DoD civilians, and family members from across what was then called U.S. Army Europe gathered in Heidelberg, Germany for our own personal version of the Tony Awards — the all-singing, all-dancing, joke-telling Army was simply a fact of life.
I never imagined I’d someday be collecting checks for telling jokes, including at the Blue Star Families Neighbors Celebration, in which I think I recall inviting then-acting Secretary of the Army Mark Esper and Craig from Craigslist to contemplate the ravages of childbirth on my body (Obliquely. As part of my stand-up set. Not like, during the cocktail hour.)
My cheering section that night was all Army brats. All interesting people who have had fascinating careers and lived all over the country and the world, with diverse beliefs and views.
Really, the surprising thing wasn’t that I was up on the stage telling jokes, but that there aren’t more military family members onstage sharing their stories at theaters and comedy clubs all over the country, or even at their own campaign events and on TV debates.
My dad, the retired Army guy, came to my first set at the DC Improv. So did my high school prom date and one of my bridesmaids. Another long-time high school friend — who had worked as part of the backstage crew when I was in Fiddler on the Roof, had played Emile in the school production of South Pacific, and had later gone on to work in theater himself — sat next to my dad, which he told me made some of the more off-color sets preceding mine kind of uncomfortable.
Some of the biggest laughs I’ve gotten to date, I have to be honest, are stolen jokes. They’re things my great-grandmother, Harriet, a career Army wife herself, had said about her experiences. Among my favorites: “World War II and Korea saved our marriage.” When I told my grandmother about the laughs her late mother-in-law’s bon mots received, she said she was sure Grandma Harriet was listening in, a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other, basking in the posthumous attention.
American discourse loves to praise military families for their resilience and their sacrifice. Alright, fine. Thanks. You’re welcome. But what if they saw us for our diversity, our creativity, the way we support each other despite our differences, and the way we can laugh at ourselves?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the attention. I’m usually reluctant to share the spotlight, but there’s definitely room onstage for more of us!
About Maggie Phillips
Maggie Phillips is an Army spouse and mom of three. She writes for Tablet magazine as part of a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation to increase religious literacy. Her work has appeared in The Leaven, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Army magazine, NextGen MilSpouse, Military Mom Collective, Military Spouse magazine online, and elsewhere. When she can get a babysitter, Maggie also does stand-up comedy, a subsidized hobby that usually just about pays for the babysitter. Follow her on Instagram at @maggies_words, on Twitter at @maggiemphillips, and at mrsmaggiephillips.com. Opinions her own.