It was a mid-week standup show on the Norwegian Dream, and the small auditorium was rocking. Cruise-ship audiences are a comedian’s dream — they’re on vacation, they’re relaxed, they’re ready to have fun. Some of them started laughing at my first setup, before I even got to the punchline. It was one of those “I can’t believe I get paid for doing this” shows.
Partway into my set, I noticed a big man with graying hair sitting in the front row. He was laughing as much as anyone, but also writing on a yellow pad. A reviewer? I wondered. Someone the cruise line sent to get feedback on my act?
An hour later, after changing into jeans and a t-shirt and then grabbing a late supper at a buffet, I was walking past one of the many bars on the ship when I heard someone call my name. It was the note-taking man, sitting at the bar and waving me over. A muscular young guy sporting a crew-cut was sitting with him.
“Can I buy you a beer?”
“Sure, that would be great. Guinness.”
“Good man. That’s my beer too.”
He shook my hand and told me his first name, then introduced me to the crew-cut. They told me how much they enjoyed my act. They appreciated that I kept it family-friendly and clean. I told them that’s what the cruise ships require, but it’s also my style in the comedy clubs.
The crew-cut saw a friend making time with some attractive young women at a nearby table and went to join them. The older man pointed to his yellow pad, which was sitting on the bar.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I took some notes during your act. I’m not stealing your material or anything, but … well, I hope this doesn’t sound too strange for a guy my age, but now that I’m retired, I’ve been going to some amateur nights at a comedy club.”
“No kidding? How’s it going?”
He gave a dismissive wave. “I’m no good yet. I see someone like you, getting all those laughs without having to do dirty material, and I just don’t know how you do it. So I take notes, trying to figure out what makes your stuff so funny. I hope you don’t mind.”
Over another Guinness, I gave him my quick seminar on humor, the various forms a standup bit can take, how to create the surprise that gets the laugh. He jotted down more notes as we were talking.
“I really appreciate you taking the time to help. I tell you, I just admire the heck out of what you people do up there. You’re spreading joy, you know? It’s a great thing. If I had it to do over again, that’s what I’d want to do, spread some joy, make people feel good. I’m hoping I can still do that now.”
“You said you’re retired. What did you do?
“I was in the Marine Corps pretty much my whole adult life.”
“No kidding? Doing what?”
“Ahhh …” He took a sip of Guinness. “Well, I hope you don’t think any less of me, but I was a sniper. Then when I got too old for that, I trained snipers.”
“Why on earth would I think of less of you for that?”
“Sorry. I guess it’s just my stereotype of Hollywood and show-biz types. You know: anti-military, thinking snipers are all bloodthirsty killers, that kind of @#$%.”
“Yeah, that is a pretty common attitude in Hollywood. But between you and me, I can’t stand Hollywood.”
That seemed to perk him up. “Let me buy you another Guinness.”
“No, thank you. I really appreciate you letting me pick your brain.”
I told him he could return the favor by telling me a bit about his life as a sniper, since I’d never met one before and probably never would again. So, somewhat hesitantly at first, he did: being in the field alone, disguised as foliage, crawling toward a target at a rate of maybe a couple of feet per hour to avoid detection. No meal breaks, no bathroom breaks, no water breaks, bugs crawling up in your clothes and biting at you, all the while knowing one sudden movement or one sneeze would get you killed. Finally, you’re in range, and then …
“It’s not like being on the line,” he said. “You don’t fire at enemy soldiers a couple hundreds yards away and watch them drop. It’s one man in your sights, you’re looking at his face, probably looking into his eyes. Then you pull the trigger. It’s personal. It can get to you.”
“Wow. I guess it could.”
“Well, I did what had to be done, you know? But that’s what I mean about if I had a chance to do it over. You get to a certain point in your life, you want to do something meaningful, something that makes people happy.”
It was only because of the Guinness that I was willing to disagree with a rather large retired Marine who’d been drinking.
“Can I tell you something?”
“I’m flattered that you like my act and admire what I do. But in the scheme of history, guys like me aren’t worth a @#$% compared to guys like you.”
“What? How the @#$% do you figure that?”
“How many standup comedians you figure they’ve got in North Korea?”
He smiled. “Never thought about it. Probably none.”
“Right. And there probably aren’t any standup comedians in Iran either, and if there are, they sure as hell have to watch what they say if they want to keep on living.”
A chuckle. “I guess they would, yeah.”
“I can be a standup comedian because I live in a free country. And the only reason I live in a free country is that at certain times in our history, starting with the Revolutionary War, some really tough mother@#$%ers like you stood up and did what had to be done. I read a lot of history, and I don’t remember any of our presidents ever responding to a national emergency by yelling, Holy crap! Get the Secretary of War on the phone and tell him to send in the standup comedians!”
He laughed and slapped the bar. Whew.
“I think it’s great you want to try being a comedian. I hope you do. But even if it doesn’t work out, I hope you remember guys like me get to do what we do because of guys like you. So let me buy you a Guinness now.”
“No, I’m buying you a Guinness. But I appreciate what you said.”
The crew-cut eventually rejoined us, and over the next few hours I learned it’s not a good idea for a middle-aged comedian to go drink-for-drink with a couple of Marines. When my head started spinning, I stood up and announced I should get myself to bed.
The retired Marine stood up and said he should do the same. He reached out and shook my hand, slipping something into it, then walked away. The other Marine noticed what I was holding.
“You know what that is?”
“Some kind of coin.”
“That’s a Scout-Sniper’s coin. It’s an honor.”
“Seriously, don’t lose that, and don’t sell it on eBay, okay? The man just let you know he considers you a brother. It’s an honor. I don’t even have one of those yet.”
“I won’t lose it. I promise.”
Five years later, I still have the coin. I’m looking at it right now, remembering my Marine buddy from the cruise. Tomorrow night, as I enjoy the Independence Day fireworks with my wife and my girls, sitting on a blanket in a public park and feeling happy and safe and free, I will remember him again.
I hope you’re well, my friend. I hope you made it onto a comedy stage somewhere and spread a little joy. But even if you didn’t, I hope you understand that men like you have been spreading joy for 235 years now. The joy is called freedom.
Happy Fourth of July.