"First you have to be a stand-up person — then you can be a stand-up comic."
Those are the words "M*A*S*H" creator and legendary comedy writer Larry Gelbart imparts to comedian Jeffrey Ross in "Patriot Act" — the soon-to-be-released "home movie" Ross wrote and directed about his trip to Iraq to entertain the troops.
Ross' tour of duty was spearheaded by Drew Carey, and consisted of a small group of comics (including "Drew Carey Show" co-star Kathy Kinney) who traveled to some of Iraq's most dangerous regions to bring belly laughs to the heroically fatigued. Gelbart — a former joke writer for renowned USO performer Bob Hope — serves as Ross' pre-trip advisor, a sort of comic elder statesman who offers lessons in both mirth and morality.
Ross' footage is riveting. Raw, moving, shocking, and all too real. Good news is it's darn funny too.
Ross — who's widely known as the host of Comedy Central's celebrity roasts of Pamela Anderson and Hugh Hefner — admits he's never been much of an active patriot. Take this line from his stand-up act of a few years back: "I enlisted. I'm now a security guard at Old Navy. Does that count?"
As he points out, comedians are like reporters with humor — interpreting sights, sounds, tastes, and attitudes in a way that may help to bring us together rather than split us apart.
The comedians' trip took them to Saddam's old Republican Palace, where they met with Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. Says Ross, "I ate the worst potato salad I ever had, but he gave us pretty good insight" as to how the war was being fought and perceived.
Of course, the palace pop-in was not complete without Ross taking a seat in Saddam's thrown. There's beautiful irony in a guy who spends most of his time facing sweaty hecklers in dank comedy clubs treating Saddam's gilded perch like an old Lazy-Boy.
Other jarring sights: Helmets of dead Iranians now used as speed bumps in roads; the face of former President George H.W. Bush painted on the floor of the entranceway to the Hotel Al Rashid, presumably for patrons to step on with glee; and a trip to Ba'ath, labeled by Ross as "Bed, Ba'ath & Beyond" — a funny way of letting us know that a trip to Iraq ain't like picking out towels.
There are bizarre coincidences, such as when Ross bumps into a soldier named Stanley Nabors, who happens to be the grandson of actor Jim Nabors — yes, Gomer Pyle himself. And moments of pathos, like "Operation Sharing Hands," wherein a group of soldiers took it upon themselves to ask family and friends from the U.S. to send school supplies for Iraqi children, then hand-delivered the supplies to them.
And things got rough: The hotel where the comedians stayed was once attacked 15 minutes after they departed; one performance took place on a flat-bed truck with a microphone stolen from a drive-through falafel stand; and Ross caught a wicked case of "Saddam's Revenge," an illness with symptoms you can probably surmise.
Through it all there are laughs, and plenty of them. My favorite line occurred while the group was riding in an army vehicle, trying to process their surroundings. One comic: "Is this the soccer stadium where they used to torture people?"
Ross: "No, it's the torture stadium where they used to play soccer." Big laughs.
In the end, Ross says that the U.S. military was the best crowd he ever played, explaining that there's "nothing better than hearing a joke penetrate through a bullet-proof vest."
While the film awaits a national distributor, "Patriot Act: A Jeffrey Ross Home Movie" has been playing at festivals and arts houses nationwide. Those of you in the Bay area can screen the film this Tuesday, Dec. 6, at 7 p.m. PT at the San Francisco Film Center at The Presidio. A Q&A session with Jeffrey Ross follows.