On Saturday night I spoke at a dinner filled with patriotic Americans gathered to support a small charity that pairs service dogs from kill shelters with veterans struggling to cope with life after war. I began with a simple yet effective shot at humor: “I used to be a bomb tech [pointing down at my amputated legs]. Obviously, I wasn’t that good at it.” The audience laughed with me, but not until I gave permission that it was in fact ok to laugh.
While I was speaking, another man who has sacrificed so much in war was also the focus of a joke. Comedian Pete Davidson was performing a skit on Saturday Night Live in which he mocked Republican candidates across the country. One of these, Dan Crenshaw, is a Navy SEAL who lost his right eye to an IED in an incident not unlike the one that took my legs.
Pete’s joke that Dan looks like “a hit man in a porno movie” was a cowardly attempt to knock down a selfless, honorable man who is trying to continue his service, for seemingly no other reason than that he’s a Republican running for Congress in Texas.
Let me be clear – those of us unlucky enough to be severely wounded in combat are not devoid of a sense of humor. On the contrary, our humor is often so dark that regular civilians cringe when we let a zinger go in public.
If spoken by a teammate, an old man at The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), or even the Gold Star wife of a fallen friend, I bet Dan might have folded-over laughing at the thought of the joke. But from a liberal comedian in New York, it wasn’t a joke at all – it was a specifically worded jab. Pete said so himself as he laughed off the bad timing of his joke – "I'm sorry, I know he lost his eye in war, or whatever," he added.
Pete and his SNL friends have no reverence for the sacrifices that men like Dan make every day because they don’t have to – society no longer demands respect in any form.
The truth is that very few of us are exempt from tragedy, and most of us use humor to cope, assimilate and connect through our own struggles. But to participate in this humor, you have to have skin in the game. To tell the joke, you have to be in on it. To make light of darkness, you have to have experienced the dark.
The cast of SNL hasn’t gone to war. In fact, over the past few decades, they haven’t even gone out of their way to acknowledge the brave Americans who did. Instead, from ISIS commercials to Pete’s jab at Dan, we’ve been the butt of their jokes many times.
Pete did lose his father – a New York City firefighter – on September 11th, 2001, and for that he has sacrificed much. However, he hasn’t gone to war, he hasn’t put his life in the hands of his fellow warriors, and he hasn’t looked a man in the face as he took his last breath. He has no skin in our game.
Perhaps Pete’s biggest mistake is that he simply didn’t come through with a joke at all. He fell flat on delivery and took an easy, cheap shot. Dan Crenshaw is no snowflake. Like me, he pokes fun at his injury. But he has some simple and effective rules.
On Fox & Friends Monday morning he said, "I have thick skin and the SEAL teams poke fun at each other all the time. But I have certain rules for when my friends poke fun at me – it has to be original, it has to be witty, and it has to be actually funny. And this wasn't funny."
Dan Crenshaw deserves respect and reverence, not because he’s a Republican running for office, but because he’s an American who nearly died so that Pete Davidson can address millions of people on a weekly basis and joke about things like his recent celebrity break-up.
Perhaps Pete is a broken individual who is simply using humor to cope with his own feelings and loss. For that, he should see Dan as a source of inspiration, not as the butt of a joke. After all, he did lose his eye in war...or whatever.