Comedian Steve Byrne (far right), shown with his younger brother William (standing), has entertained U.S. troops in Iraq along with comedians Colin Quinn (left) and Robert Kelly (middle). (Courtesy of Steve Byrne)
Comedian Steve Byrne got a small taste of life downrange during a performance in Iraq with the USO.
Byrne, star of the TBS show “Sullivan & Son,” was doing his routine on a base near an Iraqi city when he noticed U.S. snipers overlooking him.
“I asked one of the officers, ‘Sir, why are there snipers up there?’ ” Byrne told Military Times. “He’s like, ‘Well these snipers here are to protect you from from the snipers over there.’ Usually, the worst a comic can do is bomb, but now the worst I can do is possibly get shot. I was definitely a little scared but I was like, well, if I’m going to have one last show, this is the way I’d want to go down.”
Byrne is a regular on USO tours, having entertained U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Most recently, he visited U.S. troops and military families in Guam and then went to the Philippines in March, according to the USO.
In a July 7 interview, Byrne talked about why he performs for troops.
“They are, to this day, the most rewarding shows I’ve done professionally as a comedian,” he said. “In terms of what I get out of it, I really feel that expressing gratitude, showing appreciation by trying to make them laugh for an hour or two — I can’t say how that makes me feel.”
Since “Sullivan & Son” first aired, Byrne has done a USO show at the end of both seasons.
“We’re hoping to have a third one here as well — and hopefully, many more,” he said.
Byrne comes from a military family. His father served and his brother joined the Army after witnessing United Airlines Flight 175 slam into the South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001.
“He had nightmares for the next four to five months,” Byrne said. “He just said, ‘You know, I’m going to do something about this.’ He’s a better man than me; he actually joined the Army and continued the tradition that my father [and] his grandfather had set — all the men on the Byrne side of the family, except for me pretty much. He did two tours in Iraq and one tour in Korea.”
Byrne first ventured downrange with USO in March 2005 while his brother was stationed at Camp Victory North — later called Camp Liberty — near Baghdad.
“At the time it was quite hectic and it was very prevalent, being in the news all the time, and having a loved one over there was very intense,” Byrne said. “So on behalf of my family, I got to go over and actually see my brother for one day. He got to come out to some of the shows with us. Just knowing that he was safe for that day sent me and my family over the moon.”
While he was downrange, Byrne saw that U.S. troops needed a reminder of home.
“I felt that we were a healthy distraction,” he said. “With advent of social media, I would hear from some of these troops saying, ‘That show made me forget about things for at least a month.’ I heard that over and over again.”
Last year, comedian Mitch Fatel’s raunchy standup comedy routine at RAF Lakenheath, England, prompted a review of which entertainers are allowed to perform for service members. Armed Forces Entertainment, which booked Fatel, vowed not to contract with him again because his jokes violated the Defense Department’s standards and values.
“The current contracts dictate entertainment shall be wholesome and adhere to the standards of good taste,” Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Erika Yepsen told Air Force Times at the time. “Specifically, the rules prohibit offensive material regarding race, religion, national origin, sex, military rank, military service, or disability.”
When asked if he has to tone down his humor for the troops, Byrne acknowledged that performing for troops is different than doing standup comedy in front of a civilian audience.
“When you are are going to perform for the troops, it’s an honor; it’s a privilege to get to do that,” he said. “If you keep up with current events, you’re going to know what topics to shy away from. You’re not there to shock anybody; you’re not there to walk the line; you’re there to honor these men and women who serve the country. You want to be absolutely — even more than — respectful when you’re performing for them.”
One thing that is hard for Byrne to fathom is when troops thank him for coming out to perform.
“It’s the most counterintuitive thing,” he said. “It’s like: ‘Don’t thank me at all. I’m here to thank you. Please, understand that what you do is far in away more important than what I do.’ ”