As the country pays homage this Veterans Day, military service men and women are nothing to laugh at. But a group of veterans in Northeast Florida are doing everything they can to make people laugh, and some of them are getting pretty good at it.
“I talk about being old, short and white,” Pete Burdon said of his standup material.
He said sometimes he’ll see a beautiful girl in her 30s walk by when he’s sitting in the lobby waiting for a comedy show to start.
“I look at her and I tell myself, ‘I bet her mom is hot,’ ” Burdon said.
It’s just a joke.
The 70-year-old Marine Corps veteran is happily married and not interested in meeting women through comedy, but he will say anything if he thinks it will make someone laugh.
Burdon and Al Spencer took turns heckling comedians last week as other veterans tried out new material on stage at the Comedy Zone in Mandarin.
Spencer blurted out thoughts on how the comics could improve their jokes while Burdon offered quiet quips about the things he heard. It’s always a tough crowd at the workshop on Saturday afternoons, and both men got the same treatment when they got up on stage.
Spencer, 57, retired from the military in 2002 after 24 years in the Army. Now he uses comedy as a way to relax and blow off steam.
“Once you’ve gotten that first laugh from an audience it’s like an addiction, that’s a bond that’s very special,” Spencer said.
The two men are part of a large contingent of veterans in Northeast Florida who perform on stages of various sizes and work together to hone their comedic craft. Some of the local veterans treat comedy as a hobby, but others have dreams of making it big.
“I am now the adorable, older guy that makes people smile,” Burdon said of his role in the circle of veterans.
But he’s not the oldest in the group.
Sid Porter is a 78-year-old Air Force veteran who is happy telling jokes in front of small crowds.
Porter started off doing impressions when he was 8. He said he took his siblings to a movie one weekend and got his first glimpse of a bear named Andy Pandy.
The following Monday he entertained his classmates by impersonating the bear during show-and-tell.
“I did the whole cartoon, and I’ve been standing up on the stage ever since,” Porter said.
He moved on to imitating people like Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. The guys in the Air Force laughed uncontrollably, and Porter decided to pursue comedy.
But with the demands on his family, Porter took a civilian job at Jacksonville Naval Air Station. Now in retirement he tells jokes for fun and does an impression from time to time.
Leroy Gordon has the same dream Porter had. Gordon is a 37-year-old Marine Corps veteran who wants to make it to the top of the comedy circuit.
“I want it all,” Gordon said. “A lot of people don’t want to say that, but there’s enough room at the top for all of us to make it.”
Gordon said he grew up in a poor neighborhood, so when the Marines asked if he wanted to sign up he jumped at the opportunity for financial stability.
“They were the first people to ask me if I wanted to join the military,” he said. “I’m sure if one of the other branches asked I would have gone with them.”
He served from 1998 to 2002 as a food service specialist where he always had the ability to make people laugh.
Gordon said he’s been aggressively attacking the local comedy scene since his first stage gig about three years ago. Now he’s learning how to perform in front of different types of crowds.
“A lot of times you will catch me outside the show watching the people coming in,” Gordon said. “If it’s an older crowd I might take out my sexually explicit material. If it’s a younger crowd I let them have it.”
The weekly comedy workshop is helping him to improve his material and grow as a comedian, but it’s not just a place for people starting out.
Bob Lauver still attends when he can, but he’s closer to his goal than most of the comics in the group.
He served in the Navy from 1987 to 1991, but he said in all that time he never got on a ship. He traveled across the world and got his first taste of being on stage in the Philippines.
Recently he’s been opening for a comic who goes by the stage name Grandma Lee. Traveling with her has taken Lauver as far as Alaska, but it’s also allowing him to make a name for himself.
One of his bits deals with a guy who goes to the bathroom and takes extra precautions to keep his hands clean. That same man then uses his soiled hand to operate the paper towel dispenser.
The punchline isn’t suitable for print, but Lauver said he’s sold over 1,000 Koozies with the memorable phrase on them. That’s a sign that he’s close. He said he can feel the big break coming any time now.
“It’s the hope that your next gig is going to be the gig that you finally open the door so you can be a sustaining, livable comic,” Lauver said.
All the local veterans have different comic styles and different reasons for getting on stage.
Claudine Chandler was a combat field medic in the Army from 1982 to 2002. Now she dreams of working with Wanda Sykes in a TV show or onstage.
David Emanuel is a 45-year-old Marine Corps veteran who uses stand-up comedy as a tool to help with his acting career.
He attends acting classes and auditions as often as he can. He said his proudest moment so far was a small part in the movie “Soul Hood.”
“The dreams of stardom and fame are great for all the others,” Kurt Allen said. “But comedy saved my life.”
Allen has a joke that he joined the Army in 1985 because his friend bought a new set of Kenwood speakers thanks to money he made in the service.
“I wanted those speakers,” Allen said.
Underneath all the jokes and laughter, the situation is much more serious for Allen. He spent 52 months in federal prison after getting convicting for marijuana cultivation.
“If I would have never been incarcerated I would have never done comedy,” Allen said.
A prison buddy had a band, he said, but the lead singer was getting out. The buddy formed a new band and somehow Allen was selected as the singer.
“I did a rap song and fat momma jokes,” Allen said. “The rap song killed and the jokes bombed.”
But Allen loved the feeling of being onstage and started at the Comedy Zone 90 days after getting out of prison. He said it changed his life and gave him something to be passionate about.
One night a woman approached him after the show and told him she loved his set.
“She was the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” Allen said. “I would have had no chance with this girl in my life.”
They started seeing each other early in 2015 and now have two children together. Allen said he has a good-paying job and isn’t able to perform as much as he used to.
“I was really passionate about my comedy, but now my family took the passion,” Allen said.
Though he can’t perform as much as he used to, there are plenty of other veterans around town who enjoy entertaining crowds with their humor.
Some of them do it because they want to be famous. Others, like Allen, do it because they feel the need to be passionate about something after getting out of the service.
Joe Daraskevich: (904) 359-4308