Monday, April 23, 2012

Kick back and come to Iraq!

The WGA Foundation has many terrific programs. One is the Veterans Writing Workshop. A group of 28 working members of the WGA agree to “mentor” about 100 military veterans for a weekend of writing exercises and advice. The mentors all had great credits in film and TV. This year I volunteered to be one of them, and I cannot tell you how rewarding an experience it was!

We were all broken up into small groups of two mentors and three or four vets. So everyone got lots of personal attention and feedback. My co-team leader was Dave Hackel (creator of BECKER, producer of WINGS) and I presided over three extremely talented young men. So much so that (a) I’m threatened, and (b) I want to share their work. 

Like I said, all the groups were given various writing exercises (depending on the mentors). Write a paragraph that starts with “I remember…”, “What is the one thing you cannot live without?”, etc. We decided to make one up. All three of our guys had served overseas and were sharing stories around the table of the horrific conditions. So I said, “Okay. You’re the head of the tourism board of Iraq or Afghanistan or Kuwait. Write a one paragraph sales pitch convincing people to come to your country for vacation. This was the result:
Logan, Dan, Andy

IRAQ – Logan Knight

 Come to Iraq and bask in the beautiful summer sun all year long! Free yourself from Western distractions like women and running water. Take time to explore our beautiful caves, then pick one to live in! And Iraq hold the award for “Most Attractive Camels” three years in a row! So kick back and come to Iraq! 

AFGHANISTAN – Dan Anderson

Do you like open skies? Magnificent mountain ranges? The finest black tar heroin in the world? Then come to the unconquerable land of Afghanistan! Experience life as it was lived two thousand years ago when Jesus walked the earth. You will stay in a mud hut closely located near a stream that serves as both your toilet and bath. Going to the moon too expensive? Then come to the barren fields and mountains of Afghanistan! Personal rifle or machine gun recommended.

KUWAIT – Andy LaBrune

Are you tired of slouching away your life behind a desk? Then you need to shut your Facebook, turn off your smart phone, and embrace new adventures in Kuwait! Exotic animals like the giant lizard known as Dub-dubs run free on our low impact sand. And you can too! There are also unique examples of Mother Nature’s deadly creativity, like the Yellow Scorpion, or the Hairy, Jumping Camel Spider! Come to Kuwait!

In conferring with the other mentors, all of the participating veterans wrote wonderful, funny, touching, surprising pieces. Sign me up to mentor again! If you’d like information on the many fine programs the WGA Foundation sponsors, or if you’d like to contribute, please click here. For tour packages to Iraq you’re on your own.


Roger Owen Green said...

I especially loved Afghanistan - he understands the history of the place.

Aaron Hazouri said...

I literally laughed out loud at all three. Hilarious!!

betretn rrealo said...

All 3 sound like better destinations than an Adam Sandler movie.

Johnny Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Walker said...

Wow. I found these a little distasteful. Aren't these guys supposedly fighting FOR the countries they're dissing here?

Cue the inevitable "it's just a joke!!!1" responses.

RCP said...

Johnny Walker said...

"Cue the inevitable "it's just a joke!!!1" responses."


I'm about as antiwar as they come, but somehow I don't find this distasteful.

Paul Duca said...

It's one of the more unusual offerings but I truly appreciate anything being done for the current group of veterans--especially since many of those who sent them off in the first place (and many who cheered them on) now pretty much consider then bothersome, since they returned and actually NEED one thing or another.

I really think many of those folk would be content if after they delivered their share of kills, they were killed--then all they'd have to do for them is give/listen to a speech once a year (which could be used to manipulate/propagandize for something else).

Paul Duca said... really is the same philosophy behind M*A*S*H. Humor to cope with the horror, to remain sane and human.

RCP said...

Paul Duca said...

"It's one of the more unusual offerings but I truly appreciate anything being done for the current group of veterans--especially since many of those who sent them off in the first place (and many who cheered them on) now pretty much consider then bothersome, since they returned and actually NEED one thing or another."

Well said. These kind of workshops provide veterans with a healthy way to process their experiences.

Since it's on-subject, I'll recommend for anyone interested the book "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace" edited by Maxine Hong Kingston. A compilation of stories by Vietnam veterans written in Kingston's writing workshops. Mind-blowing.

Anonymous said...

These comment do nothing but show how out of touch and narrow minded are these individuals....maybe they need to spend some time taking courses on different cultures and learn about diversity. Too sad and risky sending these individuals to countries they have no clues about as democracy advocates!!!!

Becca said...

Johnny Walker: None of them said anything derogatory about the people or culture. If they had, I might have agreed with you (at least, they would've had to be REALLY funny to make me less uncomfortable). However, the potshots they took were all about climate, geography, and local animal life. I have no problem with that, and I can well understand how it must feel to be suddenly put into a completely foreign land and expected to instantly adjust to the differences. I didn't think they were being disrespectful (can you "disrespect" a lizard or sand?) but merely pointing out some of the things that threw and/or frustrated them during their time in country (do soldiers still say that? I've no idea).

Mary Stella said...

Johnny said:

Wow. I found these a little distasteful. Aren't these guys supposedly fighting FOR the countries they're dissing here?

Yes. These guys did fight for these countries. Despite being away from their families and own country, living in harsh conditions, risking devastating injury or death at any moment, they all did their duty on behalf of these countries.

If they want to poke some fun, they're entitled to do so after what they've contributed. Given the number of our military heroes who are returning from war with PTSD and the high suicide rate, I'm grateful that these men are healthy enough to make jokes about the conditions they experienced.

Ken, applause to you, the other mentors and the WGA for providing this program.

Brian Fies said...

Wow, surprising negativity and insults. The assignment was to create a humorous mock ad for a war zone, not an earnest historical and cultural analysis. I can't imagine any other way this exercise could've gone. Under other conditions, I'm sure these guys could show tremendous sensitivity and insight. After all, they were there; you weren't.

In addition, griping about conditions on the ground is a soldier's prerogative no matter where he/she is. GIs in World War II complained about being in France and Italy. You'll object: yes, but they were crawling on their bellies and getting shot at. I'll reply: so were these guys.

By Ken Levine said...

Disrespect? As someone pointed out, this is EXACTLY the sort of thing we did on MASH... endlessly!

As the great Billy Wilder once said, "If what you wrote didn't offend someone then you haven't done your job."

Too bad we can no longer give these guys MASH script assignments.

Tom Reeder said...

Here's a big "thank you" to you and Dave Hackel and the others who are willing to lend a hand to our returning vets.

To the guys who served, be assured that the vast majority of your countrymen (and women) are deeply grateful for your personal sacrifice.

Mike Schryver said...

I wanted to add my thoughts, but they're the same as Paul Duca's and Tom Reeder's, so... ditto.

Brent said...

I too laughed out loud when I read them. Especially the Afghan one.

Ken Levine said...

Too bad we can no longer give these guys MASH script assignments.

At the risk of being told in excruciating detail... why not?

As an exercise, have them write a script about Afghanistan as though it were a M*A*S*H episode. Assign a topic if you wish, such as "Blowhard REMF" or "INCOMING!" If they can find humor in "incoming", they've got potential.

Only issue might be that they're too young to remember M*A*S*H...

Tom Quigley said...

Anonymous said...

"These comment do nothing but show how out of touch and narrow minded are these individuals.... maybe they need to spend some time taking courses on different cultures and learn about diversity. Too sad and risky sending these individuals to countries they have no clues about as democracy advocates!!!!"

Hey, Anonymous: Did you ever hear of Bob Hope's 40 years of USO tours? Better yet, did you ever SEE films of those tours? An attitude like yours would have completely negated all the entertainment and enjoyment that was brought to our military personnel stationed overseas all those years by one of the great comedians of the 20th century.

Furthermore, I don't know of any comedic endeavor (including M*A*S*H, which was just as much a criticism of Vietnam as of Korea, and war in general) regarding war, which doesn't take the known characteristics of a country or geographic region and use them as the basis for such humor. In that regard, these guys got it dead on. To not understand that is to completely miss the point of what comedy and satire is all about.

Tom Quigley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roger Owen Green said...

Johnny- Agreeing with Paul Deca, I've known any number of professionals who work in difficult situations, take their jobs extremely seriously, but then engaged in gallows humor off the job in order to survive the work.

Max Clarke said...

Great stuff.

Thanks for helping the soldiers, Ken. I was a soldier once, but I never had to deal with yellow scorpions.

If MASH were set in one of the nations we've invaded lately, those guys could have written for it.

longhorngi said...

I was fortunate enough to be a part of several of the seminars done in Texas and as a 24 year veteran (still serving)I find it heart warming and heart breaking that after seeing and being a part of what they've gone through...that they can still find humor in anything, least of all the sun ravished landscapes of Iraq and Afghanistan. There are so many other things that could have come under their radar yet they strayed from those things. And nary a one went with acerbic or blistering humor, which, in my opinion, would have been quite appropriate given the geography. Elbert Hubbard wrote that "Pain is deeper than all thought; laughter is higher than all pain." Stick that in your crawl Anonymous....

Johnny Walker said...

I knew my comment wouldn't go down well, but I'm glad nobody tore my head off :)

Becca said: "None of them said anything derogatory about the people or culture."

I appreciate what you're saying, but I do think they were dismissing the country's culture. When the ONLY thing you can say about a country is, "You will stay in a mud hut closely located near a stream that serves as both your toilet and bath" or "Free yourself from Western distractions like women and running water", then, yes, I think you're disrespecting the culture, too.

I understand the purpose of the exercise was to be funny, but it's an odd exercise when your target is a country that isn't your own.

To put it another way: How would the civilians, who have seen their country overrun and controlled by foreign troops (rightly or wrongly), feel when reading these descriptions of their countries, written by those who represent the people who overran it?

It just makes me feel a little queasy.

Ken Levine said: "Disrespect? As someone pointed out, this is EXACTLY the sort of thing we did on MASH... endlessly!"

I don't remember that. I don't recall MASH ever making fun of Korea itself. I recall it making fun of the army living conditions, of army bureaucracy, and of the insanity of war itself, but never the country or its culture.

I don't mean to be too sour, though. The line, "Experience life as it was lived two thousand years ago when Jesus walked the earth", and pretty much all of the third sales pitch made me laugh.

Johnny Walker said...

And hey, I don't mean to get personal, or attack a wonderful mentorship program, it was just my own personal impression from what I read.

Kirk said...

Funny stuff.

@Johnny Walker--As Steve Martin once put it, comedy isn't pretty!

Frank said...

As a camel lover I've already booked my fair to Iraq!

Kirk said...

Actually, this reminds me of something that Bob Newhart said on Tavis Smiley a while back. I'm going by memory here, so, if you're reading this Bob and I've screwed it up, my apologies:

"I read in the paper that Afghanistan's Minister of Tourism was just assassinated [Bob's not making that up; it actually happened]. What kind of power could a person in that position have wielded that someone would have seen it as threat? It's not like some guy in Ohio is going to ask his fiancee, "Where should we go on our honeymoon, sweetums, Niagra Falls or Kabul?"

Kirk said...

I did screw it up. I forgot the "a" before "threat".

Dave Hackel said...

Please remember that Ken and I asked these men to do this exercise. After they'd told us about the conditions under which they lived and worked, Ken suggested what I thought was a brilliant assignment. "Write copy for a brochure to entice someone to visit where you were stationed." The vets warmed to it instantly. They had fun doing it, and we had fun reading what they wrote. That they could find humor in their trying experiences is a tribute to both their talent and their spirit.

Johnny Walker said...

Well no offence meant to you or Ken.

I imagine finding some way of bringing out humour from such a dark place must have been a surprising, cathartic, and rewarding experience for everyone, in different measures. The program itself sounds fantastic.

And, of course, I wasn't there. I'm sure my experience, sitting at home in my living room, is vastly different to being face to face with those men. I'm also sure it's an entirely different universe to actually being stationed somewhere and/or fighting in a war.

Johnny Walker said...


Their humour could just be taken the wrong way.

It reminded me of the time a friend played me a track from a Dolly Parton album called "For God and Country", released during the Iraq war. At one point Parton broke her patriotic warblings for a joke. "How many Eye-rackies does it take to screw in a light bulb?", she began.

That's sort of the attitude I heard in the pitches.

Sorry everyone, I guess I'm just sensitive.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,

Friday Question: What do you think of the quickened speech pacing in modern comedies? Caught Veep on HBO and I was a little put off by unrealistic speed of dialogue Ianucci imbues. Same with Happy Endings -- it's like they're afraid that clunky jokes will be noticeable if any characters take a breath. Is this trend here to stay?


chuckcd said...

Ken, I also wonder if you saw "Veep" on HBO and what you thought of it.

By Ken Levine said...

Tomorrow is my review of VEEP and my thoughts on rapid fire dialogue. Come back and see. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

FWIW -- The highest rated sitcoms (Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, 2.5 Men) all have characters that speak slowly and relatively clearly. Of course, 2/3 of those are multi-cam. And all on network TV. I'm sure HBO is a little less concerned with numbers, more with prestige.

Also, ironically, when I was a kid I thought the pacing of dialogue on Frasier was too slow. Now I'm complaining about people talking too fast. So maybe I'm just a 32 year old fuddy-duddy now.


D. McEwan said...

Those are hilarious, and clearly each is quite well-crafted. "Iraq" made me laugh the hardest (And not just because Logan looks kinda hot), but I laughed out loud at all three of them. No question, these guys have talent, I can love the work for its actual quality, rather than just because it's politcally correct to support our vets. (and MORALLY correct as well, something the Veteran's Adminstration, and our post-war-service medical services for vets seem to have forgotten.)

I was reminded of a brief bit on the old, old National Lamopon Radio Hour of a similar premise, only theirs was "Come to Haiti," and being radio, you heard the gunfire and screams underneath the unctious announcer all through it.

To the inexplicably offended: these are merely one-paragraph versions of what could, in all three examples, grow into another Catch-22, which is merely perhaps the greatest comic novel ever written by an American. Joe Heller would LOATHE these, because even Heller would feel threatened by how good they are.

Thanks for sharing these, Ken. I loved them. Feel free to share more from them.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with Mr. Johnny Walker! Well said sir! These 3 are as bad as that arrogant Ray Ramano who wrote a show poking fun at the very family he supposedly "loved!" And the show Scrubs, which makes light of the noble and prestigious careers of physicians! When I want a hearty, wholesome laugh, I watch an Olive Garden commercial. No judging there! Unlike those Geico commercials where that British gecko wonders American cities and pokes fun at the cities' stereotypes! So well said Mr. Walker. Now while I take issue with a British man judging American troops who are satirizing Middle Eastern countries, I applause your courage to be offended! Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go sit in an empty, all white room and stare at the walls. It prevents me from conjuring up offensive thoughts.

cshel said...

I thought these ads were really funny, and the guys are really adorable. What a great program. I wish them much success with their writing.

Sorry to wander off into sappy cliche land here, but my deepest thanks to all those who serve in the military, and their families, for sacrificing so much for the rest of us.

And whatever that monster creature on that guy's face in that picture is, suddenly makes it seem like a good idea to wear a burka over there.

Thanks for sharing, Ken.

John Pearley Huffman said...

These young vets have something that many (likely most) writers their age sorely lack: something to write about.

So many of the greatest screenwriters and comedy writers that we remember from the 1960s and 1970s had their sensibilities carved through their experiences in World War II. Mel Brooks was a corporal in the U.S. Army during the war. It's no coincidence that Aaron Ruben served before helping to create shows like Sgt. Bilko, Gomer Pyle, and CPO Sharkey... and the Andy Griffith Show about a sheriff who never carried a gun.

Some of our greatest comic actors have been WWII vets too. Ted Knight earned five battle stars in the war, and even Don Knotts served in the Army.

Somewhere in some veteran of our recent wars there's a great war novel waiting to be born. In others there is likely a 21st century military comedy that does for Afghanistan what MASH did for Korea.

Shove aside all those pissers writing for the Lampoon at Harvard. Hire some guys who have learned bout the absurdity of life and death by living it.

A. Homer said...

Meh. Why overrate these? If I found it distasteful it is because of different factors - even as beginner workshop, these are lazy for this day and age. Camels, caves, no women, ha ha ha. Test it by another country you actually defend and see if that works - try Israel, or any African country on the U.S. 'good list', or France - or hey, try it with Mexico. The same approach will sound jingoist.

Soldiers are just like us, and so are able to have considered a twist in that set of cliches. There should have been push and pull.

It should be enough of a red flag if a country like Iraq is reduced to caves and U.S. readership here thinks that's adequate for representing shared humor. In the logic of the premise, a tourism brochure would have set up a straight line - the great hallmarks of civilization they indeed have, with something that makes it utterly farce. In all the significant tv during the Iraq war, aerial warfare was highly urban. "Cave" is a limited soldier's view, bin laden and fighting. If we get that, we should get the rest of the soldier's view, or not at all. How is that current, let alone funny for the task of a tourism brochure?

I'm for the writing program, I think soldiers are able to rise to challenges, and this sounded like catering to them, one-dimensional, lazy. The stuff I know my generation at least hates about old TV shows.

MASH never would say all the Koreans were stupid, rice-farmers or lived in shacks, or that THEY were the hell, the point of MASH was that the WAR was the hell.

And I assume, should Hawkeye have to write such a text, he would have done just that mix, included the heavy footprint of the U.S. in the tourist ad.

Johnny Walker said...

Nicely put, A. Homer. I can only think the reason these are being rated so highly is simply because we weren't there. When you're face to face with a veteran, and you've managed to get them to laugh about some hell they've been through, it must be an amazing experience for both of you. It's certainly a step above normal sitcom writing.

That, or maybe we're just crap a gauging what's funny.

Obviously most people here found what was written to be hilarious, even comparing the pitches to Catch 22(!), so clearly we're in a minority. (I personally found The Coward Anonymous's inevitable personal attack at me to be far more witty.)

Here's my quick attempt at writing in the same style:

Come to beautiful Iraq. Now Dictator free for nine happy years! Receive an explosive welcome as a US citizen! Find yourself hailed with beautiful decorative bullets from thankful locals. Witness quaint ceremonies such as, "Burning of the flag" and "Bonfire for the President". Complimentary flak jackets for groups of 10 or more.

Of course, now I feel like an asshole writing something that could be seen as an attempt at one-upping a bunch of veterans. *sigh* Apologies again, everyone, especially to the vets -- although I'm sure you will (quite rightly) take Ken and Dave's opinions far more seriously than mine. I think everything has been said now. *gets coat*

Robin Raven said...

What an awesome thing for you to do. The WGA is wonderful. Thank you for sharing the great work the veterans did.

Logan1981 said...

Well said again Mr. Walker! I apologize for my "cowardice" earlier, but my wordpress account was giving me issues on my iphone and wouldn't let me publish. I should have had your bravery to post under the name of the first bottle of alcohol I saw on a shelf, but that is what makes you the authority that you are, sir! Now you are free to track me down in a series of Liam Neeson-esque investigation/adventures! Additionally, bravo on your version of the tourism ad as well. I thought generalizing Iraqis as violent people was a far less distasteful way to go than commenting on mud huts and intense heat. (chuckling) "hailed with beautiful bullets from thankful locals." And "burning the flag!" BRILLIANT! Now, I believe you should teach a class, and call it" "Things you say when you're with Johnny Walker," so that when regular people hear the backwards things they say, they will realize, "Oh, well that's because they were with Johnny Walker." So I say again to you sir, bravo for your courage and bravery in being offended by something that seems petty to less "insightful" people.

Johnny Walker said...

Dude, you're a pretty funny guy, but whatever is driving your insane level of anger, I have to tell you; it's not me. I don't know if you're imagining me as seething at your barbs, or cowering in intimidation, but I literally don't have any emotion about what you've written other than mild amusement.

I'd prefer it if you were more cordial, but I'm not going to kill myself if you're not. At least your insults are creative and moderately entertaining.

So, welcome to the party! Generally speaking people are pretty nice here, and there's often some interesting discussions. I look forward to reading more of your funny posts.

PS - This is my real name, as Ken, and other people here, can confirm for you.

Logan1981 said...

Johnny, I'm not angry or attacking you. I'm using humor to point out how immensely off the mark I believe your opinion to be. I could have just said that I don't believe your opinion to be correct, but what's the fun in that? I find it to be as dull as humor without satire which is where we differ in the first place. I apologize if you took offense, I'm just trying to show you the hilarious world of satire.

Johnny Walker said...

Well that's good to know. I'm not sure where you got the idea that I don't like satire? It's probably my favourite type of comedy (I'm British, we tend to lap it up here).

My attempt at mimicking the pitches (which I only threw together in a couple of minutes) ended up containing satire about the unwelcome presence of Western forces in the country, and the unpleasant reaction that the soldiers there had to face, for example.

Logan1981 said...

I guess I thought you didn't enjoy satire by how easily offended you were by it. I can't imagine anyone who enjoys satire could have such a thin skin. I'm sure Mark Twain wouldn't have balked at these ads. Also, I was amazed how you could take issue with Dan's ad mentioning mud huts and such as distasteful because it comments on the lack of wealth in the country, which in not an opinion, you can check out their GDP if you want hard facts. But your ad alludes to them trying (or succeeding) in killing you if you go there, alluding to Iraqis as violent people. I'm wondering where you got your facts. Once again, now that I've dropped the jokes, it's not an attack, but your view on this seems all kinds of backwards to me. That being said, Ken writes a helluva post here, and I am glad for all of us to continue to enjoy it.

Johnny Walker said...

I'm not sure our understanding of satire is the same. To me, satire is written by frustrated optimists with the idea they can change someone's perspective with comedy. They have an agenda to improve the world, according to their own standards. As such they're not just judged on how funny they are, but also how much truth they've managed to reveal.

The pitches relied upon and reinforced cliched negative stereotypes (in part, at least) to no other end than comedy. They were not satirical.

As for mine, I freely admit it may be far worse than the original three. It wasn't me going, "this is how you do it!", it was me throwing myself into ring, rather than just being an armchair critic judging from the sidelines. I'm open to all the criticism they were, and I completely welcome it. I've certainly given their work a hard time, so I can't complain if someone does the same to me.

By Ken Levine said...

How about we move on to other topics? A new rant worthy of discussion will be posted shortly. I'm in a cranky mood as you will soon see.

Johnny Walker said...

Sounds like a plan.

D. McEwan said...

I can not believe this post sparked a controversy. Well, at least for once, it wasn't me who lit the flame.

Johnny Walker said...

I can't believe that a couple of people saying, "I'm not sure how I feel about this, and here's why..." was considered controversial.

But then again, after Ken's feud with Roseanne degenerated into a debate about politics, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that anything can be turned into an argument.

The internet is a tough room to please. Somebody somewhere is always going to be unhappy about something!

Pakar Seo said...

But now Iraq is totally different and I really sad about it.

Result sgp said...

Thank you for sharing the great work the veterans did. I loved them. Feel free to share more from them.

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