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Classic Stand-up Comedians Who Served in the Military

If you’ve ever served in the military or know someone who has, then you know that there always has to be at least one person who can provide a bit of comedic relief to lighten to mood every now and then. Otherwise, the stresses of military life would likely be too much to bear. Really, when you really look at it objectively these funny folks provide an essential service for those in their units.

Most of these people eventually learn a bit of discipline, grow up and become productive members of society, but some of them hold on to that essential coping mechanism that they developed back in their military days and hit the road to tell jokes full-time for a living. If you look back at the history of comedy, you’ll discover that loads of comics from the 1950 and 1960s had previously served in the military during World War II.

Hitting the stage armed only with a mic and one’s wits can be a pretty nerve-wracking experience, but some of the most prestigious masters of the craft make it look downright easy. Join FactsVerse as we take a look at some of the most successful veteran comics of all time.

Drew Carey

This comedian, game show host, and sitcom star excelled at doing stand-up before moving on to appearing on television with The Drew Carey Show, Whose Line is it Anyway, and The Price Is Right. But before he found his calling on the stage and screen, Carey spent six years in the Marine Corps Reserve. And Yes, that’s where he picked up that haircut he’s been rocking ever since.

Don Rickles

During the Second World War, Rickles enlisted in the Navy and served as a seaman first class aboard a torpedo boat named the USS Cyrene in the Pacific. After Don was discharged, he struggled for several years as he pursued his dream of becoming a dramatic actor. To make ends meet, he did stand up on the side.

At first, his comedy routine wasn’t well-received, but eventually, he discovered his niche of humiliating his hecklers and straight-up insulting the audience. He went on to become the reigning king of insult comics and remained a show biz legend until he died in 2017.

George Carlin

Ol’ Georgie joined the Air Force back in 1954 shortly after dropping out of high school. While he was stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, Louisiana, he landed a gig as a DJ at a local radio station. That job, coupled with his notoriously bad attitude eventually led to him getting discharged after serving his country for three years.

Carlin enjoyed moderate success early on in his comedy career as a more clean-cut comedian. Around that time, he appeared a handful of times on The Tonight Show as well.

After taking LSD for the first time, however, he switched up his entire persona. He grew his hair long, pierced his ear, and started delivering profanity-laden material about drugs and other off-color topics. His comedy albums became hugely successful and Carlin became one of the most popular and infamous comics of the 1970s. In 1976, at the peak of his career, he walked away from the life on stage, although he would stage a return later on in his life. Sadly, Carlin passed away in 2008.

Bill Cosby

While we could talk all day about Cosby’s indiscretions and controversies, it’s impossible to deny that he is a gifted comic, an intelligent person, and even a war hero. Before he attended college at Temple University, Cosby served as a hospital corpsman for four years, aiding injured Navy soldiers during the Korean War. Can you picture Dr. Huxtable rehabilitating war veterans, making wisecracks while a war was being fought around him?

Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks

After being drafted into the Army in 1942, Reiner served in the Special Services entertainment after training to be a radio operator. He spent the remainder of the war performing for his fellow troops in the Pacific Theater.

Brooks, on the other hand, was likewise drafted in 1944. After being trained to defuse landmines, he fought valiantly at the Battle of the Bulge and served courageously with the 1104th Engineer Combat Battalion, 78th Infantry Division.

Brooks and Reiner met while working as writers on Sid Caesar’s NBC series Your Show Of Shows. Not long after meeting and exchanging creative ideas, Reiner and Brooks started doing an on-air routine where Carl would pose as a TV interviewer and Mel would present himself as a man who claimed to be two millennia old. The act was a smash hit and the duo went on to collaborate for years appearing on the stage and screen as well as releasing several comedy albums.

Both comedians enjoyed long and fruitful careers as writers, directors, and actors. Reiner ended up creating the sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show and directing Steve Martin’s film The Jerk. Brooks went on to direct and write classic movies such as Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles.

At 98, Reiner passed away in 2020. Brooks, who remained Reiner’s friend right up until the end, is still living at the age of 95.

Lenny Bruce

After dropping out of High School, Bruce joined the Navy at 16 in 1942. He served aboard the USS Brooklyn out in the Mediterranean before getting dishonorably discharged after performing a comedy routine in drag. The ship’s doctor became convinced that he was experiencing latent ‘homosexual urges’ and quickly gave him the boot.

Bruce made a name for himself with material that was considered to be obscene by law enforcement throughout the nation, but nowadays, it likely wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow with modern desensitized audiences. He was arrested on several occasions for public obscenity and drug possession charges. In 1964 he was convicted of obscenity after a six-month-long trial. Unfortunately, he died after overdosing on heroin in 1966.

Jerry Stiller

Ben Stiller’s father, Jerry, was drafted into the Army during the final leg of World War II and served mainly in Europe. In the mid-1950s, after the war was over, he managed to convince his wife, Anne Meara, to form a comedy team with him. The comedy couple became quite popular in the nightclub scene before making appearances on television in the 1960s.

They eventually quit doing live performances and instead made a career out of doing radio commercials for Blue Nun wine in the 1970s. In 1986, Jerry and his wife also landed their own sitcom.

Stiller went on to play Frank Costanza on Seinfeld and Arthur Spooner on The King of Queens before passing away in 2020.

Richard Pryor

Although he served in the Army between 1958 and 1960, rumor has it Pryor spent most of his time in the service sitting in a military prison in West Germany after he allegedly beat up a white soldier who made a racist joke during a screening of the film Imitation of Life.

For the next decade after being discharged from the military, Pryor struggled to find success as a stand-up comic and television writer. Still, inevitably his career took off after he made an appearance at the Wattstax concert in 1972 and subsequently released a handful of highly successful comedy albums.

After appearing in hit films like Uptown Saturday Night, Stir Crazy, and Silver Streak, Pryor became one of the biggest film stars of his era. Pryor died in 2005 after being diagnosed with MS in the 90s.

Jonathan Winters

Here we have another high school dropout who joined the Marines in 1942. After serving two and half years in the Pacific aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bonhomme Richard and with the occupation force at Yokosuka, Japan, Winters went on the become one of the most popular and inventive comedians of the 50s. He would perform improv comedy in front of audiences that would go hog-wild for his unique brand of humor. 

He regularly was a guest on popular late-night talks shows and released several widely successful comedy albums before retiring from live stand-up in 1961. But even though he moved on from doing stage comedy, he influenced quite a few comics that followed in his wake, including notably Robin Williams. Winters went on to star in films and television shows for the next five decades before dying in 2013 at the age of 83.

Bob Newhart

After graduating from Loyola University in Chicago, Newhart was drafted into the Army in 1952. Bob served as a personnel manager in the Korean war before being discharged in 1954.

Newhart then worked as a copywriter for a stint, but his co-workers noticed that he was pretty amusing when making his very one-sided phone calls. He ended up recording several of them and used them as audition tapes which he sent off to various radio stations. Eventually, this led him to land a job on the radio and later signed a recording contract with Warner Brothers.

Newhart had wit and charisma, and the audience ate it all up. His albums were also highly successful. He even won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1961. He went on to star in programs like The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart. He later portrayed the adoptive father of Buddy in the Christmas classic Elf. At 92, he’s still with us today.

Nipsey Russell

Nipsey enlisted in the Army in 1941 and served as a medic during World War II before returning back to his hometown of Atlanta with the rank of Second Lieutenant.

Russell got his comedy career going while working as a carhop at the legendary Atlanta area drive-in, The Varsity, which is still in business to this day. While serving up chili dogs and french fries, Russell was able to make his customers laugh, and because of that, they would tip him quite nicely. He went on to take his comedy routine to local nightclubs, and things just took off like wildfire from there.

In 1967, Nipsey made his first television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. From then on he made dozens of appearances on TV while appearing in a supporting role on the series Car 54, Where Are You?

Even though he was one of the first black entertainers to cross over to white audiences successfully, he was very outspoken about the pay disparity in the industry between white and black actors.

In the 70s and 80s, Russell was a frequent celebrity panelist on game shows such as Hollywood Squares, To Tell the Truth, and Match Game. He passed on in 2005.

While we’re just about out of time, we want to extend our sincerest thanks to the veterans and current servicemen and women who help protect and uphold the values of their country and it’s citizens.

Can you think of any other actors, comedians, or entertainers that served in the military before making it big? Let us know in the comments section below.

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