Las Vegas Sun

November 12, 2018

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Columnist Lisa Ferguson: ‘Duty’ called Connolly back into service

Most comics will likely never experience the sort of bombing that James P. Connolly has endured in his career.

A retired Marine Corps officer, Connolly -- who plays Palace Station's Laugh Trax through Saturday -- was in Kuwait during the early 1990s, serving in Operation Desert Storm. More than a decade had passed when he returned to the region last fall, as part of the "Comics on Duty World Tour," to entertain U.S. troops fighting in Iraq.

"It was huge," Connolly explained of the experience recently from his Santa Monica, Calif., home. "It was like going back and reliving a part of my life that I never thought I'd get to relive ... It felt like the Marine Corps, and it felt like wartime, but nobody asked me to do anything remotely manly or testosterone-driven."

His orders this time around were to boost soldiers' morale.

"To survive in that kind of environment, you just have to keep a strong sense about you and a kind of locked optimism just to get through, and that's what I experienced there" among the troops for whom he performed, Connolly reports, including the Marine unit in which he formerly served.

"Everyone was talking about when they were due to rotate home, and they just wanted to talk to you ... It was more of a human thing than a war-torn thing. What we got to experience was everyone taking a break from the war scenario to spend some time with us and laugh, and that's just like going into a comedy club when people take a break from their lives."

Nevertheless, he concedes he was nervous prior to leaving for the tour.

"I knew I wanted to do it, but I was anxious about it, not so much because it was a war zone -- strangely enough, I had done that before -- but ... because I had never done a USO (-type) show before. I knew what I had to do as a Marine, but I had never gone in there and done it as a comedian."

As part of the "bare-bones tour," Connolly and his fellow comedians -- who slept in tents alongside the troops and used outdoor latrines -- staged shows throughout Iraq, including in the embattled cities of Najaf and Fallujah.

"The thing about Fallujah was that everywhere in Iraq, people would say ... 'As long as you don't go to Fallujah' " -- a group of Army soldiers among them, he recalls: "They asked, 'Where are you off to next?' and we said, 'Well, we're headed to Fallujah,' and (from) these 250 soldiers, this collective sigh went, 'Oh.' "

Despite others' concerns about the comics' safety, Connolly insists he wasn't worried.

"I always tell them, 'First of all, I'm very confident that we'll be protected by our armed men and women of the United States government.' And, I said, 'Secondly, I carry something in my pocket that the Marine Corps gave me years ago (to use) in just such a crisis: It's a copy of my discharge papers.' "

Meanwhile, a pair of Marines were assigned to serve as the performers' security detachment throughout Iraq.

"These guys, when they found out that I was a retired captain and a Desert Storm veteran, they still called me 'Sir' ... and I'm like, 'You're damn right, guys. Get behind me,' " he says.

Even some of Connolly's old military gear came in handy during the tour: The comic brought with him a pair of "desert boots" he'd been issued at the conclusion of his Desert Storm service.

Back then, "It was like, 'Thanks a lot; we've been here a year and a half -- really appreciate the new boots now,' " he recalls. "So, I had them in my closet for like a decade and I never used them."

The "Comics on Duty" tour manager "recommended that I bring a good sturdy pair of boots and I said, 'I've got just the boots ... These boots were given to me; I never got to use them when I was over there.' So this time I brought 'em back, and Uncle Sam got his money's worth out of the boots. I wore them the whole time."

Connolly -- who was stationed at California's Camp Pendleton while serving from 1988 through 1992 -- credits the military for helping him uncover his comedic talents.

"I think I'm the only comedian whose career started with a direct order from his colonel," he boasts, explaining how he penned some one-liners the colonel used to riff on other officers during a roast event. "He killed ... It was at that point that I decided, 'When I get out, I'm gonna give this a shot.' "

Upon retiring from the Marines, Harvard-grad Connolly started a short-lived career as a DJ/karaoke host in San Diego before relocating 10 years ago to Los Angeles, where he took a comedy class and hit the open-mike circuit with an act built on his hipster persona.

"I talk about the one thing I know better than anything else: me," he jokes of his material.

Having been a finalist at several comedy festivals around the country, in 2002 he was crowned Grand Champion on "Next Big Star," a TV talent show hosted by Ed McMahon.

Connolly, who declines to reveal his age ("I'm like a 4 1/2- year-old schnauzer -- do the math," he jokes), also hosted the VH1 game show "Movie Obsessions." He recorded his 2004 CD, "Pure Polyester," last spring at The Improv at Harrah's.

"Most people that know me as a comedian have no clue that I was in the Marine Corps," he says. "People that were in the Marine Corps might be shocked to find out that I ended up being a stand-up comic."

As for the prospects of making a return trip to Iraq to entertain troops in the future, Connolly says, "Let's put it this way, it will be very hard to say no."

The troops "were so happy that I'd just shown up, and the fact that I'd been there before ... and I know what it's like made them feel good, and that made me feel great," he says. "I felt like I had a big family out there."

Out for laughs

We hear Comedy Stop at The Trop frequenter Basile will be pitching a television series to industry bigwigs during the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) convention, taking place Tuesday through Thursday at Mandalay Bay. In November the funny man told Laugh Lines he was kicking around an idea for a show that combined classic sitcom elements with those of a reality series.

An event that would put professional comedians on a Las Vegas golf course in an effort to raise funds for tsunami victims is apparently in the works. A news release was distributed this week by World Series of Golf Inc., a private company based in Las Vegas. On its Web site, its business is described as giving "non-professional" golfers the chance to play against others of equal-or-better skill level at "world-class golf events" through a "bet-and-play format" patterned after traditional poker tournaments.

According to the release, the two-day charity event is scheduled to take place sometime in February at a local course to be determined. The company is searching for 36 stand-up comics and their personal "ringers" (likely Hollywood celebrities with whom the comedians would alternate shots) willing to donate $1,000 apiece to the Tsunami Relief Charity Foundation in order to play.

Once divided into "sixsomes," the teams will wager $120,000 of "funny money" on each other's shots. Some comics will advance to the final round and perform at a charity dinner. The final six players in the tourney will receive top billing when the event is telecast on Comedy Central. While most of the details are still being finalized, additional info is available at www.TheWorldSeries

Comedy legend and Las Vegas resident Jerry Lewis is scheduled to guest tonight on CBS' "The Late Show with David Letterman" (11:35 p.m., Channel 8).