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Kathy Griffin “vetting” laughs

Our conversation begins this way: “I want Professor Tyra Banks to present it to me, in some kind of military uniform.”

When you’re Kathy Griffin, two-time Emmy Award winner, reality show star, and stand-up comedian and you’re being honored by Harvard for your work with American veterans, you’re allowed to start phone calls that way. In the spirit of Veterans Day on later this fall, Harvard Undergraduates Honoring Veterans will present the inaugural Distinguished Partners Award to Griffin in a ceremony 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26 in the Science Center. I spoke with Griffin about receiving the award, giving back to veterans and the importance of making people laugh. The following is an edited version of our exchange.

How did you begin your work with veterans? And how does it go with your role as a comedian?
A girlfriend of mine called me and said, “I just did my first USO tour, you should do it.” I said, “Where are we going to go?” And she said, “We’re just going to go to Seoul.” And I was like: “OK. That seems kind of exotic.” As we got closer to going, someone from USO called and said, “Actually, you’re going to go to Afghanistan.” That’s not South Korea! The first time I went over there, I went with a very motley crew. It was a country singer, a couple of cheerleaders from the Jacksonville Jaguars and a wrestler. I was given many many rules and regulations by the commanding officers about all the things I couldn’t say. And so the first show that I did was a disaster. I did my Britney Spears stories, and my Lindsay Lohan stories, and these 19-year-old guys are looking at me like: “What is she talking about?” I was under strict order to not be offensive, not to offend a group or deity, and not to curse, and you know, that’s my whole act. In stand-up, if they’re not laughing, you’ll just start sleeping. The minute I did my first [uncensored] joke, they were on their feet saying “Hooah!” Then I learned that when you’re with a group of people who are in a dire situation, they are the ones that appreciate, let’s just say, comedy on the edge. In Iraq, I did an episode of My Life on the D-List, and got even more access. Then I went to Walter Reed. I now have veterans come to every single show that I do in America. It’s all about giving these men and women a laugh. I feel very strongly that their loved ones are heroes as well. They don’t get enough credit. When I meet these men and women, they are happy to give their loved ones credit for standing by them. Often, I say, “What’s the best way for us to thank you? And they say, “A drink and a laugh.” I can do the laugh part.

Why is it important for celebrities to advocate for causes such as these?
Honestly, this is what folks want. Those that are in a war zone, they want entertainment, just like anybody else, whether you’re in a medical facility here at home or still deployed in Afghanistan. If a celebrity comes over and takes a picture, that’s good, because someone has something to put on a locker, or something to talk about other than “I’m in danger, and I might die today.” What’s essential about entertainers going over is, it’s a little piece of home, it’s a distraction, it’s actual entertainment. Most of us who aren’t in the military forget that whether you’re at Fort Bragg or outside Kabul, you don’t have the option of going to see a show, or the option of getting a laugh when you need one, or hearing a song when you need to hear one. I think it’s just one of those basic things that we take for granted. These men and women are in a daily situation of wondering if they’re going to live or they’re dealing with PTSD, and I really believe laughter is one of the great healers. I’m not an actual physician, but I do know how to tell a good joke.

What’s up next to aid the cause?
As far as shows, I’m always touring. I’ve found the most effective thing is to have these vets come to my live shows, and here’s why. When I came back from Iraq, I would randomly give free tickets to a military base nearby. Military members would show up, and maybe they wouldn’t even know who I was. When I hooked up with Vettix, folks could actually choose. If they wanted to see Toby Keith, they could go see Toby Keith. If they wanna see me, they can come see me. Instead of me going to Afghanistan, it’s better that I’m going to them town by town. I also work with a great organization called VetDogs, with service dogs. The dogs, besides being family members like a normal dog, help these men and women in so many ways. These are things I do on a weekly basis: I work with VetDogs, and I meet my vets at every single show. That’s my little way, reaching town by town, trying to give people a laugh, and help them get a service dog.

Harvard Undergraduates Honoring Veterans will present Standing Tall for Veterans with Kathy Griffin in Science Center B, 4 p.m. Saturday, October 26. $10 for students, $15 for the general public. A limited number of tickets are available to military members and veterans for free.

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