Laughter is the best medicine: Veterans adjust to civilian life on the stand-up stage

Fred Mckinnon, a Hampton native, is now the lead instructor of comedy classes for nonprofit Armed Services Arts Partnership, which offers free, weekly classes in stand-up comedy, improv, storytelling and creative writing to veterans. (Courtesy photo/Fred Mckinnon)
Fred Mckinnon, a Hampton native, is now the lead instructor of comedy classes for nonprofit Armed Services Arts Partnership, which offers free, weekly classes in stand-up comedy, improv, storytelling and creative writing to veterans. (Courtesy photo/Fred Mckinnon)

When Fred Mckinnon stands alone on stage, under bright lights and in front of a crowd, he isn’t nervous.

Instead, Mckinnon, 44, holds nothing back, discussing his life as an Army veteran and father, laughing along with the audience as he cracks jokes.

As a stand-up comedian, Mckinnon has found solace in making others — and himself — laugh.

“It’s funny because it helps you deal with anxiety and depression and things like that,” Mckinnon said. “You’d think comedy would be the thing you would stay the furthest away from, but it’s not.”

“The more spotlight, the less anxiety I have.”

Mckinnon, a Hampton native, is now the lead instructor of comedy classes for nonprofit Armed Services Arts Partnership, which offers free, weekly classes in stand-up comedy, improv, storytelling and creative writing to veterans.

ASAP was created three years ago by a William & Mary student, Sam Pressler, with the goal to help veterans successfully integrate back into the civilian world. Through a research project at the college, Pressler realized the gravity of mental health challenges affecting veterans.

Now ASAP has official nonprofit status, and offers six- to eight-week classes and workshops in Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Williamsburg, Maryland and Washington D.C.

Since 2015, ASAP has served 477 veterans, service members, and military family members through 110 classes and workshops, according to ASAP Program Coordinator Dani Aron-Schiavone.

In March, ASAP will offer more improv, comedy and creative writing classes in Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

“To see veterans in these roles that aren’t stigmatized – it’s a beautiful thing,” Aron-Schiavone said.

Getting it ‘all out’

Mckinnon’s wit has followed him his entire life.

From high school superlatives naming him “most witty,” to joking around at work, Mckinnon’s life has always revolved around comedy — but not necessarily in a stand-up setting.

Since leaving the Army in 2005 after spending eight years as a signal officer, Mckinnon has worked at Fort Eustis with the Department of the Army, writing policies as an IT specialist. His joking demeanor and wit surfaced at work frequently, and, with coworkers’ encouragement, Mckinnon decided to try his hand at comedy.

Armed Services Arts Partnership was created three years ago by a William & Mary student, Sam Pressler, with the goal to help veterans successfully integrate back into the civilian world. Through a research project at the college, Pressler realized the gravity of mental health challenges affecting veterans. (Courtesy photo/ Tammy Hineline/ ASAP)
Armed Services Arts Partnership was created three years ago by a William & Mary student, Sam Pressler, with the goal to help veterans successfully integrate back into the civilian world. Through a research project at the college, Pressler realized the gravity of mental health challenges affecting veterans. (Courtesy photo/ Tammy Hineline/ ASAP)

It was a success, he said.

After doing many amateur shows around the Virginia Peninsula and Southside, Mckinnon started volunteering and teaching ASAP programs.

Mckinnon has a comedic talent, but he says comedy also helps him work through challenges he faces. Mckinnon is a disabled veteran due to knee, back and foot injuries he sustained while in the military.

His skits cover a range of topics including experiences with the Department of Veterans Affairs, religion and being a father.

“It’s like a Coke bottle,” he said. “If I shake it up, it stays inside, and might come out in an unproductive way. Being on stage, it all comes out.”

“[Veterans] think it’s a sign of weakness to talk about emotional things, but I don’t want to sit across a desk from someone and feel like I have an issue.”

Participating in ASAP’s comedy bootcamp did more than just pull Margarita Vargas, 50, out of her shell: It helped her gain the confidence to challenge herself. (Courtesy photo/Margarita Vargas)
Participating in ASAP’s comedy boot camp did more than just pull Margarita Vargas, 50, out of her shell: It helped her gain the confidence to challenge herself. (Courtesy photo/Margarita Vargas)

Gaining back confidence

Margarita Vargas, 49, finds relief in humor, dealing with stressful situations by making others laugh.

Vargas, who is from Brooklyn, New York, served almost 24 years in the U.S. Navy from 1988 to 2011. She retired as a chief petty officer.

Participating in ASAP’s comedy boot camp did more than just pull Vargas out of her shell: It helped her gain the confidence to challenge herself.

“I’ve been retired for years now, but I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I have PTSD,” Vargas said. “I started going to the ASAP program and I jumped out of my shell. The first few weeks, my anxiety was bananas, but I started traveling by myself, waking up early on Saturdays just to make sure I got to class on time.”

Vargas signed up for comedy boot camp last September and hasn’t slowed down since. She now goes to the Push Comedy Theater in Norfolk for improv classes, which she attends with friends she met through ASAP’s comedy boot camp.

“They’ve accepted us like they’ve known us forever,” Vargas said. “I didn’t think I’d be good at it, but I am. I just put my 150 percent in, like everything else I do.”

Want to go?

Operation Improv

  • When: Saturdays from 2-4 p.m., March 3 through April 21. Excludes March 31st and Easter weekend.

  • Where: The Sandler Center, 201 Market Street, Virginia Beach, Virginia 23462. The graduation show will take place on Saturday, April 21 at 7 p.m. at The Sandler Center’s Miller Studio

  • To Apply: If you or your friends, family members, or colleagues are interested in applying, complete an application here by Sunday, February 18, 2018 to be considered. Applicants will be admitted to this program on a rolling basis.

Comedy Bootcamp

  • When: Saturdays from 1-4 p.m., March 10 through April 21. Excludes March 31 and Easter Weekend.
  • Where: The Sandler Center 201 Market Street, Virginia Beach, Virginia 23462. The graduation show will take place on Saturday, April 28 at 7 p.m. at The Sandler Center’s Miller Studio.
  • To Apply: If you or your friends, family members, or colleagues are interested in applying, complete an application here by Sunday, February 11, 2018 to be considered.

Creative Writing

  • When: Class will take place Saturdays from 1-3:30 p.m., March 17 through April 28. Excludes April 7.

  • Where: The Muse Writers Center, 2200 Colonial Ave #3, Norfolk, VA 23517. The graduation show will take place on Saturday, April 28 at 4 p.m. at The Muse Writers Center.

  • To Apply:  If you or your friends, family members, or colleagues are interested in applying, please have them complete an application here by Sunday, February 18th, 2018 to be considered.

Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Visual Arts Workshop

  • When: This workshop will be held on Saturday, February 3 from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

  • Where: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2200 Parks Ave, Virginia Beach, VA 23451.

  • To Register: Review each workshop opportunity found on this page, and if you are interested and available, apply to your top two programs of greatest interest. Register through this form.

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