Jordan Brady is Director Comic
Updated: Mar 18, 2020
Is Director Comic
by Jay S. Jacobs
If you think it’s a tough life being a road comic, imagine when the road is in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, every year hundreds of entertainers fly out into war zones, entering dangerous areas, staying in less than luxurious quarters, not getting paid for their time and their craft.
And they do it all for the troops. Happily.
It is a tradition that goes back to Bob Hope and the USO. American entertainers celebrate the troops who put their lives on the line for the United States by bringing a little of home, a little entertainment, a little levity into a place in which life is in constant danger.
Jordan Brady is pretty much a former standup comedian at this point in his career. He started out playing the clubs decades ago, but had transitioned out to become a film director long ago. At the dawn of the millennium he made four fictional films – Dill Scallion, The Third Wheel, American Girl and Waking Up in Reno. None of them really took off, though he worked with such future stars as Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Lauren Graham, Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Griffin. Then Brady settled in to a prolific and profitable career in filming commercials.
However, he never forgot his roots, and in 2010 he started working on the first of what has turned into a trilogy (so far!) of documentary films on the daily life of standup comedians – I Am Comic (2010), I Am Road Comic (2014) and now I Am Battle Comic. I Am Comic looked at life behind the scenes at standup comedians. I Am Road Comic looked more specifically at life on the road, comedians going from town to town playing at the local Chuckle Huts and Laugh Factories and other small-time gigs.
His latest film, I Am Battle Comic, takes another very specific look at comedians – now a group of comics playing at military bases in war zones around the world. The idea didn’t exactly occur to him so much as being an opportunity he could not resist. An old friend, comedian Don Barnhart, was a big fan of his films. Barnhart has been doing tours of war zones for decades now. Even though Brady had not performed as a comedian for years, Barnhart asked Brady to join in on his latest tour, emceeing the shows and capturing the experience on film. So, Brady joined Barnhart and fellow comedians Jeff Capri, Slade Ham, and Bob Kubota on the road to Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It turned into more than just a passion project,” Brady explained to me as we started to talk. “It’s hard for me to describe, but it definitely has changed me, opened my eyes.”
A year after his time spent in the war zones, I Am Battle Comic is ready for release. Brady told me a bit about the experience.
Jeff Capri, Slade Ham, Don Barnhart, Jordan Brady and Bob Kubota on the road in “I Am Battle Comic.”
You started as a standup – and obviously still do that some – but now you are focused on your filmmaking. Was there any point that you started thinking of yourself as a film director rather than a standup, or has that just been a natural progression?
Someone told me that you’re not a director until you call yourself a director. Even then you need other people to recognize. It was a natural progression as I did television shows. When they hired [me as] a comedian to do a part, I started taking an interest in the behind the scenes. Then, I was so lucky, people just would say, “Hey, why don’t you direct this? Why don’t you take the crew and go run the story?” Particularly in the 90s, it was an easy transition. I was doing reality television before the reality boom. You have a crew and I had these great directors and producers. After a while, I did a story on the company that makes Port-o-Potties in Minneapolis. The producer of the show said, “Well, why don’t you just direct the piece? You know the shots to get. You know the talking points. You know how to interview the guy.” It evolved from that.
Your directing career has taken some interesting turns, too, because you started out directing small features with then little-known actors like Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Billy Bob Thornton, Lauren Graham, Charlize Theron…
Then you moved into documentary filmmaking. What was it like doing feature films?
Well, the sad truth is, Jay, if your feature film doesn’t hit it out of the park, after a while you don’t get asked to do new ones. The chore of getting a job as a feature film director [is] you have to develop a script. Is it going to get green lit? Is it going to get a release date? So, I started doing commercials, which have a very short life span for a director. I love that. It suits my ADHD really well.
Why do documentary films appeal to you as a filmmaker?
With the documentaries, I have complete control. This is my third one. I financed them all. I either co-edited, hired an editor, or the last one I edited myself. It’s like a creative sorbet. From doing commercials for ad agencies and clients, and after I did four narrative features – the most fun was the one I wrote, produced, and directed with investors. We did it indie. I just didn’t make it as a narrative feature film director, and the energy to go back there and do it was exhausting.
Your documentaries are interesting, because they are looking at the lives of comedians from the inside – from someone who knows and has lived the lifestyle. What do you feel you bring to the table as someone who has been a standup that a normal filmmaker would not necessarily get?
Man, that’s a great question. Well, Ken Burns makes great documentaries, and he was never in the Civil War.
True, he never played baseball, either…
Yeah, he never played baseball. So, it’s not a prerequisite. But as a comedian – like I Am Comic was my first documentary, that led to I Am Road Comic and I Am Battle Comic – I think I had the trust of the comedians. I knew the inside baseball talk. I knew the world to show it in a way that they trusted me. That’s why I got Louis CK, Sarah Silverman and Roseanne Barr in the first one, because they were like, “Okay, this guy is going to tell the story properly.” I mean, if I’m chucking modesty out, but some of them said that to me, “I’m so glad a person who lived on the road for so many years doing night clubs is telling this story.”
Jordan Brady performs for the troops in “I Am Battle Comic.”
Your films about being a standup have been terrific, and you’ve sharpened the focus on each one – I Am Comic is broadly about the life of standups, I Am Road Comic is about life on tour, and now I Am Battle Comic is specifically about tours of war zones. Was the pinpointing of subjects something that was planned, or is it just how the ideas moved you?
I wish I was smart enough to say I planned it. What happened was, the first movie was meant to be broad. Examining the art, craft and occupational hazards of being a standup. Say the prop comics, or musical comics, or male or female, it didn’t matter. We were just comics. Like I am Spartacus. We are all the same. I Am Comic. Then, all these comedians would go, “Hey, do you want to do a guest set at my club?” “Do you want to work a weekend here?” And I was like, I’m a director now. I make commercials. I hadn’t done standup in 20 years. Then, finally, this guy booked me at a hell hole of a gig. What we call a hell gig. He goes, “Do you want to do this gig?” And I go, yeah. I was tired of saying no. I said yes, and that became I Am Road Comic.
How did you get involved in doing shows in war zones?
Don Barnhart, he’s in the movie, he’s been entertaining the troops since the 90s. He said, “Do you want to come to Afghanistan and Iraq and entertain the troops?” I said: well, you know my act, I don’t have an act. He said, “Well, you’ll work on it. You can figure it out. And you’ll document the story of what we do as battle comics.” So, I didn’t plan [it]…
Will there be more I Am Comic films coming down the line? What subject do you think will be next?
I thought about I Am Prop Comic, I Am Boat Comic. Everybody said, “Oh, you have to do I Am Open Mic Comic.” But, that would be terrible, Jay. If they are not good enough to pass open mic, why would they be interesting in a movie? I would love to do one of these two. I Am Boat Comic would be about cruise ships, but I need to find a cruise line that would let me show the behind the scenes. In my research, so far, they have been very protective. And I would love to do I Am Son of Comic, which would be about sons and daughters of comedians. Like, look at Ben Stiller. I mean, not standup, but Ben Stiller is hilarious, and he comes from comedy royalty. [His parents are comedians Jerry Stiller and the late Anne Meara.] Damon Wayans, Jr. is hilarious, and I don’t need to tell you who his father is. Let me ask you. Can I ask you a question?
What if I departed from the comedian world and did I Am Podiatrist?
(laughs) Well, I’m not sure a podiatrist would be the most interesting profession, but you never know. I have a bad history with podiatrists. In high school, I got a needle from a podiatrist right between my toes, and I’ve never felt such pain. I’ve not been a fan ever since.
Ooooh! Ooh, oh my gosh.
The Battle Comics with the troops in “I Am Battle Comic.”
So maybe not that. What about I Am Improv Comic?
Okay, I Am Improv Comic is a genius idea. The problem is… I filmed one of the best improv groups. They started in Chicago, they are a staple in LA, called Beer Shark Mice. David Koechner, who you’ve seen as the sportscaster in the Anchorman movies, he is in the improv group, and a bunch of other guys you’ve seen on TV. And it won’t work. They told me. They go, “It won’t work.” I said, why not? “Because you had to be there.” You have to invest the time as an audience member to get the laughs. Every time someone has tried to film it, I mean except Whose Line Is It Anyway? [it doesn’t work].
I can see that. There was a great movie about improv comedians I saw last year called Don’t Think Twice. And while I loved the movie, the improv scenes didn’t really work as well on film.
I loved that movie. I went to a Q&A with some of the filmmakers. The year before that movie came out, I worked on different commercials with Keegan Michael Key [who is also in the film]. I asked him about it, and they went and rehearsed as an improv group before they shot the movie. A lot of the improv in the movie was scripted, because it feeds the narrative. There are plot points in the improv. So, it’s more faux-prov. But I loved that movie. It captured the spirit.
Don Barnhart has been doing these tours for 25 years now. How did he decide to approach you? Why did you feel his tour would make an intriguing film?
I’ve known Don since he used to work at the Improv. We did Evening at the Improv together. For the youngsters, that’s one of those shows, they had a brick wall and showed comedians. So, he’s always been a dear friend. Based on what we were talking about on the trust that comedians have, he knew I would tell the story that he thought needed to be told. Everyone knows about Bob Hope. I hope everyone knows how wonderful Robin Williams was, how generous he was with his time. And I think Drew Carey has done a bunch of tours. But there are rank-and-file comedians – no disrespect to Don, or Slade Ham, or the [other] guys I went over with – but they are not household names. Yet, these entertainers are still flying to remote parts of the world to bring a little piece of home to the troops. I think Don knew from the first two movies I’m not going to make fun of it, I’m not going to deliver a B-minus documentary.
Jordan Brady talks with the troops in “I Am Battle Comic.”
The cool thing about I Am Battle Comic is that it gets together a group of very different guys – who are friends and yet have different comic styles and lifestyles – and have them working together for the greater good. And yet much of the life almost seems like camp, bunking together and dealing with each other when bigger things are going on around them. What is that feeling of camaraderie like? Normally road comics don’t deal with each other so much.
Right, if you’re on the road, if you’re the opening act, you probably see the headliner at night for 20 minutes before the show. If you’re the middle act, maybe you hang out with the local comedy group that you meet there. The local comics are usually really friendly and supportive. Or, you’re opening up for the headliner, so you spend a few hours at the mall. Here, we are getting fitted for flak jackets and bulletproof vests. (laughs) When I was traveling with the battle comics, the train had been bombed in Brussels [Belgium]. That part of the world was on high alert. We were then going to fly from Kuwait to Afghanistan, so it was a little tense. The only way to break that mood is through humor and camaraderie. I stayed in a little box of a barrack. Sometimes those guys go out and they stay in tents, on a cot. Or, they bunk up together.
What did you do?
You’re traveling every day. You’re not going to see a movie during the day. You are going to – like we show in the movie – the meet and greets. You’re shaking hands with the troops. You’re telling them stories. Maybe telling them some jokes. But you’re learning where they are from. Most comedians have traveled so much that if you say you’re from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I probably went to the Comedy Zone there. You are doing that, that one-on-one interaction with the men and women that serve. You’re with just two or three other people. You’re getting up at seven or eight to travel to a base. You’re going from unit to unit for six-seven hours, then you’re doing a show for two hours. You get to know someone.