Go on, laugh: For Lewis Black opener Joe Kashnow, amputee jokes are part of the act


Joe Kashnow, who was featured in a recent documentary on wounded veterans pursuing comedy, performs standup in Maryland. He will open for Lewis Black on Thursday. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

Don’t get him started.

Hey, did you hear the one about the soldier who drove over an IED in Iraq?

He had a blast.

Or, what did the soldier think of the experience as he was transported to the hospital?

It was the bomb.

And why did the soldier decide, after losing a lower limb in combat, to go into comedy?

He’ll have a leg up.

No, don’t get Joe Kashnow started. Not only has he heard them all. At some point, the Army veteran, in moments of vulnerability, has been tempted to tell them all — punning one-liners that exist to disarm you. They are not just ice-breakers. They are his life.

More than a decade ago, Sgt. Kashnow drove over a roadside bomb outside Baghdad. Nine years ago, as part of his recovery from the injuries he suffered then, Kashnow had half his right leg amputated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. And today, the Baltimore man is trying to make a career out of comedy.

He isn’t going it alone. Kashnow, 35, is one of five service members who — having survived severe injuries in Iraq or Afghanistan — were chosen to appear in the recent documentary “Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor,” which spotlights their paths from the battlefield to the stage. The veterans were also mentored by such top comedians as Lewis Black, Zach Galifianakis, B.J. Novak and Bob Saget.

And on Thursday night, 11 years after he escaped a bombing in Iraq, Kashnow will take to the Warner Theatre stage — easily the biggest room he’s played — and open for the Emmy-nominated Lewis Black.

Is Kashnow ready? As he will tell you, having seen war, he isn’t scared of any group of people that isn’t trying to do him bodily harm. But he is quick to add that the thought of people paying to hear him tell jokes rings in his head like its own punch line.

***

It is a Wednesday evening at a strip mall in North Bethesda — open-mike night at what is advertised to be the Splash Lounge, although you’ll find no outside signage to confirm it. More than a dozen aspiring comics will perform, though Kashnow is the only one trying out new material in the hopes that it might soon entertain fans of Lewis Black.

A few rows of tables are sandwiched between the bar and a stage. Kashnow is writing his set list on an index card largely by the dim light of neon signs. He needs the notes before going on stage.

Because of his meds, Kashnow has trouble with short-term memory.

He also has trouble being in a crowd.

And the mere act of standing up can cause him great pain.

So naturally, he wants to become a headliner as a standup comedian.

“Oh my gosh!” Kashnow says with mock realization over his professional trifecta of obstacles. “I should rethink this whole thing.”

Kashnow is not a man easily dissuaded. He is up fourth on the bill this evening and is eager to get going. By day, he is employed by the U.S. Mint; by night, he travels to area clubs with a determination to get hours and hours of stage time under his belt — five or seven or 10 minutes at a time.

Kashnow rolls up the right leg of his jeans to adjust his prosthetic limb, a high-grade, carbon-fiber device that runs from just below the knee — what Kashnow warmly calls his “stump” — down to his knotted sneaker. A grimace momentarily overtakes his usually warm smile. Not only is he trying new material, but he is also experimenting with wearing pants instead of cargo shorts on stage. Will the audience members react differently if they can’t see he’s an amputee?

Host Jesse Rivas introduces Kashnow as a participant in “Comedy Warriors,” which debuted on Showtime in December. As he approaches the stage, Kashnow winces; by the time he pivots to face the spotlight, his smile is wide. Now, whether to open with an easy “blast” or “bomb” one-liner to address what’s on everyone’s minds.

When Kashnow was mentored by the professional comedians, he was advised to do at least a little amputee humor — a move that acknowledges the prosthetic elephant in the room, and that builds rapport with the crowd. On this night, Kashnow decides to employ misdirection instead, with an extended joke built on sexual innuendo. The audience laughs. Nothing punctures the tension over an amputee soldier’s standup routine quite like a tale of failed conquest.

Soon, in the parlance of comedy, the soldier is “killing” it.

***

Even as a kid, Kashnow was just funny. He blended a naturally quick tongue with the “sales charisma” of his father, Howard, 70, who ran a bus company.

Kashnow’s wit was nature, but the sharpening of it was nurture. At 15, after a move, he had to switch from an Orthodox Jewish private school to the public Northwestern Senior High in Baltimore City, where Kashnow says he was a distinct minority. He needed skills to adapt.

“One of the kids made a remark, not even veiled, that I was an undercover cop there to find out who was doing drugs,” Kashnow remembers. “I said: ‘How stupid can you be? I’m clearly here to investigate the teachers.’ He laughed. We became friends.”

Upon graduation, Kashnow thought about joining the military or becoming a cop. But then he got engaged at 18 and was married at 19. Suddenly, he says, his choices involved a series of service and sales jobs — until he turned 23 and got divorced. Then he no longer had a reason not to sign up.

“I enlisted with every intention of serving for a full 30 years and getting a pension and getting fat.” Kashnow waits a beat. “Well, at least I got fat.”

Kashnow also had no intention of entering another serious relationship anytime soon. Then he met a woman, Sarai, at his dad’s house; within weeks, he knew he wanted to marry her. At age 24, he was in basic training; at 25, he was shipping out to Iraq. Joe and Sarai decided to wed so that if anything happened to him, she would get full Army benefits.

He was “in country” in Iraq by April of 2003. A half-year later, he was calling his new bride with some grim news.

***

On Sept. 17, 2003, the sergeant of the 4th Infantry Division was escorting an empty cargo truck to pick up gym equipment for a morale room. About 20 miles north of Baghdad, Kashnow says, insurgents detonated a device beneath his vehicle’s wheel, sending shrapnel into his right leg.

“I got blown up,” Kashnow says with comic incredulity, “on a shopping trip!”

(The only more embarrassing way to hurt your leg, Kashnow jokes, would be through diabetes. “ ‘How’d you lose the leg — roadside bomb?’ ‘No, Skittles. Taste the rainbow, feel the bone saw.’ ” Kashnow riffs.)

Kashnow pulled his Humvee off the road and got out his emergency kit. He heard someone say: “See if you can save this kid’s legs.”

One week after the bombing, Kashnow was back in the United States, his bride by his side, taking stock of what lay ahead.

***

At Walter Reed Medical Center, Kashnow says his doctors were very clear on what he faced: “We have no idea what’s going to happen.”

Kashnow tried to rehabilitate for about a year and a half. In February of 2005, he made the excruciating decision: Amputate his right leg below the knee. A month later, he was fitted for his first prosthetic, and he was soon up and around, the most mobile he’d been since the roadside bombing.

One day not long after, Kashnow received his first infusion of ketamine, which he says messed with his mind. At the same time, he was reading the last book in the “Harry Potter” series.

“So I start going down the halls of Walter Reed yelling: ‘Get me Demerol! I’m Lord Voldemort! Get me Demerol! I’m Lord Voldemort! . . .

“So they took away my foot.”

This period of Kashnow’s life brought great highs and lows. He began the separation from the Army, retiring in 2008 after 6 ½ years of service. He battled depression and thoughts of suicide. He and Sarai welcomed their first of two sons into the world: Adam, now 7. (Adam’s brother, Moshe, is now 3.)

Kashnow worked jobs, but nothing felt like a career. Then one day in 2011, he saw a notice through the Wounded Warrior Project. A couple of entertainment-industry pros, Ray Reo and John Wager, wanted to identify aspiring comedians from the ranks of severely injured veterans. So Kashnow — the man who had been told “you’re funny” since childhood — made an audition clip. He spoke of Demerol. He told of “Lord Voldemort!” And many months later, he got the call.

It was just what Kashnow needed.

“I thought, I need to do this,” he says. “I didn’t know I had a real [comedic] point of view till I became involved with ‘Comedy Warriors’ and was forced to go on stage.”

“The Daily Show’s” Lewis Black, as a seasoned comic and actor and theater pro, serves as a highly effective mentor to Kashnow in the film.

“All three comics I coached were funny and had voice and all had a point of view,” says the Grammy-winning Black, a Maryland native himself who has done several USO tours and is passionate about raising the nation’s awareness of veterans. “And Joe Kashnow, well, he was sicker than I am!”

***

Kashnow remembers it vividly. January of 2012. The new-talent showcase at Magooby’s Joke House, outside of Baltimore. The first time he took the stage in an open-mike setting.

“The entire day, I was a wreck at work,” Kashnow says. But that night, he spoke of Demerol, he spoke of Lord Voldemort, and he won the showcase as the event’s top performer.

Now, he has the bug. The dream is to be a headliner.

“Joe Kashnow is a born comedian,” says Bernadette Luckett, a “Comedy Warriors” mentor and co-producer. “I’ve never seen any comic have such confidence [the] first time on stage, do so well, and know completely who they are. That usually takes years.”

As Joe battles the continual pain and the short-term memory loss and the anxiety in crowds, he keeps going to area clubs, getting stage time and honing his material. It’s now central to his life.

“Every time I go out to perform, when I leave the house, my sons say to me: ‘Tell good jokes, Dad,’ ” Kashnow says. “Tell good jokes.”

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