Big In JapanLocal comic Brian T. Shirley storms the comedy clubs of Japan
August 28, 2014
By Paige Lewis | Contributing Writer
As a U.S. Air Force veteran and stand-up comedian, performing for U.S. Marines in Japan was a personal and professional highlight for West Ashley resident Brian T. Shirley. Recently Shirley traveled to Japan with House of Laughs comedy series to entertain at various Marine bases located around Fugi and Okinawa through Marine Corps Community Services Okinawa. As the featured comedian for headlining comedienne Jackie Fabulous, Shirley performed six shows in as many days and then headed back to Charleston, having travelled 15,770 miles and entertained more than 1,500 Marines and their spouses.
“The audiences were very appreciative. They were mostly young men, a few women, 18-24. At the Fugi base, the audience was 100 men and four women . . . I remember being a young man in the military . . . That’s a rough life for those Marines,” says Shirley.
Shirley’s comedy material includes a bit about his days in the Air Force as a B-1 bomber avionics technician, but he doesn’t try to match the toughness of these Marine audiences stationed in Japan. As he puts it, the most action he saw was when he and a bunch of buddies were out numbered by a group of drunk women in Abilene, Texas. While previous generations stormed the beaches of Normandy and currently plan covert invasions with night-vision technology, Shirley explains in his deadpan style, he figured out the most comfortable sleeping spot on a B-1 was in the dip of the wing. Laughter from a room full of Leathernecks is the most satisfying reward for a comedian who earnestly wants to bring a sense of home to American soldiers serving abroad.
“Most of the Marines attending the comedy shows had never been to a comedy club, and didn’t know what to expect. It warmed my heart to know that I made them feel good,” says Shirley. “I felt nervous, because I really wanted to do a good job for these guys, but it was also strange … To be paid well to go to Japan, expenses paid for, good food, nice hotel rooms, a driver, just to say some silly stuff on stage. I felt honored but strange.”
Shirley keeps an on-line video journal of his comedy tours titled “BTS On the Road.” One journal entry entitled, “A View from Japan,” he describes the camaraderie of a Marine base: “One of the club managers at Camp Schwab told me it was always hard to plan an event because you never knew when there was an exercise that took the Marines away from the base early in the morning … This was a very interactive audience, to say the least, and we had fun with these folks. I must say you can really feel the bonds that have been built between these young men, and it’s a testament to our military’s training. It’s also a testament to these people who choose to serve.”
The other side of the world still seemed close to home for the comedian and at least one of the Marines in the audience. After the shows, Shirley and Fabulous greeted the soldiers, talked to them personally, and posed for pictures. One of the Marines told Shirley that he remembered seeing the comedian two years ago on a Carnival cruiseship that had departed from Charleston. The Marine retold a joke he heard Shirley tell at that show, a joke undoubtedly Shirley’s original material, because it was based on a personal experience regarding a bag of potato chips.
Comedians are expected to be funny all the time and not take life too seriously, but some life experiences can illicit sentimental reactions from the most gifted comics. Midway through the tour, Shirley summarized his feelings about the comedy tour in Japan in “A View from Japan”: “Now that I’ve had some time to rest and reflect on the trip so far, I feel thankful. I am thankful that I’m able to do this and thankful for these young men and women who are serving their country. In the end, this trip is all about them. They deserve the best, and they also need us to bring them the gift of joy. It can’t be easy in a foreign land away from your families and conforming to the military way of life.”
Shirley is now home, back to the West Ashley and Charleston’s lack of Ferris wheels. “Japan has beautiful scenery of green fields, snow-topped mountains, and they love Ferris wheels over there. They’re everywhere!” Japan may have its Ferris wheels, but they don’t have a Coburg Cow.