Last June, before Manuel Erias’ mother, Patty, lost her battle with lung disease, she asked him one question: Would he be OK when she died?
Erias, who’d been sharing an East Setauket home with Patty until she moved to a Port Jefferson hospice, leaned against her and replied tearfully: “The only thing I’m worried about is who’s going to buy the cold cuts.”
To a stranger, his response might seem inappropriate. But to anyone who knew the pair, it made perfect sense.
Erias copes through comedy — a survival technique he says he learned at a young age from his mother. And these days, the 44-year-old has made it his mission to help veterans do the same by teaching comedy at the Islip-based nonprofit Project9line. The organization’s fitness and art courses include a comedy workshop to help veterans heal and return to civilian life. It is offered on an on-demand basis.
As part of the free 10-week course, students practice public speaking and learn how to write jokes and develop an onstage persona. The program culminates with a stand-up showcase that will put the students center stage on April 28 in Centereach.
ABOUT THE CLASS
Project9line was founded three years ago by Army veteran Patrick Donohue of Islip, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Afghanistan. Donohue, 35, wanted to bring awareness to the impact that military life has on the mental health of servicemen and women and also to help veterans dealing with these and other issues.
“The people who we need to reach the most are sometimes the farthest from us,” Donohue said. “There’s a guy or girl barricaded in his or her house right now and you know how I know this? Because I was that guy.”
The Project9line comedy collective meets once a week at its headquarters in Islip. Current students — who range in age from 28 to 68 — are developing the material for their stand-up routines in preparation for the five-minute sets they’ll perform in April.
Erias, who studied at Stand-Up University, a comedy school in Bellmore, was among a handful of comics to perform at the 2016 Comedy Festival at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury in front of 1,500 people, including Long Island native Kevin James. Erias regularly performs at venues such as the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, where he met Donohue during a benefit show. Erias used these experiences to devise a curriculum for the Project9line workshop.
FINDING THE FUNNY
From the start, Erias advised the class to avoid vulgarity and to insinuate instead. He also encouraged the group to pace their jokes and to poke fun at themselves.
“The goal is to get to the funny as soon as possible,” he said during a recent session. The formula is “set up, set up, punch.”
Erias, who is on long-term disability and is diagnosed with anxiety and depression, introduced himself to the group with one of his popular jokes: “My insurance company sent a career coach to my house to help me find a job, and after two hours with me, she said, ‘We’re upping your benefits.’ ”
The sentiment is not lost on his pupils, many of whom can relate to having the same or similar diagnoses.
“The goal is to make you laugh,” Erias said. “But it’s also to make you think.”
Although Erias helms the course, all the students act as coaches, freely critiquing each other’s routines and writing.
Donald Deaner, 52, an Army veteran from Shirley, said he enrolled in the class because he always wanted to try comedy. “I want my jokes to make people happy,” Deaner said.
Daniel Cervello, 27, likens performiing to serving in the military. He is in the Army reserves and did tours in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.
“Three-quarters of battle is about keeping the morale up,” said Cervello, of Rocky Point. “I use comedy to mask my pain.”
It’s apparent that veterans who enlist in the Comedy Assault Workshop do so as much for the comedy as for the camaraderie.
Said Donohue, “For me, it’s like therapy.”
WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Wednesdays, Project9line headquarters, 25 Union Ave., Islip
INFO 631-841-1141, firstname.lastname@example.org
ADMISSION Free (sold out; check for availability)
Comedy class performance
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Friday, April 28, VFW Post 4927, 31 Horseblock Rd., Centereach
INFO 631-841-1141, email@example.com
ADMISSION $22 ($5 veterans with ID)