BENARI POULTEN IS a resident of Astoria, or at least he was until his commitment to civic duty granted him a year-long vacation in scenic Iraq. In addition to playing the role of the opening hype man for the weekly Shoot the Messenger comedy show at the Green Room Theater, he’s also a regular at comedy spots Comix, People’s Improv Theater,The Tank and Rififi.
“I think I’ve done everything that has been done,” Poulten remarks. “Even the places that have closed down.” One would be hard-pressed to find a comedian more qualified to skewer the political process and foreign affairs than 31-year-old Poulten.While other comics passively rely on newspaper headlines and sound bites for material, Poulten has already served as a Congressional Aide to Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass) as well as a staffer for the 2004 Kerry campaign. And he’s not just talk; Poulten has also spent the better part of the last decade enlisted in the Army Reserves as a print and broadcast journalist, having recently been promoted to Sergeant First Class.
“I joined the Army Reserves in 1999, one month after college, which pissed off my dad because he wanted me to join for the tuition money. I was like, ‘Screw you, old man!’” Poulten explains. Clearly, there is no greater affront to a father than ignoring his fiscal advice. Adding insult to injury, Poulten went on to acquire $100,000 more debt by earning his MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU. His military experience—not to mention a childhood spent in community theater— made him a perfect candidate to send up this summer’s Republican National Convention with the rest of his comedy group, the Shoot the Messenger crew, when they exported their weekly theater show to Minneapolis. Although Poulten is the first to admit that Republicans are comedic sitting ducks.
“A lot of satire is based on taking on the people who happen to be in power, and right now, these are the people who are in power,” Poulten relays before explaining that the group spent its days reporting on the convention via radio and their nights “taking the politicians to task and raking them over the coals.”
Their targets didn’t make it very difficult. “The most absurd moment had to be when we spotted Karl Rove just walking around as if he wasn’t being indicted,” Poulten says. “[Comic] Lizz Winstead remarked that one of the perks of being at the convention is that we were hanging around people that should be in jail.” Naturally, Poulten did what anyone would do and seized the moment to take a picture with the unsuspecting Bush crony, even if he did have to exercise what he refers to as “an incredible amount of restraint.”
Another highlight involved shooting a segment making fun of the horrendous patriotic-themed fashions being peddled by vendors and modeled by prominent Republicans.
“I had to drive over to the Republican mayor of Bloomington, Indiana’s house to pick up one of the outfits for our sketch, and the car died. So I had to have the mayor help jump my [car] so I could go back to Minneapolis and go make fun of his friends.” It should be noted that the mayor of Bloomington is Gene Winstead, Lizz’s brother.
Although Poulten identifies as a liberal and “proud Democrat,” one has to wonder if he is in any way conflicted about his military assignments, especially when those assignments are surrounded by controversy.
“The last time I was deployed, I was in Guantanamo in 2002,” Poulten relays with remarkable good humor. “I was only supposed to be there for six months, but that got extended to a year because someone had to go and start another war.” “Guantanamo was one of those situations where I had to separate the warriors from the war since a lot of the public perception of what went on was shaped by policy fights in Washington. It was certainly an interesting place to be handling public affairs.”
How’s that for an understatement? This month, Poulten will be going on the road again, not as an entertainer, but as a member of the Army Reserves shopping off to Iraq. “I knew it was a possibility that I would be going into Iraq, but I don’t think I’ve fully processed it yet,” he explains. “I have friends who have gone and come back and friends who went and didn’t come back, but I’m looking forward to being a part of history that few of us can experience firsthand.”
Despite being sent into a war zone with the added stress of a leadership position, Poulten fails to lose sight of what is most important.
“Call me back if you need me to be funnier,” he remarked before hanging up.