By JOHN ROGERS
LOS ANGELES - When comic Will C. recalls his duty as a combat-tested ex-Marine - then gazes upon the fairly substantial gut he carries in place of an M-16 rifle these days - he likes to say the old warrior in him has gone MIA.
"And by that I mean McDonald's, In-N-Out and Arby's," C. tells audiences.
But he and four other well-traveled comedians will tell you they are still serving their country. Only these days they're doing it one joke at a time.
They are the G.I.s of Comedy, veterans of every major branch of the U.S. military, a couple of Gulf wars and a countless number of nights in the comedy trenches of nightclubs and college campuses from here to New York.
It was, in fact, on the comedy circuit that they crossed paths, although that's not how Thom Tran, the former Army staff sergeant who put the G.I.s of Comedy together, likes to remember it.
"Here's how we met," he says of himself and C. "I was at the Taco Bell and he was taking my order."
"He wasn't behind the register," chimes in G Reilly, who was aboard the Navy's USS Denver during the first Gulf War. "He was TAKING his order."
This is the point where the drummer would give us a rim shot. But these guys aren't on stage at the moment. They're ensconced in a window booth at Jerry's Famous Deli, a popular hangout with Hollywood industry types.
Not at the table this day is Jose Sarduy, who is still in the Air Force reserve and currently teaching young aviators to fly jets at a base in Texas. But not to be left out, he dials into Tran's iPad via Skype.
Sarduy also plans to return to Los Angeles in time for the group's next gig - on Friday at the Improv in Hollywood.
Sarduy, who came to the U.S. with his family in the 1980 Mariel boat lift, likes to say that when people learn he's a Cuban refugee they have trouble believing he's also an Air Force major.
"Everybody always says, 'They let the Cubans fly the plane? Shouldn't they be in the Coast Guard?'
"You don't want a Cuban in the Coast Guard," he continues, adding that such a guardsman would let every other Cuban who could get a hold of a boat into the country.
Political correctness is clearly not this group's stock in trade. But Tran, who traded a career in the Army for comedy (he's also a part-time radio traffic reporter) after being shot in the head in Iraq seven years ago, believes all five have earned the right to say whatever they want on stage.
The fifth G.I. in the troupe, former Army private Tom Irwin, produced the film "25 Days in Iraq," documenting one of his four comedy tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"These are people who have seen a little more high stakes part of the world. It's a life experience that results in something a little more than just jokes about airplane food," says Thomas Lennon, one of the creators of television's now-ended "Reno 911," who with his partner, Robert Ben Garant, is producing the group's shows.
The Vietnamese-born Tran, whose father fought on the American side during the Vietnam War and was imprisoned after the fall of Saigon, even manages to work into the act the day he was wounded in Iraq.
"I don't know of any other show where there is such funny footage of someone taking a bullet to the head," says Lennon, who played Lt. Dangle on "Reno 911" and was the clueless test administrator blackmailed by Cameron Diaz in "Bad Teacher." He and Garant are also pitching a television show for the group to Comedy Central.
Since coming together four months ago, the five have played all of LA's major comedy clubs and will go on a nationwide tour later this year. Eventually they hope to take the act overseas to military installations.
Not that their entire act is made up of military jokes.
Reilly, whose first name really is G, has a funny bit about getting hit by a bus. Irwin can wax on about trying to explain to a 17-year-old how a reel-to-reel tape recorder once worked. C., who says he was always the funny fat kid in school, makes light of his size.
The group, ranging in age from 32 to 52, is as multicultural as the military, with one black member, one Asian, one Hispanic and two white guys.
"When we put this tour together it shocked me that, you know, a black guy in the Navy, a Cuban in the Air Force, an Asian in the Army and a white guy in the Corps," Tran said. "I was like all I need is a Muslim in the Coast Guard."
That is a joke he does need to watch. But not for reasons of political correctness.
He says he once told it in front a group of military recruiters and the next day one of them sent out a mass emailing looking for a funny Muslim.
"I'm still waiting for a funny Muslim in the Coast Guard to contact me," Tran adds, laughing. "But one day it will happen."