Operation Desert Storm would change the life of Jill Turnbow. The young comedienne was given a mere five days’ notice before shipping out to the Persian Gulf and boarding the Cunard Princess, a British cruise liner off the coast of Bahrain and the designated spot for soldiers in the Gulf War to blow off steam. The war needed comics. Turnbow needed her big break.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF BECKY PEDIGO
“I came home a completely different person,” recalled Turnbow, whose memories of weeks spent entertaining the troops aboard the Cunard fill the 50-minute standup routine Between Iraq and a Hard Place.
“I was thinking, ‘This’ll be cool. This’ll be a big career break. I’ll get a lot of publicity, and I’ll make a lot of money,’” the comic explained wryly, the dusty drawl of a Texas upbringing lingering in her voice. “Well, I didn’t get any of that. But it changed my life.”
At the beginning of Iraq, the comic describes her first night at the new gig: the heckling, drunken din, the cries of “Sit on my face!” It wasn’t looking good. But somehow, Turnbow was able to turn the night around, to call upon some feisty ball-smasher within who could dish it all right back at ’em. This was a war all her own, and she was winning.
As Turnbow toughened up, so did her act: “I had some stuff I had been afraid to use because at the time I thought it was too dirty. And I thought, I’m pulling all that out now! Sometimes, you just couldn’t do anything. There were nights when it was just all I could do to stay out there five minutes. … And then sometimes, it was great. But the rougher I got, the better I would do, and the better they would be. They loved to be yelled at. The nastier I would work, the better they liked it. By the time I got home, I was bulletproof.”
In the midst of it all, Turnbow admits, there were moments when she feared she wouldn’t survive the journey—and not just because of the heckling. Even on the cruise liner, the threat of enemy attack was palpable. Looking back from a distance of 20 years, however, Turnbow doesn’t believe the situation was ever really as dangerous as she and others on the Cunard perceived it at the time.
“Bahrain did get bombed one time, and I talk about that in the show a little bit,” she said. “It was once. They just sort of made it scary. Like we had gas masks we were supposed to wear. They said, ‘You have to carry this with you all the time.’ I said, ‘I’m not walking onstage with a gas mask in my hand!’”
The collision between the ship’s unprepared staff and the troops who poured onto it in droves, Turnbow recalls, was a more realistic problem: “When they came aboard, every female that worked aboard the ship quit and had to buy a ticket home, it was so rough.”
Fortunately, Turnbow lived to tell her story—and quite well, in fact. And the day she returned to the United States, she made the acquaintance of one Becky Pedigo, another Texas-born comedienne who happened to be opening for her at a Houston comedy club.
As Turnbow recalls taking the mic at the beginning of her set and saying into it, “How’d y’all like Becky? Good, ’cause here’s 45 minutes of that.” The similarities between the two were undeniable.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- SHE’S A TROOPER: Jill Turnbow tells stories from her stint as a comedienne aboard a military R&R cruise ship in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, in Between Iraq and a Hard Place.
“We sounded alike, we talked alike, we’re both from Texas, we have very similar sensibilities, and so it was sort of a natural thing,” Turnbow said. “And we’ve been friends ever since.”
With her friend’s permission, Turnbow, who now lives in Cambria, even read excerpts from Killing Me Softly with Jazz Hands—Pedigo’s musings on the life of a stand-up comic—at No Shame, the SLO Little Theatre’s after-hours variety show of original, no-holds-barred theater.
“She e-mailed me the next day and said, ‘It killed, it was great,’” recalled Pedigo, who currently lives in L.A.
Initially, Pedigo was pleased by the positive reception to her work, but as Turnbow continued to win over audiences with Jazz Hands, Pedigo changed her tune, telling her friend good-naturedly, “OK, you’re done getting laughs with my stuff.”
But those who’ve been charmed by Pedigo’s wit and Turnbow’s dry delivery will have a chance to enjoy both in their rightful element: In a double feature called “Tales from the Trenches,” Turnbow’s Between Iraq and a Hard Place and Pedigo’s Killing Me Softly with Jazz Hands, each lasting approximately an hour, will grace the Little Theatre Nov. 11 and 12.
Just don’t try giving these battle-tried comediennes any crap.
“The very first club I worked after I got home, the bouncer said, ‘We usually like for the comics to have a signal. If someone’s bothering you in the audience, if someone heckles you, what do you want us to do?’” recounted Turnbow, with a laugh that blended charming with maniacal.
“I said, ‘Sit back and watch.’”
Arts Editor Anna Weltner blends charming with vermouth. Contact her at email@example.com.