The Comedy Propaganda Machine: The Soldier Sketch Writing Contest of World War II

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In 1941, the U.S. military faced the challenge of preparing to fight a war on two fronts (thousands of miles away against formidable foes) and finding comedy scripts to entertain soldiers. Wait, what? It is true, “comedy” was on the country’s long and complicated to-do list for World War II, in addition to recruiting millions of people and producing ships, aircraft, artillery, tanks, food, and ammunition. The army’s soldier show program included contests, quizzes, one-act plays, musicals, vaudeville acts, minstrel shows, and radio comedy. Military manuals detailed how to act, direct, write, and build props and costumes. The goal was to provide soldiers with the skills to self-entertain, no matter the conditions. Soldier entertainment during World War II was expansive, including Entertainment Units and USO shows, but this study focuses on informal shows, performed for and by troops in combat zones overseas. Two organizations led this effort: the Special Service, a branch of the U.S. Army, which facilitated all leisure and recreation programs for GIs, including dances, camp newspapers, music, educational programs, and sports; and the Writers’ War Board, a propaganda agency run by celebrity writers. Funded administratively by the U.S. Government’s Office of War Information (OWI), the Writers’ War Board sought to rectify the mistakes of state-run propaganda campaigns of World War I, aiming to integrate pro-war sentiment into American’s daily entertainment streams. The Special Service made the argument to commanding officers that participation in comedy would make men into better soldiers. They believed that comedy would promote and maintain what they termed “combat morale,” or the will to kill / be killed on behalf of the organization and its objectives. Using comedy to convince men to risk their lives and take the lives of others, does indeed feel like an act of propaganda. Using research from five archival collections, this dissertation asks: How did sketch comedy promote and maintain combat morale during World War II? Or in other words, how did sketch comedy function as propaganda, convincing men to risk everything? Soldier shows improved the combat efficiency of the soldier through the development of individuality, development of leadership, development of esprit de corps, and provided a means of relaxation from mental stress. The 1944 sketch writing contest for the armed services, the pinnacle collaboration between the Writers’ War Board and the Special Service, serves as the through line of this dissertation. This contest, culminating in the published booklet titled GI Prize Winning Blackouts (1944), features short funny scenes about army life. Present-day military veterans participated in workshops where they read the World War II sketches aloud and discussed them in relation to their own service. Each chapter includes embedded audio files and direct quotes, centering their perspectives as credible experts. War, like comedy, often holds multiple, even contradictory meanings. Tensions are explored within each chapter, adding complexity to my understanding of the relationship between comedy, morale, propaganda. Comedy, despite its “entertaining” nature, needs to be critically engaged, especially during periods of crisis, when audiences are most vulnerable. As during a pandemic, or war, comedy audiences (of social media, performance, and everyday joking) must be aware of their desperate need for connection and therefore their vulnerability to consciously or unconsciously be convinced to join a group and act on behalf of it. The Special Service and Writers’ War Board worked together to turn a group of civilians into effective combat soldiers, willing to risk their lives in battle. This case study speaks to the power of comedy as propaganda at a time when the stakes were incredibly high.