After 26 years in the military and five deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, Robin Phoenix took an entirely different career path — standup comedy. Looking back now, it wasn’t that much of a leap.
When she retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel working in logistics in 2020, she signed up for a Comedy Bootcamp offered through the Armed Services Arts Partnership. This nonprofit organization offers veterans access to arts classes, including comedy workshops, to help them build a community and have an outlet for expression.
“When I retired, I was in a really bad place with my mental health, PTSD,” Phoenix said. “So I took [this class] and I loved it. It reminded me that I’ve always loved comedy. I used to get in trouble for sneaking down the steps when I was little to listen to The Tonight Show opening monologue.”
Feeling a bit lost as a 44-year-old retired veteran, Phoenix decided to give standup comedy a try while living in Washington, D.C. She took to it quickly, successfully booking gigs at various comedy venues throughout the nation’s capital.
When she moved to Charleston with her husband and two kids in March 2021, she said the comedy scene was very different — no dedicated comedy clubs and even fewer opportunities. But, rediscovering her love for comedy helped Phoenix work through some of her personal struggles and fueled a desire to share this experience with other veterans.
“I said to myself, well let me go back to what I started to do this for, which was my own mental health,” Phoenix said. “How can I help other veterans?”
She started Best Medicine Brigade LLC and volunteered at the Ralph H. Johnson Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center, creating a program called Heal-arious. Through humor and comedy, she helps veterans who have attempted suicide or struggle with other mental health diagnoses.
“We work through their trauma and issues by using humor,” she said. “It’s been awesome. It’s one of the very few places in the country that does it. It’s very new. We’ve now expanded to the point where I’m going up to Myrtle Beach VA in a couple weeks to help them implement a similar program. And I’m now doing it virtually with a VA hospital in Ohio.”
Laughing through trauma
Phoenix’s humor therapy program has three prongs: a Comedy 101 class at the VA’s Veteran Enrichment Center, a comedy session at the VA’s inpatient behavioral health ward and a virtual comedy class.
Her Comedy 101 class teaches veterans — some who attend in person, others who attend online — how to identify things that trigger stress, trauma, frustration, anxiety or anger and turn those into jokes. She teaches joke structure and standup comedy techniques. She offers the online option for people who live other places or aren’t able to access the VA.
At the inpatient behavioral health ward, she interacts with veterans coping with more serious conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. “I just get them to laugh and share and talk,” she said.
“My dream is really to scale this to be helping veterans all over the country,” she said.
Though Phoenix is not a certified psychologist, she is working her way through a program to become a certified humor professional through the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, which she will finish in March 2024.
“It teaches us how to leverage humor as therapy,” she said. “I use the term ‘humor therapy.’ I’m not a social worker or anything like that. I’m a comedian who believes in and advocates for the use of humor as therapy.”
At the VA Hospital, she works under the supervision of two medical professionals and a nurse or staff member.
The five-minute ride
When Phoenix isn’t teaching comedy or making others laugh, she’s working on her craft. Sometimes she’s inspired by a thought or scenario and writes a joke down immediately, then works out the kinks later.
Other times, she sits down with her notebook and brainstorms with different prompts, exercises and techniques. Over time, jokes mature and change, she said.
“There are jokes I’m doing now that are three years old, but have come such a long way,” she said. “I used to do this joke about going to Disney with my husband and kids, and it was like: I went to Disneyland with my family because I’m stupid. My husband had the audacity to ask me, ‘Are we seriously gonna wait two hours for a five-minute ride?’
We’ve been married for 20 years. All I ever get are five minutes rides.”
Though that joke has evolved into a longer story with more punchlines, it still gets a laugh every time.
Laughter is the best medicine
Through the Best Medicine Brigade, Phoenix has created a network of comedians throughout the country who are veterans or military spouses, setting up shows in their area.
Though she doesn’t operate the Best Medicine Brigade as a nonprofit, she also doesn’t make money off her work. Instead, she funds the program through sponsorships and her own finances to bring comedy to those who need it most.
Her focus is on growing her humor therapy program to provide access to more veterans, but Phoenix has her hand in a lot of comedic endeavors — hosting trivia nights, comedy shows and booking private events like corporate comedy shows or funny but motivational talks.
Currently, Phoenix is booking private holiday parties and finishing her national Let’s Party Tour with comedian Andrew Conn. The next tour stop is Nov. 10 in Oklahoma City before a run through Alabama, Texas and Ohio.
Around the house
With so many projects, Phoenix is constantly on the go. But she still finds time to relax in her Isle of Palms home with her husband and two kids. In fact, it’s a full family affair at the Phoenix house, the same home that her husband grew up in.
After Phoenix’s mother-in-law got sick in early 2021, she moved back into the Isle of Palms home with her husband and two kids. Since her mother-in-law’s passing, the family still resides in the house with her father-in-law upstairs in a kind of attached residence and her brother-in-law and niece, who live in a back apartment on the property.
Pieces of her family’s life are scattered throughout the home — from the military decorations hung in the living room to the custom-made bar Phoenix gave to her husband as a gift, an homage to their shared love of bourbon, complete with a shelled-out Apache rocket.
Entering Phoenix’s walk-in closet feels like walking into a celebrity’s dressing room with makeup overflowing in cases and jars on a large vanity. On the other side of a partial wall outfitted with a fake brick Best Medicine Brigade background and a mic stand designed to look like a comedy club stage, there is a closet filled with bright clothing and rows of tall boots and sparkly heels. Phoenix said her style fluctuates between full-blown dressed up and simple jerseys and jeans.
“I basically was authorized to wear three different types of shoes for 26 years,” she said. “So my style is whatever doesn’t look like that. Like the furthest thing from Army boots and Army-issued patent leather heels is what I want. I think Betty Boop is kind of like my alter ego.”
The makeshift stage in her closet is set up for virtual comedy classes and performances, which she does regularly.
Her closet may resemble a dressing room from Saturday Night Live, but Phoenix is still learning to embrace her popularity as a comedian.
In September, she opened for big-name comedians Mark Normand, Seth Herzog, Jo Firestone and Sal Vulcano at Caroline’s on Broadway in New York City.
“I was in the greenroom and I was so nervous. I thought I was going to puke because I’d never been in a room or club of that caliber,” she said. “They were all super nice and supportive. And Mark Normand asked me, ‘Are you nervous?’ And I said, ‘Uh, yeah! You guys are celebrities,’ and he goes: ‘You’re in the same greenroom that we are. You’re a celebrity, too!’ I almost cried and hugged him. It just calmed my nerves so much.”
For more information on Phoenix’s veteran programs or upcoming public shows, visit her website bestmedicinebrigade.com.
THE LOWDOWN ON Robin Phoenix
Birthplace: Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University; master’s in business administration from Webster University.
Current profession: Comedian and CEO of Best Medicine Brigade.
Past professions of interest: Served in United States Army 1994-2020.
Books on bedside table: All Things Aside by Iliza Schlesinger and The New Comedy Bible by Judy Carter.
Favorite food to cook: Zucchini boats.
Five foods you always need in your refrigerator: Cheese, flavored creamer, bacon, butter, veggies.
Three people (alive or dead) you’d like to dine with: Robin Williams, Dwayne Johnson and Anjelah Johnson.
What meal would you want served to you for your last supper: Pizza.
Something that you have too much of at home: Socks without a match.
Secret vice: Buying lottery tickets.
Guilty pleasure: Reading tabloids.
Describe your best day in 50 words or less: Wake up feeling rested, both my kids get along all day, I get to make some people laugh and eat some good food with family and/or friends.
Childhood hero: My mom.
Pet peeve: Whining.
Philosophy: No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. Be gracious to each other. Learn from it and grow.
Your advice for how someone new to Charleston: Check out the live comedy scene…lots of funny people here.
Follow Phoenix on Instagram @robinphoenixjohnson.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.