Navigating the Minefield of Military Comedy

'Enlisted' creators discuss making soldiers funny without making fun of soldiers.

Randy (Parker Young), Pete (Geoff Stults) and Derrick (Chris Lowell) watch the result of one of their pranks in the "Prank War" episode of FOX's "Enlisted."
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Recent workplace television comedies have explored all sorts of occupations – from a paper company ("The Office") to the city hall of a small Indianan town ("Parks and Recreation") to the set of a fictional television variety show ("30 Rock"). But it's been a while since we've seen one focused on an institution that employs more than 2 million Americans: the U.S. military. That is until Friday, with the premiere of "Enlisted," a new Fox comedy about three brothers working together on a rear detachment base in Florida.

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"It's a very noble workplace where crazy stuff happens, and life and death is always just a step away," says "Enlisted" executive producer Mike Royce. "It's not really on television other than in insanely dramatic form."

However for the show's creator Kevin Biegel, the choice of setting as well as its three main characters was first and foremost personal. He is the oldest of three brothers, and while he never served in the military himself (he's made a career writing on shows like "Cougar Town," "Scrubs" and "South Park"), a number of his family members have, including his father, grandfather and uncle.

"It was a world that I knew about from them, and the people that I love did the job. It always seemed like an interesting place to set a show and tell stories from," Biegel says.

"Enlisted" begins when the trio's oldest brother, Sgt. Pete Hill (Geoff Stults) the so-called "super soldier" of the family, is sent home from his tour in Afghanistan to the Florida base as punishment for his disrespect to authority. He is tasked to lead a "Rear D" platoon, made up of the soldiers who stay behind to support those deployed. Among the misfits whose charge he is taking is his overenthusiastic if not oversensitive youngest brother Randy (Parker Young), who often struggles to keep up, and their wise-cracking middle brother Derrick (Chris Lowell), who seems to be in the army out of lack of better things to do (an issue that will come to the forefront in future episodes).

The show's humor focuses on their dynamics, as well as their interactions with the rest of the diverse "Enlisted" cast which includes Pete's boss, Sgt. Maj. Donald Cody (Keith David), a been-there-seen-that commanding officer, and Pete's antagonist (and thus, maybe love interest) Jill Perez (Angelique Cabral), the take-no-prisoners leader of Pete's rival platoon.

"Instead of having a show set in an office and you've got to find the inherent drama in an office and it's obviously possible, here there's stakes included," Biegel says. "You hear the word 'soldier' – that actually means something to people."

The show is not meant to be a satire, and military politics are all but absent aside from a drone joke here or there. ("Enlisted" however isn't afraid of occasional race humor: for instance the African-American Sgt. Maj. Cody, an amputee, wears a white prosthetic leg because "my size only comes in white.")

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But "Enlisted" creators intend to touch on some of the "serious" issues soldiers face. Early episodes features Randy volunteering with a military family support group and Pete mourning a friend killed in battle.

Though he describes the show as 90 percent comedy, Royce, whose past credits include dramedies like "Men of a Certain Age," says this touch of drama is one of the things that attracted him to the project.

"We're taking the serious things seriously, honoring these people who do this work," Royce says.

Adds Biegel, "There hasn't been many military comedies because of those serious issues. People say, 'How do you make this stuff funny? How do you make jokes about the military?' Our answer was, 'You don't make jokes about the military. You make jokes about the characters. And with the serious stuff, you do the serious stories.'"

Royce and Biegel worry that the show's trailers do not do this aspect of show justice and fear that people will assume "Enlisted" is making fun of military life.