The video seems harmless enough at first: A couple smiles lovingly at each other while nestled in their marital bed. Then suddenly, the husband is straddled on top of his wife, choking her and banging her head against the mattress, all while a jaunty soundtrack bounces along in the background and a cheerful voiceover asks, “Ladies, does your veteran husband go from your dream man to your worst nightmare in the middle of night? . . . Tired of hiding the bruises from your co-workers and friends?” Cut to: The woman happily showing off her Night Terror Neck Brace.
The faux-infomercial is called “PTSD: Kill, Die, Laugh,” and it’s just one of the many no-holds-barred comedy clips on VET Tv, a new streaming network made for and by military veterans. Available on iPhone, Android, Roku, and XBox, VET Tv calls itself the “Comedy Central of the military . . . the first veteran television network full of dark, perverted, inappropriate, controversial, and irreverent military humor—created by and for veterans, without civilian influence.”
“Hollywood does not make entertainment for veterans,” says Donny O’Malley, a former Marine Capt. who is VET Tv’s founder and CEO. “[Studios] make entertainment about veterans and about the military–for civilians.”
O’Malley first started posting VET Tv videos on YouTube in 2006 and officially launched it as a network this past June. Since then, VET Tv has released some 15 original clips, all between five and 10 minutes in length and all created by a staff of ex-military-men-turned-filmmakers. For five dollars a month, subscribers have full access to the library of content and are guaranteed one new video a week. O’Malley says there are currently 11,000 subscribers (in addition to 18,000 followers on YouTube and 140,000 on Facebook), with an average of 1,000 new subscribers a week. Most hear about the network via social media and friends.
Considering there are an estimated 21.3 million veterans in the U.S. today, O’Malley’s audience is small. Several prominent veteran groups, including The Marine Corps Association & Foundation, had never heard of VET Tv when Fast Company asked them for their opinion. (Neither the office of public relations at the United States Marines Corps nor the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs responded to a request for comment.) O’Malley, 33, actually hopes to stay off the U.S. military’s radar—”as far away from them as possible because they will try and hide the truth. They will try to water shit down. As soon as our people think that our current image is being influenced by the government, they will unsubscribe.” The point of VET Tv, he says, is to bare the hard, often ugly truths of being a soldier. Comparing himself to no less a force of social commentary than the comedian Dave Chappelle, O’Malley says that he is holding up a mirror to his comrades and the military itself. People who face combat, he explains, must become “hunters and killers”—an uncomfortable idea for most non-military.
“Civilians do not want to see how truly disgusting we really are,” he says with a laugh. “In our culture, the thought of killing your enemy with a knife to the gut is just as exciting as the thought of your firstborn child or the thought of getting married. Civilians don’t like to know that.”
And, as the PTSD clip makes clear, it’s not just about addressing what happens in a war zone. For many soldiers, the return to civilian life is an even more painful ordeal than facing enemies under gunfire. And so VET Tv is meant to serve as (entertaining) therapy. “We want veterans who are out of the service and who feel disconnected from not only society, but also from those they served with . . . we want to close that gap and we want to make them feel like they’re not alone,” says O’Malley, who is also the founder of the non-profit Irreverent Warriors, which is focused on preventing PTSD and suicide among vets. “And that there’s nothing wrong with them.”
So far, not everyone in the military appreciates O’Malley’s warts-and-all approach. “Some of the [Vet TV] material is potentially damaging because it makes targets out of subjects versus bringing comic relief to tough situations and problems,” says Lt. Col. Ann Bernard, a Marine Corps reservist who helped form the Facebook group Actionable Change to combat sexism in the military. “Is bringing what’s said on the battlefield and in time of war to the mainstream even a good idea? Does it help to assimilate back into society or does it create a different normal and ongoing rift? Does it hinder the image the military works hard to establish with society for its members or does it lift the curtain on those who are [serving] and have served this nation?”
But criticism doesn’t make O’Malley flinch. Not in the slightest. He sees his mission as serving not only his comrades but also the American public. “It will forever be difficult for the civilian population to understand us and help us reintegrate into society if they continue to maintain an image of us that is not accurate,” he says. “This is who we are. This is what the military made us–without war. But most especially, this is what war has made us.”
From The Battlefield To The Film Set
Donny O’Malley (born Daniel Peter Maher) grew up in Queens, New York, with the military in his Irish-Catholic blood. His father was a Marine infantry officer before serving for several decades as a physician in the Navy. In 2009, at age 25, O’Malley joined the Marine Corps. “I really wanted to go to war,” he tells Fast Company, calling from his home in San Diego.
He did tours in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, controlling the aircraft and artillery as his company’s fire support team leader. When he was medically retired in 2015 following injuries sustained in training and combat, he returned home to work on a memoir, Embarrassing Confessions of a Marine Lieutenant, which he self-published later that year. (An Amazon reviewer identified only as “Marine Officer” described it as “If Generation Kill had been written by Sterling Archer.”)
But since his teen years, O’Malley had always dreamed of being a filmmaker, of creating a production company like Adam Sandler’s that employed all of his friends and family. “I knew I could make people laugh,” he says. After finishing his memoir, O’Malley took junior college classes in business, writing, and filmmaking.
He started experimenting in early 2016, making comedy videos of what life was like on base in Afghanistan. He self-funded with savings and hired friends—all military veterans—to work as actors, cameramen, and crew. His first full-fledged video was an envelope-pushing mockumentary in which it’s revealed that the first woman to complete an Infantry Officer Course has a penis. It has garnered over 460,000 YouTube page views.
Long-lost army buddies and strangers saw the clip and reached out. “They said, ‘No one else is doing this. You are the only person on the internet making videos for us. We’d pay money for this,'” O’Malley says.
O’Malley took the suggestion seriously and began researching how to monetize his new hobby. He bought books, read blogs on branding and business, and settled on the idea of a subscription-based network modeled on Netflix. In June 2016, he published a manifesto on his personal blog outlining his plan to launch VET Tv, with ideas for series and plans to fund it. He received dozens of pitches, letters of support, and offers from volunteers.
O’Malley spent the next six months recruiting a team of old Marine pals, people he’d met through Irreverent Warriors, and a veteran who cold-pitched him. “They all said they wanna help. And they had no experience,” he says. “Not a single person on the team was an expert in anything [film-related].”
In October 2016, the ragtag team of aspiring filmmakers released an homage to Saving Private Ryan, titled “Post-9/11 Veterans Are Different, We Prove It” to promote a 35-day Kickstarter fundraising campaign. The video portrays The Greatest Generation as honorable, respectful, and tasteful, while modern-day soldiers are shown cussing, wrestling, and joking about their sweethearts cheating on them back at home.
The campaign promised backers one new comedy clip every week for a year. O’Malley hoped to raise $20,000, and ended up raising more than $300,000 from 3,600 backers in 33 days. It remains the third-highest funded campaign in Kickstarter’s comedy category, behind Flight of the Conchords and Mystery Science Theatre.
Cash-flush, the team rented a 10 x 12 office in San Diego and set about writing and producing their first sketch comedy series, with O’Malley introducing each comedy sketch on stage before an audience, emcee-style. O’Malley brought on three full-time hires, including former Marine John Acevedo, 28, who is the one who had cold-pitched him and now serves as both COO and CMO. Acevedo was inspired to join the network after witnessing O’Malley’s work with Irreverent Warriors, which infuses dark humor into its support programs for vets. He himself relied on humor as a survival tactic during his service in Southeast Asia.
“The alternative would just be to fall into the spiral of depression,” says Acevedo. “What is the alternative to making fun of a situation? Just being sad. And you can’t do that in combat.”
This past June, O’Malley and his crew officially launched VET Tv with the Kill, Die, Laugh series. In the premiere sketch, a group of veterans snort cocaine and drink at a fallen soldier’s grave. Like all the network’s content now, the clip is followed by a more serious discussion of issues that vets face and how they might get help from various nonprofits. Each episode, which costs an average of $15,000 to produce, features professional actors (of whom 25% are military veterans) and in-house directors. O’Malley works both in front and behind the camera.
On the VET Tv Facebook page, viewers are encouraged to submit ideas for consideration. One post asked audience members to describe the funniest thing that ever happened to them on post. “We want them to be involved,” Acevedo says. “It’s more like building a community than it is a TV network. Entertainment is more the medium than the be all, end all.”
Pointed Social Commentary?
But with content geared for men, VET Tv does not exactly go out of its way to send a message that all vets are welcome to participate. While women, including female veterans, do appear in some of the videos, the content is told squarely from a male point of view—even when the topic is rape.
A two-part series, called “Sexual Assault Prevention,” is shot in the style of 60 Minutes and follows a female reporter as she visits bases and interviews soldiers. They discuss methods for Marines to “express their urges,” including group masturbation, blowup dolls, and housing prostitutes (referred to as “whores”) on bases. A female colonel argues that soldiers are “constantly horny . . . That’s just the reality of the Marine Corps” and lays the blame on the military for training men to be warriors, all while repressing sex and failing to teach them right from wrong (“Most of them are fuckin’ tools,” she says). In another scene, a male commander leads a class that includes a slide entitled “How Not to Rape a Bitch.” He later refers to sexual partners as “hoes.”
The end of the video cuts back to O’Malley on stage, sharing more serious comments on sexual assault prevention that were submitted by an all-male group of VET Tv fans. He then plugs Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit dedicated to ending rape and misogyny in the military. But until Fast Company called for a comment, the group had no idea it had been featured on VET Tv. A Protect Our Defenders rep was shocked. And when he watched the clip, he called it “horrendous.”
Bernard, the Marine Corps reservist who co-founded Actionable Change, struggled to watch more than a minute of the segment. “It’s all disturbing and done in the lowest taste imaginable,” she says. “I can’t imagine veterans from past generations seeing any humor or honor in what they’re doing.”
When I ask O’Malley if he can see how these videos might be offensive to women (and men), he replies that since 90% of his audience is male, “this content was not made for [women] to watch.” He says he did consult female veterans about sexual assault (including two actresses who appear in the clips) and that the point of the series is to get men to talk about a serious topic that, in his experience, no one in his all-male infantry wanted to address. In fact, he himself didn’t fully face the issue until after he was discharged, when his female vet friends shared harrowing tales of abuse.
“It’s almost like every single one of them has been sexually assaulted to some degree,” he says. “So I felt like it was my duty to make a sketch about sexual assault because Marines will not talk about it [otherwise]. If what I have created will lead to fewer sexual assaults because I was able to get men talking about it in a healthy way . . . then it should hopefully make it less offensive.”
In the same breath, O’Malley recognizes that his brand of satire can be misinterpreted or taken at face value. “We make intelligent humor, and I totally understand that it goes over people’s heads,” he says with a sigh.
So far, the comments on VET Tv’s YouTube and Facebook videos have been overwhelmingly positive. But as the network grows, it’s likely the dissenting voices will too. “[Critics] will say, ‘Veterans have a hard enough time fitting into society, we don’t the need civilians thinking that they’re crazy or perverted,'” O’Malley says. “That whole notion of keeping something hidden, repressing an entire generation of American citizens, I firmly believe is why there are still so many mental health issues with suicide.”
A 2016 study by the Department of Veterans found that from 2001 to 2014, as the civilian suicide rate rose about 23%, the rate of suicide among veterans jumped more than 32%. That’s 20 veterans committing suicide a day. O’Malley sees VET Tv as a release for alienated ex-soldiers—an outlet that speaks their language and, ideally, plays a role in the healing process. For O’Malley, Acevedo, and many of other VET Tv employees, the age-old practice of using pitch-black comedy as a tool for processing the horrors of war was as essential to their day-to-day as drinking water. During our interview, O’Malley talks about how he and his fellow soldiers handled a fellow Marine returning to camp after getting his legs blown off. After about half an hour of solemnity, the humor started breaking through.
“We were joking about how tall he’d be, who would push him around in his wheelchair, and about his wife–who was already probably cheating on him–was definitely going to cheat on him now,” O’Malley says. “It’s a coping mechanism.”
Other times, he and his buddies would tease each other about helicopters going down, which was a “very real thing,” he says. They would push and push until they saw the fear in their comrades’ eyes, then they’d all burst out laughing. “They will see the humor in situations that no one else will.”
That was true for Black Rifle Coffee and Article 15 Clothing, two veteran-owned companies that have come on board as VET Tv sponsors. More than a dozen veteran nonprofits, including Buy a Home—Save a Vet and Headstrong, have also stepped up to align themselves with the network. And while he was mum on details, O’Malley says film studios and more established streaming networks have expressed interest in licensing future content, which, if all goes according to plan, will include longer scripted shows, reality TV series, and feature films. The team is currently writing a series set on a military base—M*A*S*H but with much coarser humor.
“If [civilians] want us to continue fighting the wars for them while they sit at home watching the news, they need to accept the fact that those who are out fighting the wars are going to come back really dark and twisted,” says O’Malley. “That’s just the way it is.“