When a cancer diagnosis forced former Air Force Reserve medic Gerald J. “B.J.” Lange Jr. onto the Temporary Disability Retired List in 2016, comedy and improv helped pull him through. Now he’s using those same skills to help veterans overcome their disabilities.
“My love for acting has always been my biggest passion,” Lange said in a recent interview with Air Force Magazine. “But I constantly kept looking over my shoulder, wishing that I would have joined the military.” He was 35 by the time he raised his right hand.
Lange’s civilian acting career took him to The Second City—the legendary improv theatre and school with stages in Chicago, Hollywood, and Toronto. This is the same outfit that developed comedians Gilda Radner and Stephen Colbert, and after graduating from the Hollywood Conservatory, Lange wanted to teach. Eventually, he connected teaching and the military by developing a Hollywood version of Second City’s Chicago-based Improv for Veterans program.
Lange created a veterans-specific program in which they have a distinct educational process, their own sketch teams, and more. The connection between improv and the military is simple, he says. “We always say the key to air power is flexibility. Well, that is ingrained in us as improvisers, too.”
Improv builds life skills. “Listening, problem-solving, thinking outside the box, connecting with one another,” Lange said. “Building that confidence is so important.”
In the field, this is called applied improvisation, according to the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University. “You know, I’m not teaching them how to necessarily get the laughs,” he said. “I’m teaching them how to connect with one another and be able to do team building and trust exercises.”
Lange maintains his military connections as an Air Force Wounded Warrior Program ambassador; a volunteer public affairs officer with Civil Air Patrol; and as a member of the Artist Council of the Armed Services Arts Partnership.
His mission is the same, whether as a medic or a volunteer, he said: “Take care of people.”