Comedy has always been Sam Pressler's thing. In second grade, he devoured biographies of Jerry Seinfeld and Al Franken. In his fifth-grade yearbook, he wrote that he wanted to be a stand-up comedian.
And when he was nine, he had lunch with Tina Fey. Pressler's dad, who went to the same gym as Fey, told her that his son wanted to be a comedian—would she meet with him? She did, and after the meal gave him a handwritten note scrawled on a piece of lined notebook paper: "Dear Sam, good luck in your comedy career. I hope you become the next Jimmy Fallon!"
Throughout his school years, Pressler used humor to help him through social situations. "When I was trying to impress a girl, I would tell a joke, most likely a bad one," he says. "When I couldn't connect with someone, I used jokes to break through."
But then, when Pressler was in high school, his uncle, with whom he was close, committed suicide. "Amid the haze of grief, comedy helped me cope," he says. "And as time passed, it even helped me grow. The line between tragedy and humor is often razor-thin, and choosing the comic view helped me look forward rather than back and build bridges rather than walls. The power of humor in my life became evident."
Pressler went to the College of William & Mary and founded the school's Center for Veterans Engagement, eventually interning at the Department of State's Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs. He graduated summa cum laude with a degree in government.
His sophomore year, while writing a paper about the backlog in veterans' medical claims, Pressler started to comprehend the array of mental-health challenges that people face when coming home from war. He also learned that, with less than 1 percent of the American population having served since 9/11, "many veterans and military families feel a certain disconnect, as if their civilian counterparts don't understand or may not even care."
The suicide rate, in particular—20 United States veterans kill themselves every day—hit home for Pressler.
"As I learned more," he says, "I reflected on how comedy had helped me become more resilient following trauma." Then he had a "crazy idea" and started Comedy Bootcamp, a stand-up comedy class for veterans and their families. That was the beginning of the Armed Services Arts Partnership, or ASAP, the non-profit that Pressler founded and runs.
"We provide free arts programming for veterans and their families to express their experiences, give voice to their stories, and forge a new purpose at home," Pressler says. Basically, it's a less traditional—and less stigmatized—form of therapeutic experience.
Pressler makes sure that the veterans he works with—many of whom deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, anxiety, depression, and other post-war difficulties—have the resources and guidance they need to write comic, literary, or musical pieces about their wartime and homecoming experiences.
"The arts," he explains, "do not just support veterans as they come home from war—they also help civilians learn how to welcome our veterans home."
Since its founding in 2015, ASAP has given nearly 300 veterans and their family members access to more than 50 free classes and workshops teaching stand-up comedy, improv, music, and writing. Those veterans have reported putting on more than 400 performances for a collective audience of more than 24,000.
Pressler sees firsthand, every day, how important it is for those affected by war to have an outlet by which they can process and express their experiences. "Engaging in the arts," he says, "can help veterans answer the questions of 'Who am I now?' and 'What's next?' This new sense of identity and purpose is helping them thrive in their new lives as civilians."
ASAP's classes last between six and 12 weeks, and are conducted in group settings. This has the benefit of surrounding veterans with other veterans, creating what Pressler calls "a supportive community of people who can relate to their experiences, allowing them to feel less alone, and offering them the camaraderie that they may have been missing on the home front."
This past October, eight alumni of Pressler's Comedy Bootcamp delivered the first veterans' comedy show at the White House, many performing with a service dog at their feet. ("A lot of people ask me what the dog’s disability is," Michael Garvey, a marine with a Purple Heart, has joked on stage.)
With all that Pressler has accomplished, is there another famous comedian he'd want to lunch with? Yes: "Jon Stewart. He showed me that a Jewish boy from New Jersey could use comedy to highlight and address our nation's greatest social issues. Plus, as [Stewart is] one of the nation's leading advocates for veterans and military families, I would love to have him on ASAP's board. Jon, if you're reading this right now—and I know you are—please email me."
Though Pressler's LinkedIn profile is formidable (and funny: under "Languages," he lists "North Jersey; Native or bilingual proficiency"), he acknowledges that his comedy career hasn't quite mirrored Fallon's—even though he still has that note from Fey.
Still, he's pleased that his work is helping men and women who've sacrificed themselves to serve our country. "Though I am no famous stand-up comedian," he says, "today we at ASAP are leveraging comedy to help veterans come home after war."
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here.