At first, comedian Lewis Black didn't believe it when the USO asked him to join a Christmas tour to entertain U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He tells NPR's Neal Conan that he was "stunned" to hear from the USO.
"Have these people seen my act? Do they have any idea what they're getting?" he says.
But in his new book, I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas, he writes that it changed his life — if not his views of Christmas.
Black uses the book to dig into his dyspeptic view of the ever-earlier holiday schedule, but his last chapter, about the holiday tour through the Persian Gulf, takes an unexpected turn. The tour featured a variety of celebrities including Kid Rock, Robin Williams, Lance Armstrong and chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen. The group flew to the Persian Gulf on Air Force 2, the vice president's plane, and Rock, Williams, Armstrong and Black shared a row in the same cabin — "three iconic figures, and I'm the laconic figure," Black cracks.
He remembers it wasn't an easy tour. The schedule was grueling: 16 shows in a week's time (though one was canceled on account of bad weather). By the end of it, Black says Rock and Williams "just barely had voices, because you're also breathing in sand every day, and you're going through every kind of climate change imaginable."
But the energy from the audience of servicemen and servicewomen made it all worthwhile.
Still, the tour was not without its uncomfortable moments. Black recalls one audience member in particular — Adm. Mullen's wife — who he says was uncomfortable with his act, particularly his frequent use of expletives.
"She's such a beautiful, sweet woman, and I'm up there, you know, I'm really talking to the troops and I know that they've heard the language before, and I know that they use the language," he says. "I'm going on and on and I look down, and she's looking up at me with this look of 'Oh, oh... that's what he does.'"
But by the third show, he says she was "howling" with laughter: "I think she caught on to the profanity thing."
There were still some rules Black had to follow to perform on the tour, including toning down his own feelings about the wars.
"You can't talk about the commander in chief," he says. "That's the gig." He was, however, allowed to talk about Democrats and Republicans.
Black says that being on the bases with the soldiers left a lasting impression.
"I was overwhelmed by the level of ... service and duty. These guys and women are unbelievable," he says. "You really realize quickly ... that they had been dropped there without any real instruction, and all of the work that was done there was done, as far as I can tell, was done by the soldiers on the ground. They had to figure out how to deal with this. And you watch that, and your level of appreciation increases tenfold."
Black believes that gave him and the soldiers common ground — no matter what his politics.
"My problem has always been with authority," he says, "and I'm sure if anybody understands that it's people in uniform."
Black heads back out on tour with the USO this Christmas.