In July 1965, 20-year-old John Paul Coakley was sent to Vietnam.

A decade later the Denver native found himself in a different combat zone: New York's Improv comedy club.The road from Bien Hoa to Manhattan was littered with the shrapnel of rage and confusion, and Coakley routinely used drugs and alcohol to blunt his memory of the war. But rage isn't easily tamed, and it took several years before he found a solution that worked.

Reasoning that the best defense was a solid offense, Coakley took all that anger and reshaped it. His "phoenix" was a brand of political humor forged in the ashes of war.

After some early disappointments, Coakley has become a familiar face on the comedy circuit around the country.

Can an angry young man be reborn as a standup comic?

Indeed he can, claims the 43-year-old veteran.

"I wasn't a class clown while growing up," he recalled. "But my father was a gregarious guy who loved to tell stories. I think my timing - the ability to put jokes together - came from him. But in terms of being professional, that came from somewhere in the recesses of my psyche as a survival mechanism.

"When I finally got into treatment (for alcoholism) about seven years ago, I was forced to be honest with myself. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, yet it taught me that instead of just screaming at the world, I had to find a way to direct that anger; to make it useful."

Which isn't to say that he goes onstage with a bazooka-size chip on his shoulder. Coakley's stage routine is surprisingly varied; he juggles offbeat jokes about growing up with more pointed political satire. Not surprisingly, some audiences are less than sympathetic.

"Audiences get tougher as you travel the country, especially in less cosmopolitan parts of the South," he said.

"As a comedian, I think we should be able to find humor in everything. One of our biggest problems as human beings is that we take ourselves way too seriously. You can sell anything in America. It's a matter of marketing it properly."