Lee Camp is a revelation, but a slow one for me. It was through the program for the 2010 World’s Funniest Island event, sadly cancelled, that I was first aware of Lee. The Laugh Garage Comedy Club's manager, Julie Lawless, was programming the United States of Funny on the Harbour Stage, and Lee was to be among the male comics in the line-up. He was also to feature in the ¡Sataristas! event, along with Will Durst, Paul Provenza and Rod Quantock, hosted – in order to maximise ticket sales – by a big celebrity comedian equipped to cope with political comedians (one of the Chaser gang, of course). Unfortunately, not even celebrity comedians could help sell tickets, so we missed out on The United States of Funny, ¡Sataristas! and World’s Funniest Island (since it lies in the harbour of the world's most indifferent city…)
Thankfully Lee – an informed comic whose material is always about stuff, and who contributes to The Onion and The Huffington Post – was keen to head to Australia anyway, with a residency at the Laugh Garage. I spoke to him over the phone while he was in the transit lounge, awaiting his flight to be called, the day he was leaving for Australia.
If, like me, you’re a bit new to Lee, here’s some of his stuff on the oil spill:
He was also in a recent episode of Provenza’s The Green Room:
And here's our brief chat:
Dom Romeo: You’re a writer and a performer. It seems easier to sound funny in print with a speaking voice, than it is to sound funny on stage with a writing voice. Which did you develop first, and how do you delineate one from the other? How does it work for you?
LEE CAMP: I developed writing first. I started writing in high school and then when I first got into college I thought I was going to be a professional humour writer. But during that first year of university, I started thinking a lot about performing and I’d been kind of ‘saving up’ my stand-up writing for a year, so I finally started performing. I had never stepped on a stage before in my life; never been an actor or anything. So I definitely went from writing to performing.
That being said, it’s definitely a different muscle, writing for stand-up rather than for the page. I’m actually better at writing stand-up than I am at writing regular comedy for the page and I prefer stand-up too. Performing your words has so much more life to it and so much more energy, and obviously the immediate response from the crowd is a different world. So for me personally, writing is the distant runner-up to performing live.
Travelling around the world and getting to see different people’s reactions and what different types of people react to is quite a thrill. Travel can be frustrating at times, but in my experience, it’s always worth it.
Dom Romeo: As a comedian from the United States, how does your stuff go down elsewhere?
LEE CAMP: Luckily, because of my politics – I’ve been so unhappy with a lot of what America does around the world – I tend to fit in quite well outside of America. I have the same viewpoint as a lot of the rest of the world. But I’m only beginning to branch out internationally. I did Montreal many times, but that’s not that far from New York City. And I recently did the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer and really loved it. It was amazing. And this will be my first trip to Australia. But in my experience so far outside of the US, it has been very good to me.
Dom Romeo: What’s bringing you to Australia?
LEE CAMP: Initially, I was going to play the World’s Funniest Island Festival. That didn’t happen but it piqued my interest and got me excited to go. It’s been a long time coming. It’s been in the back of my head that I wanted to go to Australia and perform there – comedians I respect from the US have played there and enjoyed it: Jamie Kilstein, Arj Barker… a lot of guys who I think are doing cool stuff.
Dom Romeo: Where do you draw the line between politics and comedy? Does your comedy have to be political? At what point is it comedy and not just public speaking?
LEE CAMP: Whenever I’m on stage, I’m always writing and angling towards getting a laugh. The laugh does come first for me. That being said, if I do have a bit that I have a strong feeling about, and that specific crowd doesn’t laugh at it, I’m not going to abandon it; I’m going to stick it out because it does have a point. So my feeling is, if you’re not making people laugh, you better have a good reason. You better be saying something pretty important. But at the end of the day, I’m still a comedian, so my goal is still for the laugh and not just to be a speaker.
Dom Romeo: What are you joking about at the moment? What subjects do you feel strongly enough about to be making a point through humour in Australia?
LEE CAMP: Well, the United States still has the death penalty and 70% of America agrees with it, so I’ve been doing a long piece on that. I cover a little bit of everything, all the issues of the day: immigration, gay marriage… I’ve been doing more on the environment, global warming, our incredible ability to continue going down the path that we’re going while it hits us on a day-to-day basis. I do really go all over the map but I like to think that what it all has in common is that they’re all important issues.
Dom Romeo: Given that you’re funny with a point, that you actually talk about stuff, tell me this: can comedy change anything?
LEE CAMP: Yes. I feel that comedy can inform. I don’t know that you can make a comedic argument and have someone leave the room going ‘okay, now I’ve changed my mind’. However, comedy can inform people in a way that other things can’t because they’ll pay attention. So a lot of my jokes have information in them that a person may just laugh at, but after they leave the room they can’t un-know those facts. They leave with new information. That’s kind of my goal.
For example, surrounded by jokes in my death penalty piece, is the fact that in equal death penalty cases, the number one determinant is the race of the victim. Basically, our racist system has made it so that if you kill a black person, it’s not a big a deal as if you kill a white person. And so even though someone may disagree with my take on the death penalty, they leave that room and still know that fact. That’s where I feel comedy really comes into play – it’s able to get information out there in a novel and interesting way.
Dom Romeo: Imagine that comedy could change everything. You’ve changed everyone’s minds by performing to them and there were no points left to make – you just have to be funny. What would you do?
LEE CAMP: I think you’re right – I would love to see the day when there’s nothing left to fix, but I don’t think that day’s coming any time soon. It’s an excellent question in this sense: if the world was utopia and everything was fixed, and there was no more hardship and pain, I don’t know if there would be comedy. Because a lot of comedy comes from pain. Even the stuff that doesn’t have a message has some kind of pain or tragedy or hardship behind it. So maybe comedy would be dead if the world was perfect.