If you were a comedy lover digging the local scene around five years ago, give-or-take, you know Cam Knight very well – and, in addition, virtually every other Aussie stand-up gigging during that period – because of the time Cam spent fronting Stand Up Australia for the Comedy Channel. “That’s where just about everyone in Australia got a good show reel!” Cam insists, because there were 120-odd hour-long episodes, each featuring four comedians. But stand-up is not all that Cam’s known for: he’s also an actor. Which is why, on the eve of the taping of his first comedy DVD at Sydney’s original Comedy Store, it’s worth asking Cam which came first – the acting or the comedy?
“I was always the smart-arse in class,” Cam says, “but I guess you could say the acting came first because I was studying acting before I got into comedy.” Yeah, but only just, it turns out. Still, the comedy was kind of inevitable, since the young Cam was “always drawn to it” – his parents buying him a copy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian on video when he was 12. “They were pretty much setting me up for comedy,” he reckons. They must have had a sense of humour; they gave their 12-year-old the most Christianity-lambasting of absurdist satires – before going on to send Cam to a Lutheran boarding school for his high school education. But more of that later…
Cam went straight into acting classes after school, and that’s when the comedy bug bit. One of his classmates, Dave Williams, was already doing comedy, and Dave’s ‘boss’, Dave Flanagan – from Adelaide’s Comix Comedy Cellar – went to see a first year play both Dave and Cam were in, after which, Cam says, “he offered us all jobs”. Although it was mostly ‘pre-show entertainment’ – “while people were eating their meals, you do some sort of cabaret bullshit; I played a chef who thought he was Elvis and sang Elvis songs!” – Cam and Dave were soon doing improv. But it wasn’t until they’d relocated to Melbourne that Cam did actual stand-up comedy. “Dave booked a gig behind my back and said, ‘You’ve got to go do some stand-up now’. We walked to the gig that night and I did it, and that was it: it just sort of stuck.”
You wouldn’t guess, from so casual start to his career, that Cam would host such a seminal show as Stand-Up Australia. But he did. And it was seminal – people you wouldn’t expect to have any knowledge of bona fide gigging comedians got to see them in action. How it all happened was, Cam auditioned for the hosting role of a Fox 8 show called Chain Reaction, and got it. “After I shot that, I went home and didn’t think anything of it,” he says.
But three months later Cam was offered another hosting gig, this time for a Comedy Channel ‘gong show’ called We’ll Call You. “Of course: I’m young and I’m broke, so I say yes. It’s a ‘gong show’, so it’s not an amazing piece of work… but it’s work! So I went and did that.”
And then Cam was offered fulltime employment at the Comedy Channel, “because apparently they liked what I did”. This led to further hosting duties, including taking over from Adam Spencer for the second season of Hit & Run, in which comedians were inserted into ‘fish-out-of-water’ situations and made to write material about it.
“Then,” says Cam, “I just got told, ‘we want to do a stand-up show, it’s gonna be called Stand-Up Australia, it’ll be on five nights a week and you’ll front it’. I was like, ‘Okay’ and that was it. That’s how it came about.”
Suddenly comics had an ideal opportunity to showcase their work, and while it was “a good platform for a lot of people”, it was hard work for Cam: he was a relatively new comic still finding his voice, having to come up a heap of new material on a regular basis. “I got Dave to help write for me most of the time,” Cam says. “There were a couple of other helpers: Michael Chamberlin and Sam Bowring helped me, and I think Fox Klein submitted some stuff. But we had to write 8 to 10 minutes of material a week and we weren’t getting to test it out anywhere. So if it failed, it really failed cos it went to air.”
Most comics take a few years to ‘find their voice’, but get to do it more-or-less anonymously, on the open mic stand-up circuit. You only start seeing them on the telly when they’re good enough to be considered worthy of that opportunity. (And, let’s face it, Cam’s employers knew Cam was worthy – even if his peers and detractors felt otherwise.) However, rather than his lesser gigs being seen by a mere handful of people in the back room of a pub, Cam had to do it in front of a dedicated viewership. This baptism of fire was, for Cam, as stressful as it was exciting: “I was very young. I’m still cutting my teeth and finding out what I want to do, which way I want to go, what I want to say, and we were just sitting down and going, ‘right… what’s funny?’ By the end of it, you don’t know anymore.”
Having to create so much material produced “a good work ethic”, but, Cam reckons, it didn’t necessarily make him a better comedian. “It made me self-conscious for a long time. I felt like I had more to prove,” he says. “What made me a better comedian was when I left the Comedy Channel and forced myself to work and gig my arse off.”
Although, I reckon a well-paying gig early on makes having to fail publicly a better proposition. Doesn’t it?
“It’s kind of nice to have that security – but it’s still humiliating when you’re out there,” Cam says. “You do kind of cop it. You go out and people come up to you and go, ‘you suck!’ You don’t want to suck. You want to go out and you want to get better. And just because I’ve made a lot of money doesn’t make that go away. It doesn’t make anybody’s opinion change; it might actually make it worse.”
Indeed, Cam argues, the money doesn’t make you good; if anything, it probably makes you worse. “You need to actually need it. You need to crave it and you need to want to get better and challenge yourself. Money can sometimes make you complacent.”
If complacency was ever a threat, it was a while ago: Cam’s challenged himself. Constantly. As well you’d know, if you’ve seen him live over the last five years. He’s just kept getting better and better. All the hard work has paid off. So much so that it’s hard to believe that, save for Just Another Misfit – the hilarious show he did at Sydney this year – it’s been so long since Cam’s taken a show to any of the country’s comedy festivals. But it’s all down to timing, he says.
“It just didn’t work out this year. I was all set to go to Melbourne and Adelaide but I just had a bad feeling; my wife and I were trying to have a kid, I’d travelled so much last year… I probably should have hit Melbourne and smashed that out, but it just didn’t sit right. I felt like I should stay here with my wife and respect what she wanted”.
It’s hard to fault a relatively new husband – who’s had a successful career thus far – choosing to put his family first. But at this point, I’ve got to – sheepishly – ask an obvious question or two. And here are the answers: no, they didn’t have a baby. But it’s not a ‘touchy’ subject, or a sad story.
“It’s fine,” Cam says. “It’s just annoying. I wish I could say ‘yes’.”
Oh, but, Cam, here’s the perfect scheme: you want a kid? I can guarantee you’ll have one. Here’s how: start planning next year’s festival circuit. Once you’ve locked in firm seasons in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, you and your missus will almost certainly be expecting. And it’s July now – the baby will be due just in time for you to have to cancel all those festival seasons again.
“Yeah, you’re absolutely right,” Cam laughs. “I will. I’ll do that. I need to do it again. But the timing has to be right.”
Truth is, Cam’s pretty much ready to go:
“I’ve just been working really hard, even with the old stuff, making those routines stretch out into bigger pieces. I don’t just do ‘joke’ jokes; I’m quite physical, I move around a lot. There’s going to be a lot more improvisation that’s gonna make them bigger…”
Yes, that’s all part of what marks Cam Knight as being at the top of his game. And again, it reminds me of some of the cr*p he would have had to face early on. Along with the ‘successful too early’ resentments of a seemingly less proficient comic landing an awesome gig, there’s the intolerance of the ‘actor doing comedy’ that seems to divide open mic-ers in particular. Which is a cute irony that – should the comic persevere as Cam has – results in a nice poetic justice: the acting that appears to be a handicap to a comic early on makes them so much better down the track when they are so adept at ‘showing us’ rather than merely ‘telling us’ the joke.
“I find that taboo so hypocritical,” Cam agrees. “You’re not allowed to be an actor going into being a comedian, but you can be any other profession, and it doesn’t matter. You can be a lawyer, right – a f*cking lawyer! – and turn into a comedian. But an actor? No way!”
The taboo seems virtually non-existent in the United States, Cam rightfully points out. All the good comics head towards sitcom and feature film, remember? “They want you to be a triple threat. They want you to be good. They want you to be talented. They wanna work with you. They want to find someone who can do all those things…”
Rest assured, Cam Knight does other things apart from comedy and acting. You may be aware that he pedaled 1600km from Brisbane to Cairns in 10 days, a little while back, with Tour de Cure, helping raise a million dollars for cancer research in the process.
“I did that very close to leaving the Comedy Channel,” Cam says. “I wanted to do something that made me feel good. I wanted to put my money into something else that wasn’t for me. My mum had breast cancer and I just felt like that was something that I needed to do and get out of my system.”
Again, I ask the delicate question. Cam’s mum’s fine. “She’s a survivor!” he says. She beat breast cancer back when he was in high school. Boarding. At a strict Lutheran school. And again, more of that later; back to the bike ride…
“I had very little training before we went into it,” Cam says. “I guess I was trying to train; I gave up smoking about four months before I started training, so I wasn’t very good at it…”
Although the Tour de Cure continues to take place annually, Cam has not been involved in subsequent rides. “I just wised up after the first one and went, ‘I don’t think I could do it ever, ever again’,” he says. He kept his bike, but has ridden it all of twice since then. “I jog. I just can’t get on the bike anymore. I’ve put it in the shed now, cos it just kept looking at me, making me feel guilty.” One day he’ll do something “of a similar ilk” in terms of the personal challenge, for charity, he says. But it’s not likely to involve cycling!
So back to Cam’s mum: she was diagnosed with breast cancer when Cam was 14 and away at boarding school. “I thought my mum was gonna die and I just wanted to go home,” Cam says. “So I got expelled from boarding school. On her birthday. While she was going through chemo…”
That’s quite noble, acting up to get expelled in order to be home with his mum during her illness. But Cam corrects me: he didn’t actually decide, “right, I’ve got to get booted out of here’; rather, it happened subconsciously. “When I look back on it now, I think ‘you misbehaved a lot, mate!’ I think I was just worried that my mum was gonna die.”
There was a lot of misbehaviour and Cam used to get into a lot of fights, but the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’, Cam explains, isn’t actually that bad. Well, not nearly as bad as the stories that made it back from the school to his home town fast than he did.
“The rumour was, I threw a chair at a teacher and it went through a second storey window, crashing through the windshield of another teachers’ car below. Which sounds awesome, and Breakfast Clubesque, right?”
What really happened was, after dinner one evening, all the boarders had to return to the school block to do homework and study, as they did every evening. “There was a guy giving me a whole bunch of sh*t, and I just screamed at him to f*ck off, and went ape sh*t at him. But I didn’t realise there was a Parents & Friends meeting going on in the AV Room and I was pretty much right outside it. So the principal was there and all the Lutheran mums and dads were there and they were like, ‘that’s not very good Lutheran behaviour’ and blah blah blah.”
Though not officially ‘expelled’ as such, Cam’s dad was called and recommended that he pull Cam out of the school. They won’t have to put ‘expulsion’ down on his official school record, but he still got kicked out.
“Doesn’t sound too hardcore. I wish I threw a chair at the teacher. It would have been so much cooler!”
True. You know what would also be cool? Cam Knight doing a festival show around Australia next year. Does he reckon it’ll happen?
“I don’t know mate. I’d love to say yes, but I just don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing. I need to make a decision about it really soon.”
One of the deciding factors is the current season of the stage play Certified Male, which Cam’s about to be appearing in. Glynn Nicholas, who created the show, did it years ago with Pete Rowsthorn. This time round, Cam’s in it with Mike McLeish, Dave Callan (the beardless, Sydney-living Dave Callan who excels at improv, as opposed to ‘hairy’ Dave Callan, from Melbourne) and, in some cities, Glynn Nicholas himself. In other cities, Glynn will be replaced by Barry Crocker. So next year’s festivals won’t even be a consideration until Certified Male is over.
Meanwhile, Cam’s set to record his current show, Just Another Misfit – which he describes as his “favourite” – at the Comedy Store. “I feel it’s the tightest. I feel like it’s a good, solid hour, and this is the one I want to record.” Cam’s taken time developing the material, and been very careful about ensuring nothing from it is already up on youtube. “I’ve made a conscious decision not to put any clips up,” he says. “I wanted to wait. I’m a big guy about biding my time for some reason.”
For some reason? I’ll tell you the reason you’ve made a point of not having stand-up footage out there, Cam Knight: because you got some big breaks before you were quite ready for them; you jumped in a little fresh, copped more criticism than you deserved, and you are cautious never to be in that position ever again.
“You’re absolutely right, I jumped in fresh and I’m very conscious about what’s out there. But I feel very good about this show, and we’re gonna shoot it. Hopefully we’ll have a full house on Saturday night and it’ll look great.”