If you were a comedy lover digging the local scene around five years ago, give-or-take, you know Cam Knight very well â and, in addition, virtually every other Aussie stand-up gigging during that period â because of the time Cam spent fronting Stand Up Australia for the Comedy Channel. âThatâs where just about everyone in Australia got a good show reel!â Cam insists, because there were 120-odd hour-long episodes, each featuring four comedians. But stand-up is not all that Camâs known for: heâs also an actor. Which is why, on the eve of the taping of his first comedy DVD at Sydneyâs original Comedy Store, itâs worth asking Cam which came first â the acting or the comedy?
âI was always the smart-arse in class,â Cam says, âbut I guess you could say the acting came first because I was studying acting before I got into comedy.â Yeah, but only just, it turns out. Still, the comedy was kind of inevitable, since the young Cam was âalways drawn to itâ â his parents buying him a copy of Monty Pythonâs Life of Brian on video when he was 12. âThey were pretty much setting me up for comedy,â he reckons. They must have had a sense of humour; they gave their 12-year-old the most Christianity-lambasting of absurdist satires â before going on to send Cam to a Lutheran boarding school for his high school education. But more of that laterâ¦
Cam went straight into acting classes after school, and thatâs when the comedy bug bit. One of his classmates, Dave Williams, was already doing comedy, and Daveâs âbossâ, Dave Flanagan â from Adelaideâs Comix Comedy Cellar â went to see a first year play both Dave and Cam were in, after which, Cam says, âhe offered us all jobsâ. Although it was mostly âpre-show entertainmentâ â âwhile 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!â â Cam and Dave were soon doing improv. But it wasnât until theyâd relocated to Melbourne that Cam did actual stand-up comedy. âDave booked a gig behind my back and said, âYouâve got to go do some stand-up nowâ. We walked to the gig that night and I did it, and that was it: it just sort of stuck.â
You wouldnât 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 â people you wouldnât 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. âAfter I shot that, I went home and didnât think anything of it,â he says.
But three months later Cam was offered another hosting gig, this time for a Comedy Channel âgong showâ called Weâll Call You. âOf course: Iâm young and Iâm broke, so I say yes. Itâs a âgong showâ, so itâs not an amazing piece of workâ¦ but itâs work! So I went and did that.â
And then Cam was offered fulltime employment at the Comedy Channel, âbecause apparently they liked what I didâ. 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 âfish-out-of-waterâ situations and made to write material about it.
âThen,â says Cam, âI just got told, âwe want to do a stand-up show, itâs gonna be called Stand-Up Australia, itâll be on five nights a week and youâll front itâ. I was like, âOkayâ and that was it. Thatâs how it came about.â
Suddenly comics had an ideal opportunity to showcase their work, and while it was âa good platform for a lot of peopleâ, 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. âI got Dave to help write for me most of the time,â Cam says. âThere 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 werenât getting to test it out anywhere. So if it failed, it really failed cos it went to air.â
Most comics take a few years to âfind their voiceâ, 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 theyâre good enough to be considered worthy of that opportunity. (And, letâs face it, Camâs employers knew Cam was worthy â 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: âI was very young. Iâm 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, ârightâ¦ whatâs funny?â By the end of it, you donât know anymore.â
Having to create so much material produced âa good work ethicâ, but, Cam reckons, it didnât necessarily make him a better comedian. âIt made me self-conscious for a long time. I felt like I had more to prove,â he says. âWhat made me a better comedian was when I left the Comedy Channel and forced myself to work and gig my arse off.â
Although, I reckon a well-paying gig early on makes having to fail publicly a better proposition. Doesnât it?
âItâs kind of nice to have that security â but itâs still humiliating when youâre out there,â Cam says. âYou do kind of cop it. You go out and people come up to you and go, âyou suck!â You donât want to suck. You want to go out and you want to get better. And just because Iâve made a lot of money doesnât make that go away. It doesnât make anybodyâs opinion change; it might actually make it worse.â
Indeed, Cam argues, the money doesnât make you good; if anything, it probably makes you worse. âYou 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.â
If complacency was ever a threat, it was a while ago: Camâs challenged himself. Constantly. As well youâd know, if youâve seen him live over the last five years. Heâs just kept getting better and better. All the hard work has paid off. So much so that itâs hard to believe that, save for Just Another Misfit â the hilarious show he did at Sydney this year â itâs been so long since Camâs taken a show to any of the countryâs comedy festivals. But itâs all down to timing, he says.
âIt just didnât 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, Iâd travelled so much last yearâ¦ I probably should have hit Melbourne and smashed that out, but it just didnât sit right. I felt like I should stay here with my wife and respect what she wantedâ.
Itâs hard to fault a relatively new husband â whoâs had a successful career thus far â choosing to put his family first. But at this point, Iâve got to â sheepishly â ask an obvious question or two. And here are the answers: no, they didnât have a baby. But itâs not a âtouchyâ subject, or a sad story.
âItâs fine,â Cam says. âItâs just annoying. I wish I could say âyesâ.â
Oh, but, Cam, hereâs the perfect scheme: you want a kid? I can guarantee youâll have one. Hereâs how: start planning next yearâs festival circuit. Once youâve locked in firm seasons in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, you and your missus will almost certainly be expecting. And itâs July now â the baby will be due just in time for you to have to cancel all those festival seasons again.
âYeah, youâre absolutely right,â Cam laughs. âI will. Iâll do that. I need to do it again. But the timing has to be right.â
Truth is, Camâs pretty much ready to go:
âIâve just been working really hard, even with the old stuff, making those routines stretch out into bigger pieces. I donât just do âjokeâ jokes; Iâm quite physical, I move around a lot. Thereâs going to be a lot more improvisation thatâs gonna make them biggerâ¦â
Yes, thatâs 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 âsuccessful too earlyâ resentments of a seemingly less proficient comic landing an awesome gig, thereâs the intolerance of the âactor doing comedyâ that seems to divide open mic-ers in particular. Which is a cute irony that â should the comic persevere as Cam has â 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 âshowing usâ rather than merely âtelling usâ the joke.
âI find that taboo so hypocritical,â Cam agrees. âYouâre not allowed to be an actor going into being a comedian, but you can be any other profession, and it doesnât matter. You can be a lawyer, right â a f*cking lawyer! â and turn into a comedian. But an actor? No way!â
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? âThey 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 thingsâ¦â
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.
âI did that very close to leaving the Comedy Channel,â Cam says. âI wanted to do something that made me feel good. I wanted to put my money into something else that wasnât 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.â
Again, I ask the delicate question. Camâs mumâs fine. âSheâs a survivor!â 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 rideâ¦
âI had very little training before we went into it,â Cam says. âI guess I was trying to train; I gave up smoking about four months before I started training, so I wasnât very good at itâ¦â
Although the Tour de Cure continues to take place annually, Cam has not been involved in subsequent rides. âI just wised up after the first one and went, âI donât think I could do it ever, ever againâ,â he says. He kept his bike, but has ridden it all of twice since then. âI jog. I just canât get on the bike anymore. Iâve put it in the shed now, cos it just kept looking at me, making me feel guilty.â One day heâll do something âof a similar ilkâ in terms of the personal challenge, for charity, he says. But itâs not likely to involve cycling!
So back to Camâs mum: she was diagnosed with breast cancer when Cam was 14 and away at boarding school. âI thought my mum was gonna die and I just wanted to go home,â Cam says. âSo I got expelled from boarding school. On her birthday. While she was going through chemoâ¦â
Thatâs quite noble, acting up to get expelled in order to be home with his mum during her illness. But Cam corrects me: he didnât actually decide, âright, Iâve got to get booted out of hereâ; rather, it happened subconsciously. âWhen I look back on it now, I think âyou misbehaved a lot, mate!â I think I was just worried that my mum was gonna die.â
There was a lot of misbehaviour and Cam used to get into a lot of fights, but the âstraw that broke the camelâs backâ, Cam explains, isnât 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.
âThe rumour was, I threw a chair at a teacher and it went through a second storey window, crashing through the windshield of another teachersâ car below. Which sounds awesome, and Breakfast Clubesque, right?â
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. âThere 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 didnât 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, âthatâs not very good Lutheran behaviourâ and blah blah blah.â
Though not officially âexpelledâ as such, Camâs dad was called and recommended that he pull Cam out of the school. They wonât have to put âexpulsionâ down on his official school record, but he still got kicked out.
âDoesnât sound too hardcore. I wish I threw a chair at the teacher. It would have been so much cooler!â
True. You know what would also be cool? Cam Knight doing a festival show around Australia next year. Does he reckon itâll happen?
âI donât know mate. Iâd love to say yes, but I just donât know. I donât know what Iâm going to be doing. I need to make a decision about it really soon.â
One of the deciding factors is the current season of the stage play Certified Male, which Camâs about to be appearing in. Glynn Nicholas, who created the show, did it years ago with Pete Rowsthorn. This time round, Camâs in it with Mike McLeish, Dave Callan (the beardless, Sydney-living Dave Callan who excels at improv, as opposed to âhairyâ Dave Callan, from Melbourne) and, in some cities, Glynn Nicholas himself. In other cities, Glynn will be replaced by Barry Crocker. So next yearâs festivals wonât even be a consideration until Certified Male is over.
Meanwhile, Camâs set to record his current show, Just Another Misfit â which he describes as his âfavouriteâ â at the Comedy Store. âI feel itâs the tightest. I feel like itâs a good, solid hour, and this is the one I want to record.â Camâs taken time developing the material, and been very careful about ensuring nothing from it is already up on youtube. âIâve made a conscious decision not to put any clips up,â he says. âI wanted to wait. Iâm a big guy about biding my time for some reason.â
For some reason? Iâll tell you the reason youâve 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.
âYouâre absolutely right, I jumped in fresh and Iâm very conscious about whatâs out there. But I feel very good about this show, and weâre gonna shoot it. Hopefully weâll have a full house on Saturday night and itâll look great.â