Lee Camp will be performing his standup live at The Gold Room in Portland on Saturday night. Camp is a NYC-based stand up comedian/social satirist/activist who written for / been featured in Rolling Stone, The Onion and The Huffington Post. To many, he is known for his series of YouTube videos called Moments of Clarity. The amazing comedian Dick Gregory has called him “smart, clever and wonderful.” The great Nicole Powers, Editor of Suicide Girls, called him “better than boobs.”
I talked with Camp earlier today about career and the intersection of comedy and politics, two things he clearly enjoy very much.
So you’re coming to Portland this weekend. Have you been to our town before?
I played a couple of colleges in Maine probably five years ago but I don’t think I have ever been to Portland. What is bringing me there is a lot of my touring in the US over the past year or two has just been fans of mine saying “I can help make [a show happen in my town]” and then I look into it and then we make it happen. A fan of mine named Doug Berrill, who seemed good at promoting shows, said “I want to bring you up to Maine” and I hadn’t been in a long time and I thought it sounded great.
What is so interesting looking at all of the different places in performance, writing, and online engagement, it becomes clear that you’re sort of everywhere someone in the public eye can be. And then looking at the fact that you’re following your fans’ suggestions regarding where to perform, I wonder how the process of being a comedian has changed in the time you have been of a higher profile.
Each different segment of my career has been very different. For several years my entire income was college touring, which was a lot of fun but they weren’t really booking me because they knew me that well, but because they were going to agencies looking for comedians. 99.9% of the audiences hadn’t heard of me. I then became more political and put more politics into my act and that became important to me. I was then on Fox News’ morning show and called them “a parade of propaganda” and that went viral so now colleges will look me up, that’s the first clip they see, and they think ‘he’s too political for us’ so all of my college touring is gone.
My career has kind of switched where I will tour festivals or follow fan suggestions and it is a lot more incredible. There is a lot less money, and I am fine with that, but it’s great to meet these fans in disparate places. Some of them will drive an hour or two to be at the show and it’s truly amazing. I just got back from a tour of the UK and each show we did had fans that had taken the train for a few hours to get there and that was cool.
When one looks at the totality of the work, it looks sort of like like you are operating with a punk-rock like ethos.
When Fox News asked me to be on their national morning show, I was willing to burn my bridges with them in order to make my point. A lot of comedians and a lot of any other guests that they have on there don’t want to burn their bridges because the channel is such a big outlet, but I had no desire to continue to be a guest on Fox News because continuing to be a guest means that you are playing into their game. I thought, ‘I am going into this once and I am going to make them not happy to have me.’ That was probably one of the more punk rock moves of my career.
That’s awesome, and it sounds like it must have been equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.
That’s exactly what it was: equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. You know, when you’re there, you want to make everybody happy because it is not like Karl Rove is standing there. They’re just looking to have a normal day and to remind myself of why I was going to take a dump in the middle of their show, I had to keep remembering that there were important reasons to say this thing.
When you brought politics into your routines, were you worried that being classified as left or progressive would negatively impact your career?
It was liberating and exciting, mostly. I dealt with discrimination in the comedy community. A lot of comedy club bookers don’t want comedy on the stage whether or not they agree with it. A lot of the late night folks don’t want political comedians either. I think Letterman has said in the past that the politics is for him to do, not the comedian. All of that is pretty much done behind your back, though, so nobody was coming up to me and saying, “You can’t be here because your act is political.”
I have always felt very excited by it and freed by it and I just feel that these times are too important to not be talking about important issues on stage. I enjoy comedians that don’t talk about politics, but for me it is really the only path.
To what degree can the Internet be attributed for some of your successes?
The Internet has created opportunities for performers like me where there weren’t opportunities before. There are all of these great guys who led the way in the stuff I do, like George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, and to some extent Richard Pryor. A lot of them became known as clean acts, or at least they cleaned it up for TV and they didn’t really talk politics. The reason for that is if they started at that place, they couldn’t have gotten onto TV where people would have heard of them. Nowadays I do YouTube videos and writing and I was a staff writer for Huffington Post for a few years and there are just outlets for me where there never could have been before.
I don’t want people to think that they are going to come to this show and only get bombarded with rants, as your material is actually quite funny.
Yeah, people who know me largely from my YouTube rants are often surprised to find that I am funny as they only know me from that one thing. I have been doing standup full time for 10 years, so it is not like I am some political speaker who is a little bit funny. I am completely a comedian who has political ideas.
Do you have a message for anyone who might be learning about you just now and are on the fence about whether or not to come to the show.
Yeah, these are crucial times and I am talking about crucial things and it’s fun. I almost never have walk-outs and I perform to people that aren’t necessarily all left-leaning. Check out my stuff online, and I hope you’ll enjoy it, but you don’t have to be some sort of market analyst to enjoy my show. I cover everything,
CORRECTION: In the first run of this story, Camp was quoted as saying, “There are all of these great guys who led the way in the stuff I do, like George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, and to some extent Richard Pryor. A lot of them became known as clean hacks, or at least they cleaned it up for TV and they didn’t really talk politics.” What he actually said was “clean acts,” not “clean hacks.” The text has since been corrected.