Putting It All Out There with Jamie Campbell

He might be one of the hardest working comedians in Chicago. An improviser, actor, standup, producer and all around good guy – seriously. Not only a fan, I’m a friend and was excited to talk to my buddy from the old stomping grounds, Jamie Campbell. He has a new album out, Tell Me You’re Proud Of Me, that’s killing it on Amazon and iTunes, a good sign that his move to Los Angeles is coming at just about the right time. We talked about his impending move, how our messed up childhoods make us better artists, and choosing to just jump into things.

First of all, congratulations on the album.

Thanks! I’m kind of overwhelmed about how well it’s gone; hitting number one on Amazon and then thirteen on iTunes is way more than I could hope for.

That’s amazing. How did you come to record it in Columbus?

I did it in Columbus because last spring, I think it was around May, I had met these guys doing Columbus Unscripted. They connected with me about coming out to do some improv workshops and a standup show and when I went out there, the audience was insane. They were so good. It was like you were being spoiled. As soon as I went back to Chicago I was like, “That’s the audience that I have to have for the album.” Then I drunkenly sent an email requesting to record the album at their improv fest, which makes no sense. First of all, just me requesting an hour at a festival is preposterous and selfish. Also, it’s not even a standup festival. Then immediately after I hit send I was like, “Oh no! What did I do? That’s going to make things weird with me and them when they have to say no.” But then they said yes the next day and I was like, “Shit. I guess I have to get ready to record an album.”

I love it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve jumped on an idea or said yes before I was necessarily ready and then just had to rise to the occasion.

Yeah, I think that’s something that makes artists get things done, because if we don’t have a deadline I think most artistic people will just procrastinate until the pressure’s on and you have to do it or you’re going to look like an asshole.

That’s where improv training comes in handing and makes a huge difference. It comes in handy when you’re like, “Of course I can do this. I’ve learned to say ‘Yes, And’ and make shit happen, even if I have no idea if I can do it.”  

I am improvising a lot more on the tour. I’m really excited. I did this at the CD release party and was terrified. I’ve been setting a bucket out on stage, as the audience enters, with a sign that says, “Just write a topic down and put it in the bucket.” Then midway through my set I’ll bring the bucket out and just riff. I was worried that I was just going to eat shit, but it ended up actually going really well and it lead into a lot of fun storytelling.

Do you have a preference, standup versus improv, versus acting?

For me, I think they all balance me out. If I had to not do one I think I’d kind of feel incomplete. Standup makes me better at improv because I find the funny. Improv makes me better at standup, because I’m able to make it a conversation. My scene partner becomes the audience. Improv and standup make me better as an actor. The standup makes my timing better and the improv makes me connect to somebody in the moment.

For me there’s a loneliness after a great standup set. Even if it goes well you’re the only one experiencing writing it and performing it. Sure, the audience experienced watching it and having a good time, but that’s very different than being the one that created it and was vulnerable and laid everything out there. Even when it goes great and you can’t sleep, you’re just stuck there with your own thoughts.

After improv, even if it goes terribly, you’ve got the cast, “Well we really fucked that up.” Because if it goes bad that means nobody really saved it. So, you can go through that together and even when it’s bad there’s still a connection with the people you went through it with.

Yeah, I think that’s why standup is the scariest or most vulnerable.

Absolutely. And if you meet people, standups tend to have a little more of an abrasive personality than improvisers and I think it lends itself to that, because of the singular nature of the art.

Your skin has to get real thick, real fast for sure.

It does. I think it’s kind of like rappers. You gotta put on that shield.

Part of this I know because we’re friends and partially, because you talk about it in your act that you had a tough life growing up. Do you think it was harder being a kid or harder being an adult for you?

I think because things were hard as a kid it’s made it where I can handle the problems of being an adult. My problems now are just you know, how am I going to pay the bills? How am I not going to be homeless with this life I’ve chosen? Because, you’ve got to put a lot of work in that does pay, just to be noticed for the gigs that do pay. As a kid, we were very poor. I remember my mom went to this place that gave free food to disadvantaged families. It was literally called “Hope.” When you’re grocery shopping at a place called Hope you know things are bad. I remember that and just a lot of abusive, male parental figures. I mean, if I can handle getting beat up and then still going to school and getting decent grades, then I can deal with figuring out a way to pay the gas bills.

What do you think made you turn out to be a good guy? Because you could’ve also turned out to be a delinquent or an asshole.

Oh and I had those phases. I used to run with a lot of street thugs. From seventeen to nineteen I got into a lot of fist fights. I mean, every weekend. That’s not an exaggeration. At some point, that anger that I had just kind of got released. I think I matured and I realized, first off, the world doesn’t owe me anything. Secondly, just because other people hurt me, doesn’t mean that hurting others is going to make up for that. It’s not going to fix whatever is hurting inside of me. The best that I can do is try not to do to others what was done to me.

Did you literally come up with that realization on your own or was it therapy or medication or meditation? What lead to that?

You know, I left south Florida when I was nineteen to go back to Oklahoma and when I showed up there I was incredibly angry and I think it happened when I went to college. I met so many people who were not like me, but they also weren’t judging me. So my anger didn’t have… I didn’t have anybody to fight against. There were all these people who were very different from me that still managed to connect with me. I think maybe some of it was the acting training I was doing, because a lot of people that were going through theater at the time were people with very different backgrounds. I was also in the Army National Guard after 9/11. And I remember right after that happened thinking, “I could be called up at any point. I could go to war and possibly die.” Suddenly all these smaller grievances I had with the world were not important. You know, life could be short. I might just have a couple years. I might die in my twenties. I don’t have time to run around being pissed.

Were you always funny or was it more about coming up with punch lines in exchange for punches?

You know when I was a kid we moved around so much. I lived with my mom as a child of divorce, and from kindergarten to my senior year in high school I believe I went to thirteen different schools. So, to make new friends being funny really helped. Also, as the fat kid, you’re gonna get made fun of and it became one of those things of either embrace these things and people are going to like you or fight them. I would almost alternate. We’d move somewhere and I’d fight. Then I’d learn a lesson about fighting. Then we’d move somewhere else and I’d be funny. It would just alternate. I haven’t been in a fist fight in at least fifteen years, so funny won out in the end.

You talk about your family a little bit on this album, are you nervous that they might hear it or what their reaction would be?

Yeah, I still am. Because you know, things were rough as a kid. My family is still a big part of my life. It’s weird knowing they’re probably going to listen to it. And I want them to know that yeah, we’re okay now, but there still are some things. You’d know I talk about my mom being a little bat-shit crazy and I also talk about walking in on my dad and stepmom having sex. I don’t know, at some point I decided that you can’t worry about destroying those relationships. I think part of it was just me coming to grips with, hey they kind of fucked me up and this is me getting through this. I can’t afford therapy, I’ve got to talk about it on stage. People started coming up to me after shows and saying, “Hey, I grew up with problems too. Thank you for talking about them.” You know that moment when you’re not alone, there’s a human connection. I’d walk offstage talking about a negative experience I had as a kid and just this weight was lifted off my shoulders.

Do you ever get into arguments with them over it or do they get upset about stuff you say?

You know, they’re from Oklahoma and they’re not real technologically adept, so I’m not sure what they have heard or haven’t heard. It’s something that I’m ready to have a conversation with them if it gets brought up, but they’ve either heard it and decided not to broach the subject or they haven’t, but I’m not going to be the one to broach it. Because, I’ve had thousands of fights with my family over the years and I’m not going to start a new one when we’re in a decent place. That being said, I refuse to not talk about what made me who I am.

Are you an optimist?

Absolutely. I’ll talk about troubled times growing up, but all of it is what made me who I am now. I think if I wasn’t an optimist I would’ve quit comedy a long time ago. To me, being in the business of joy, if you’re not an optimist it’s got to eat you up.

I mean, I enjoy a lot of negative, angry comedy, but I think part of the point of that is, “Why are these stupid terrible things happening? Maybe if we start talking about it we can figure out a better way.”

Yeah, it’s like the situation is just the way is is, so you can be negative about it, but it’s not going to change anything. You might as well choose to be positive.

Absolutely. I am a manic-depressive, but even when I’m an optimist I’m going to cut out of this depression.

Are you actually diagnosed?

I am not diagnosed medically. My father is and it is a hereditary disorder. I did my own research. My father used to be prescribed lithium and I have all of the symptoms. Everything will be going amazing in life sometimes and just chemically a depression is where I’m at and I will feel terrible. But I know things are good. I’m able, because I know it’s a condition, to still have a positive outlook even though I’m feeling gloomy. Also, every now and then things can be going terrible, but I feel on top of the world. It’s so weird. I think knowing that it is a condition allows me to step outside of it and go, “This is why this is happening. Don’t make any stupid moves.”

I’m kind of scared about the idea of taking medication, because I’m worried that it will completely change my artistic output. I’ve listened to interviews and read about people who take prescription medicine to suppress the depression and mine’s not at such a harrowing level that I’m going to hurt myself or someone else. I never have suicidal thoughts or even self-destructive thoughts and when I’m on a high, I’m also able to be like, “Wow I feel great. My rent is also three weeks late though. Better figure that out.” (laughing) You know? Instead of just going, “Well, it’ll work itself out.” No, it probably won’t unless I do something to make itself workout.

You’ll fit right into LA. It’s a very manic-depressive place here. It’s just that, well you’re like, “Fuck. I don’t know how this is going to work out, but I work hard and it always does.” Plus if I just quit, then what?

I think at some point in comedy it becomes like one of those bad relationships that goes on way too long, unless it works out. Because you’ve invested so much time in it and it’s like, “Man if I quit now, what have I done the last eight years? Was that just for nothing so I can go into data entry?” Because if I had eight years of data entry I could at least supervise other people as they entered data.

I always threaten that I’m going to quit comedy and go to medical school even though I don’t even have a college degree. But, at least at the end of those twelve years, I’ll be a doctor. There is no guarantee that anything will happen after this.

Right. Absolutely. You know, I found if you work hard, you continue to improve and you’re not an asshole to people, things start to fall into place.

So what do you got going on next? You said you’re already writing new material and you’re touring?

Yep. I’m doing a national tour. I’m very excited about that. And then I’m going to come back, do one more season back here in Chicago with “Spiked Punch,” which is a game show that I created. I’m going try to work on that and put it together as a pitch, because in the fall I’m moving out to Los Angeles and we’re going to see what happens out there.

Putting It All Out There with Jamie Campbell