Jamie Campbell will release his new album, Tell Me You’re Proud of Me on March 10. Two things you wouldn’t guess about Jamie. First, he’s shy. You wouldn't guess because with a microphone, the shyness is gone. When Jamie takes the stage, his warmth and charisma fill the room. He's a tough guy with a big heart who talks easily about everything from birthday parties to racism. He engages the audience one-on-one, which could have been a risky proposition during his recent live album recording. But he was undaunted and his quick wit and inventive riffing paid off. Whether he’s doing stand-up or improv, audiences are happy to accompany him, sometimes to hard times and dark places, but always finding unexpected, uplifting humor and big laughs along the way.
Second, Jamie says it’s only on stage that “I get to become the superhero I wish I was.” From that, you might not guess that his life off stage, is worthy of a superhero: the schedule he keeps, his versatility, the accolades, his dedication, his kindness to beginning comedians and the story of how he got to where he is now.
When Jamie was the featured guest on Jimmy Carrane’s Improv Nerd in 2013, he talked about his childhood. They were years that required resilience and an unerring life compass to point him in the right direction with little adult guidance.
By the time he was six, he had survived years of physical abuse at the hands of his stepfather. When he was twelve, his mom kidnapped him and his siblings to escape a custody battle. Soon after and living under an alias in New Mexico, he emerged from the bathroom to see his mom led away in handcuffs. He was flown to Florida where he lived with his dad and stepmom, also in a difficult situation. At nineteen, Jamie moved to Oklahoma and took a factory job, a chapter that might have lasted twenty to thirty years.
Between the factory in Oklahoma and today, a lot has happened. In 2008, Jamie moved to Chicago to pursue comedy. He does five hundred shows a year, equally split between stand-up and improv. He founded and produces 100 Proof Comedy – a stand-up collective which includes a Monday night showcase followed by The Chaser open mic (drop-ins have included John Roy and Tim Meadows). He teaches comedy and will conduct workshops during his upcoming national tour. He is also a member of the Annoyance Theatre’s House Ensemble. His podcast Talk Hard airs on The Rebellion Network.
A little over a year ago, Jamie, now 35, was named Chicago’s “Best Stand-Up Comedian” by The Chicago Reader. Next week, Tell Me You’re Proud of Me will be released on Mint 400 Records. He is the first comedian signed by the indie music label. You can pre-order the album now and you are also invited to the launch party on March 9 at The ComedySportz Theatre (details below). The event will feature comedy by Jamie, Kelsie Huff, Kevin Pomeroy, Rachel McCartney, Gnar Gnar Shredtown and more. A national tour follows. In a month of highlights, there is another: on March 17, Jamie will make his network debut on NBC’s Chicago Fire.
In addition to his role on Chicago Fire, he appeared in the indie film Sex Ain’t Love, has a starring role in the upcoming feature film Dirtbags and will appear later this year in Guy Clark’s horror movie, The Clinic.
Jamie kindly took time out for a phone interview on what was going to be a late Monday night. Monday is the night he produces and performs at 100 Proof Comedy showcase, followed by The Chaser, which starts between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m. and continues until every comedian has had a chance to go up, no matter how late the hour.
Q: You’ve accomplished a lot in a short time. How did you do it?
A: Well, for me it doesn’t seem like a short time. It’s like someone says, “Oh, you got in shape pretty quick.” “Yeah, but I never left the gym.” For the last seven years I’ve been making sure I get on stage just about every night, some nights multiple times. This past Saturday I did five shows. Three of them were ninety-minute shows. The other two were hour-long. So I was on stage for six-and-a-half hours.
Q: On the Improv Nerd podcast you talk about your childhood and going through a lot early on.
A: I had a lot of ups and downs. Because my family moved around and I was in a lot of abusive situations as a kid, I had to rely on my imagination. I had to think about where I was going to be down the line. I dreamed big as a kid because if I could think about how good the future was going to be, then the present was something I could endure.
Q: Tough experiences like that often hold people back and alter their self-image. How did you not let that happen?
A: When bad things happen to you, the things that beat people down, when you can go crazy is when you think, “I guess this is just how it is.” If you recognize that this shouldn’t be happening, that it’s not normal, then you’re going to be a lot better off.
Q: How were you able to know that as a kid?
A: Maybe it’s because I was a child of divorce very young. I would spend time in one household and then spend a lot of time in another household. I got to see households being run very differently. I observed how my friends’ families behaved. I observed how families acted in movies. If someone hit a kid in a movie, they were the bad guy.
Q: How did you get your start on stage?
A: It was an accident. I moved to Oklahoma from Florida when I was nineteen years-old. I had three half brothers that lived in Oklahoma and I wanted to be a brother to them. So I moved and worked in a factory (unfortunately called ViaGrafix) which manufactured computer training on CD-ROM and VHS.
I didn’t have much going on. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that working in a factory for twenty or thirty years was not what I wanted. College was a non-option. Then in 1999, I saw a sign that said if you join the Oklahoma Army National Guard they will pay your tuition to a state school.
So I joined the National Guard in 2000. Of course, shortly after that 9/11 happened. When I joined, I was told that I had a better chance of being struck by lightning twice than of going to war. I actually did not go to war. Being an actor is what saved me.
I had auditioned for some shows as a way to meet people and in the summer of 2002, the army granted me a three-month leave to do a show in Texas. When I returned to Oklahoma, my unit was being deployed to Afghanistan. The Army didn't do a lot of communicating with soldiers when they were on leave. I had no idea they were being deployed until I showed up at our armory. It was too late for me to get my paperwork to go through, so I ended up stateside during their mission. Luckily, everyone in my unit made it back safely and I never saw combat.
The professional actors I’d worked with that summer were all pretty incredible. I worked with a guy named Larry Sellers who has made a career in film and television. He was the weird naked Indian guy in Wayne’s World 2. Hanging out with them and listening to their stories I was like, this is what I want to do. So I became a theater major and devoted my life for the next four years of college.
It was a small program. You had to act and design lights, build the sets, run the light board and sew in the costume lab. That’s all helped me a ton because Chicago is a place where you make a lot of your own opportunities. When I create a show now, I know how to design sound and create a full experience for the audience.
Actually, where I have performed the most is the ComedySportz Theatre. In 2008, I started out as their stage manager when they just needed somebody to run lights and call places. From there, I became a member of their professional ensemble of improvisers and the producer of several shows, including 100 Proof Comedy stand-up showcase. I ran their Training Center for 3 ½ years. I’ve performed on their stage thousands of times.
After my undergraduate work, I went to Oklahoma State University where I worked on my master’s degree in acting. I was a semester away from finishing when I decided to quit and move to Chicago to pursue comedy.
Q: How did you decide?
A: I was no longer enjoying theater. My professors in grad school seemed like people who could have had a professional career, but they chose the safe route. I felt like a lot of what was being done in that program was for the instructors to make themselves feel better, not for the students to grow.
I was getting huge lead roles. I played Brutus in Julius Caesar and King Henry in The Lion in Winter. But I wasn’t enjoying it. It’s hard for a 25 year-old to enjoy playing a 50 year-old king while getting yelled at by a director who had always dreamed of playing the role and was living vicariously.
Then I saw a sign in the green room about the Comedy Studies program in Chicago which was then a semester-long program at Second City. The program was for undergrads, but it got me excited for the first time in at least a year about possibilities.
My heroes were a lot of the guys on Saturday Night Live and there were a lot of stand-up comedians I’d looked up to as a kid like Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin and Richard Pryor. With my uncle I’d listened to Cheech & Chong, Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay, although I was too young to get them. What I did identify with was the way they attacked the stage with emotion and a point of view. They were rock & roll. But until I saw the Second City notice, I’d never thought of comedy as an option for me.
So I went into the theater department’s office and talked to my advisor and I said, “Here’s what they are offering. Can you tell me that I would get more here than I would there?”
And he said, “Go ahead and apply. If you get in we’ll make it happen.” So I applied. Then the deadline for acceptance went by. Two weeks passed.
I thought, “Well, I guess I’m staying in Oklahoma.” I went to my apartment’s leasing office to renew for a year. On the way there I decided to check the mail. If I had not checked the mail, I would have signed another year.
So I went to Chicago not knowing a soul and being incredibly broke. At one point I got an eviction letter because my roommate turned out to be a raging alcoholic who didn’t pay rent for months and ended up bailing. My student loans paid all of our rent for three months.
And then the semester was over and I was so broke they turned off all the heat in the apartment. The only thing that worked was my oven and I would bring my couch into the kitchen and open the oven and that’s how I would sleep.
Q: Wow. That’s dedication.
A: Well, I talked a lot of trash before I left and I didn’t want to go home. The idea of going back and working in a factory for another twenty years as the other option … I hated that more than being broke.
Q: What was the first comedy thing you did after that program?
A: It was toward the end of the program. I did a sketch comedy show called Mass Recall at the Gorilla Tango Theater in Chicago. What I loved about that theater was that it was a cheap way to put up your own shows. My first year in Chicago I wrote and performed there constantly.
Q: How did you get into stand-up?
A: I had a roommate who was in a sketch group with me and for a couple of months on Sundays we would go to Schubas’ open mic.
This was where TJ Miller would drop in. Hannibal Buress was still a local comic. The way Shubas worked was you wouldn’t go in order [of the sign-up list] because they wanted to keep the audience, so they put better people up earlier. So I would sign up at 7:00 p.m. and I’d go up at 1:30 in the morning.
We did that a handful of times and it never went well. One day, they had me following Hannibal Buress and I guess I was doing okay, but in my mind I was dying up there. And I facetiously said, “Well, this is going well.” My friend later said, “You could hear your voice crack and all the confidence left your body.”
He’d had a bad set, too. The next week, because we had promised each other that we were going to make ourselves go to this open mic every week (I would learn later that once a week is not enough if you want to do stand-up), I looked at him and said sadly, “Hey, are we going to do that thing?” And he looked at me with his eyes watering and said, “I don’t want to do it anymore.” And that was it for months.
But my actual stand-up beginning was [later] at the Second City Conservatory. My teacher was Bina Martin who coincidentally is the daughter of the columnist Miss Manners. She had us each write a five-minute stand-up set, but not to perform. She thought it would generate material for sketches.
One of my classmates had a roommate who ran an open mic and he said, “Why don’t we go and tell our material out loud to some people?” We did and it felt good. The host that night was Joe Kilgallon. He said, “I’ve never seen Jamie Campbell before, but I really enjoyed him and I hope we see him a lot more.”
This was before comedyofchicago.com existed and you had to find open mics on your own. You had to call ahead or you might show up and find out it wasn’t happening. It was kind of a hassle.
But I found another open mic the next night and I went. And then the third night in a row, I went to the old Edge Comedy Club. Marty DeRosa was there and he recognized me because my sketch group had done a show where he had done stand-up. He took the time to come up to me and say, “Hey, you have really good stage presence. As soon as you get to where you don’t have to read your jokes off a paper, you’re going to crush.”
And then he sat down and by hand wrote down the days and locations of every open mic in the city and said, “Go to all of these as often as you can.” And I’ll never forget that because I did.
I thought, “I was dabbling before, but now I’m going to make myself do one hundred open mics and write a journal after every one of them and then after one hundred open mics, I can decide whether stand-up is for me.” And after that it was like, I’m hooked, which makes sense. If you decide to see if heroin is for you by shooting up every day for a month, then after a month you’re hooked on heroin. That’s how it was.
Q: What are the things that you like about stand-up and improv and what don’t you like?
A: I love them both. I’m very lucky that I get to do both improv and stand-up for a living. With improv I like that there is not that “alone” factor. You’re creating something together. After a show, if it went awesome, you can celebrate together.
You don’t have that with stand-up. With stand-up I can go up and have a great set and yes, the whole room may have laughed, but they didn’t go through what I went through. So sure, we can celebrate, but their experience as audience members is very different from my experience as a performer.
When it goes great it’s like, man, I did that all by myself and there’s a real sense of self-validation. But there’s also that “I don’t know who to connect with after the show,” so you end up being up late with adrenaline pumping and your brain working. When an improv show tanks, you can hang out with everybody that it tanked with. It’s like none of us saved it. We all went down together. But when stand-up tanks, you want to crawl into a hole.
Maybe it’s because I’m manic depressive in real life that the two each fill a different void. I don’t think I would be complete as a performer, as a person, if I didn’t get to have both experiences.
Q: If you were to give advice about earning the title of Chicago’s Best Stand-Up, what would you say?
A: I still don’t think I earned that title. I can think of at least ten comics who were ahead of my game. But I appreciate that I won it. It allowed me credibility with certain places that had never seen me.
If you’re someone who wants to do stand-up, you’ve got to do stand-up. You can’t like the idea of being good at stand-up. You’ve got to love the process because you’re going to fall down many times.
This week a friend and I were discussing that the important thing is not learning how to do stand-up, it’s learning how to stop trying to control it.
When you have a good set, there’s a part of your brain that is letting go. You’re in the moment. You’re connecting with the audience. Then the other side of your brain says, “We saw that. Now that we know how this works, let’s control it.” You want to figure out the formula. But it’s different every time.
The brain wants to take over and control everything. After thousands and thousands of times, you learn to shut that off and be in the moment with your audience. It’s not delivering a monologue. It’s a conversation. It’s the same thing with improv. You stop trying to control where a scene goes and just get on the ride.
Q: I really want to control everything and if I don’t I think it’s going to be a catastrophe.
A: And then you end up being so mad. If you had just let go, you could have had an amazing experience. It’s changed my writing process, too. I don’t write my material word for word anymore. When I do, that part of my brain wants to make sure that everything we planned happens. That guy’s got to turn off. I can’t have a plan. I can have a loose agenda, but not a plan.
Q: Is it scary without a plan?
A: It can be. I set up some safety nets, although my favorite moments are when I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have a general set list. I’m doing a new thing on my tour where I’m going to have a bucket out and the M.C. will ask the audience for topics, words and ideas. The audience will put them in the bucket and throughout the show I’ll pull out topics and riff for as long as it feels right. Every audience will get a brand new, different experience.
Q: Does your background in improv make it more natural to riff like that?
A: I think it will help. I tend to riff a lot. That’s my process. I’ll have an idea I want to talk about, and so I’ll go up on stage and I’ll just riff and talk about it. I’ll do that over and over again with the same topic until it becomes more of a formed piece.
Q: What is your philosophy as a teacher?
A: My philosophy is to focus on the positive. Find the joy. You don’t have to beat somebody down in this mission as a teacher. I see so many students who never take a risk because they had teachers who destroyed their confidence. The people who broke their confidence forget that we all sucked. We all did terrible things at first. It was somebody believing in us that made us take a leap to do something bold.
Q: What’s it like hosting 100 Proof and The Chaser?
A: I started 100 Proof four-and-a-half years ago. When it first started it was just me. The 100 Proof Comedy showcase is at 8:00 p.m. and then The Chaser open mic starts when the showcase ends and runs until the last comic is done. In four-and-a-half years, we have never turned a comedian away. We’ve never cut the list off and I’m real proud of that. I think we’re the only long running open mic in Chicago that can say that.
But when we first started, I would open the showcase at 8:00 p.m. and then I would host the open mic and it was just me hosting from 8:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. It was like a boot camp every Monday because I didn’t have enough material to keep the room going. I had to learn to riff. I had to be able to take what somebody else said and go, “Oh, that makes me think of this.” That’s I think a big part of what my process has become.
As a matter of fact, if I’m trying to write or think of new stuff, I’ll sit in the back of the room and watch other comics and I’ll never take their idea, but I will open up my brain and see if they inspire me to talk about something else.
Q: What is a typical day like for you? In one of your podcasts you mention that after the podcast you had a gig at the Annoyance and then you were going to perform at ComedySportz after that. How do you fit everything in?
A: I wake up at 9:00 in the morning. Then I cuss and hate everything and go back to sleep until 9:45. Three times a week, in addition to my podcast Talk Hard, I do a podcast with Nick Hausman (founder of The Rebellion Network) called TRN Almost Daily. I’ll record, then head home around 1 p.m.
Between noon and 1:00 p.m., I’m checking emails and dealing with social media. If I’m producing a show or if I’m on a show, I’ll let people know. A lot of times I’m sending emails to people who are booking shows or if I’m doing an interview I’ll make sure that I get it planned.
After that, I’ll try to grab a little bit of lunch and then depending on how healthy my life is at the time or what else I have going on that day I try to work out. Even when I’m exercising, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do on stage that night.
After that, it’s back to check emails to see if anybody I emailed earlier has emailed me back. I’ll lock in show dates and do any social media that I need to do.
Around 5:30 or 6:30, I start heading out to shows or open mics. I’m usually done around 1:30 to 2:00 in the morning. Then I go home and send any additional emails I need to before bed. And then I just try to wind down and shut my brain off. I tend to not get to sleep until 4:00 a.m.
If I’ve got an early morning audition, then I will maybe just do one show or I’ll do the shows I’m booked for, but I won’t hit open mics after so I can be well rested. Or I say “well rested.” I still end up being up half the night.
Q: What is the secret to getting so much done in a day consistently?
A: A lot of it is thinking, “It’s going to heck if I don’t do this. Oh no, I’m in trouble.” Having a plan helps. Before I go to bed, when I come home at the end of the night, that’s when I look at the next day and make sure I have my plan. And I want to do comedy. I love comedy. All these things are kind of fun.
Q: Do you think you’ll stay in Chicago or make the move to L.A.?
A: I think that I'll eventually move to Los Angeles. I love Chicago and it'll always feel like home to me. The industry is in L.A. though, and I've got to take my shot or I'll always wonder what would've happened.
The release party for Tell Me You’re Proud of Me is at The ComedySportz Theatre, 929 W. Belmont, Chicago at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, March 9. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased by calling the box office: (773) 549-8080 or at http://www.ticketmaster.com/100-proof-comedy-chicago-illinois-03-09-2015/event/04004E5B004569FE?artistid=1497421&majorcatid=10002&minorcatid=51&tm_link=search_msg-0_04004E5B004569FE.
You can pre-order Tell Me You’re Proud of Me by going to https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/tell-me-youre-proud-of-me/id960025222
To hear Jamie’s interview on Improv Nerd, go to http://www.feralaudio.com/75-jamie-campbell/