"There's not a lot of comedians doing political comedy to begin with, and the kind of the full-throated activist political comedy that I do is incredibly rare."
– Lee Camp
Guy MacPherson: Thanks for calling back on a landline. My pet peeve is phone interviews with someone on a cell phone. It's always cutting out.
Lee Camp: Luckily there are landlines at the office. For years now I haven't had a landline and it's always a disaster.
GM: We spoke two years ago when you were in Vancouver.
LC: Yeah, about that. Yeah, I remember that interview. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
GM: You're still rabble-rousing, I see.
LC: I'm trying. Doing my best.
GM: Is the office you're calling from for your show?
LC: Yeah, we tape in DC so I'm here pretty much all the time now, about three blocks from the White House.
GM: That's your home anyway, isn't it?
LC: Well, I've been in New York City for the past 12 years. I grew up outside of DC until I was 8, then the rest of the time in Richmond, Virginia.
GM: Do you call what you're doing 'reporting' even though it's comedy?
LC: I guess, if you would say Jon Stewart and John Oliver are reporting. It's in that same way. I mean, sometimes, and more so recently, we even do our original reporting so we go and get information about protests and aren't even quoting some of the news sources so I definitely feel like a reporter during those times.
GM: So the show, Redacted Tonight, is a multi-camera show, you've got an audience, it's on once a week, but your staff isn't quite as big as the Comedy Central or HBO guys, is it?
LC: It's a real, professional shoot in a studio. We have a small live audience because that's all the studio will hold – about 20 people in our live audience. I think our show is very good and is going after some really important issues that don't get covered anywhere else. And to be able to do it on such a small staff – we're talking five people that work on the show all week, and I'm the head writer, too, so I do probably 70 percent of the writing – to be able to put out this product – we're 23 episodes in – with such a small staff, I'm pretty proud of that.
GM: A half-hour show!
LC: Yeah, and unlike some of the other networks, we're 26-and-a-half minutes, as opposed to a 22-minute show on most networks.
GM: How are you finding time to get out and tour?
LC: I'm finding very little time, as a matter of fact. But I go on weekends mainly. I can get away on an occasional Friday. You'll notice I'm only in Vancouver on Friday and Saturday. I can't do the Thursday or Sunday.
GM: So you just fly cross-country and get in on the Friday?
LC: Yeah. Luckily I'm gaining time with the time zones, but yeah, I leave early Friday, get in and do the two shows.
GM: Will your show take a hiatus?
LC: We get two weeks off around the holidays. Unlike most networks, there's no seasons since this is a news channel. So we pretty much go 50 weeks a year.
GM: Tell me about RT America. What is that? It's not Redacted Tonight America.
LC: (laughs) No, we're only one program on the network. RT in general, like RT International, is Russian Television. Like the BBC is for Britain or I guess CBC is in Canada. But their American company is all American programming. As on some other news networks, there's a difference between the opinion side of things and the news side. The news channel, I don't have anything to do with. With my show, I get to basically do what I want. There are other great shows on this network, like Larry King is here and Abby Martin is really popular, Tom Hartman is a longtime really respected progressive voice. So there's some great programming on here.
GM: You could do what you want. Could you do 26 minutes making fun of Putin?
LC: (laughs) Maybe not. Here's the other thing: our show's not live. We tape Thursday nights so if I went on and just railed against RT for 26 minutes, something tells me they wouldn't air the episode. But really I think it's more of the case of they pick what's going to be right for their network. I did 320 episodes of Moment of Clarity on YouTube, which is my web series, and I had no stipulations from anyone. I owned it, I made it, I wrote it. And I don't know that I ever mentioned Russia throughout those 320 episodes. Not out of any reasoning, it's just not my wheelhouse. I don't live there, I've never been there. Really, my stuff is about America and America's influence around the world. I'd be remiss to think that they didn't want what I was doing. So it's like on MSNBC, I would argue they are picking Obama apology reporters. They're going to pick the people that think the Democrats are always right and never do anything wrong and Republicans are always wrong. They're going to pick people within a certain realm. I think I get phenomenal freedom. Far more freedom than I'd get at any other network because there's no corporate advertisers on RT, which means I get to rail against all the corporations, which I feel are what truly is impacting our lives on daily basis. I don't actually think Russia is impacting American lives on a daily basis, whereas Walmart and Monsanto and Exxon Mobile certainly are.
GM: Just a point of clarification: You said you couldn't rail against RT for half an hour. Are they connected to the government?
LC: Like BBC or I assume CBC. They're funded by the Russian government.
GM: Yeah, but there are shows on CBC that make fun of Stephen Harper. And I'm sure there are shows in England that make fun of their leader. I'm just wondering about the connection.
LC: Well, I can't speak for the other shows; I can just speak for my show. I mean, they've never said to me never mention Putin, if that's what you're asking. I have a tremendous amount of freedom here.
GM: Did you ever try to get on The Daily Show? You seem like a natural fit.
LC: I did apply as a writer there once and I was friendly with John Oliver. I know that he said I was in the top 10 so I got close to becoming a writer there once. But no, I didn't try that hard. I never went on auditions for them or anything. But I actually don't think I'd be a natural fit because, like I was saying before, a lot of my comedy goes after the corporations that in my opinion largely control our politicians and are impacting our lives, and that's not really what Daily Show does. That's not to say Daily Show is constantly pulling punches; I don't actually think I'm a perfect fit for Daily Show.
GM: Certainly more than a lot of people.
LC: Yeah, more than a lot of other comedians. There's not a lot of comedians doing political comedy to begin with, and the kind of the full-throated activist political comedy that I do is incredibly rare. So in a lot of ways, it seems like I would have been great for that show but I'd kind of given up on the idea of even being on television, at least with my own show because nowhere with advertisers wants to have me. So to find a channel without advertisers is incredibly lucky. The only other show that I'd say even comes close to hitting the topics that we do is John Oliver's show and you'll notice, again, a channel without advertisers, HBO.
GM: There must be some corporation that you're more sympathetic to.
LC: I mean, there are environmental corporations and things like that. There are also good corporations like Ben & Jerry's fights really hard to support things like Occupy and get GMOs out of their food. So sure, there can be great corporate leaders. There's multiple reasons for this. One reason – and I discuss these in my newer comedy special, We Are Nothing – that one reason you end up with this system is because the stock market rewards hostile, profit-driven takeovers. That kind of thing. If Ben & Jerry's announces they're not going to use GMO foods or whatever, it generally doesn't reward their stock. Like if a company announces they're giving away free AIDS medication, it doesn't really help their stock. What helps their stock is announcing that they're going to hostilely take over another company. Or prison stocks go up when we announce we're going to put poor people in jail. That's when the stocks go up. So we have a system that rewards the worst type of behaviour. And then on top of that, obviously corporations are not democratic so the board on a corporation is almost exclusively people that are impressively profit-driven, sometimes to sociopathic levels. I have a joke where I say, 'You know who gets to those boards of the most powerful corporations? It's not the vegan who lets people merge in front of him in traffic. That's not the guy.'
GM: You're a political comic, but it's more of a cultural critic.
LC: Cultural commentary, absolutely. I actually have never liked the term 'political comedian' because a) I think it brings to mind somebody who's going to make Barak Obama and Mitch McConnell jokes all day long, which is not what I do at all. My last comedy hour, I think I maybe had one mention of Obama. And then secondly, it seems to exclude great cultural commentary comedians like Chris Rock and many others, sometimes Louis C.K., which, I wouldn't call them political comedians but I absolutely think they have political stances on things and very informed opinions on a lot of the things impacting our lives.
GM: I know comedy is your first love. Are you ever tempted to get more politically involved than you already are?
LC: I've never had any desire to run for anything but I am politically involved in the sense of protests and various organizations. The Green party here in the US has a shadow cabinet, a fake cabinet that basically says what it would do if it were in power. And I am the commissioner of Comedic Arts on the shadow cabinet. If they were actually in power, I might actually have a position. But I'm very involved in protests and was at the first night of Occupy, which I'm sure we talked about last time I saw you, and ended up touring a dozen different Occupy encampments. I'm politically active that way, I'm just not running for office anytime soon.
GM: You're young still. That might come.
LC: (laughs) Maybe, if we ever get to a system where the amount of money you have is not the decider.
GM: What's your take on Russell Brand? He's getting really political these days.
LC: Very much so. I think he's made a really impressive turn. He's speaking everything I'm saying as far as I can tell. We have some mutual friends who do some great work on just how much money has been amassed in the top .1 percent. I start reading his new book and he's quoting the same studies that I've covered on our show. So we're very much aligned. You rarely, even in political comedians, even in comedians that seem to be going after a lot of the stuff, see people railing against the consumerist culture and the influence of advertising and the false desires we all seem to have fallen under for plastic goods and craptastic meaningless objects, and he seems to be doing that. I don't know him personally but I think he's doing something very impressive.
GM: He's been in movies and is more of a celebrity. Do you feel yourself screaming, 'Hey! I've been talking about this, too!'?
LC: That's tough with him but especially with John Oliver's show, because John Oliver, who I think is one of the best comedians I've ever had the privilege to work with, has multi-million-dollar advertising, I'm sure, with HBO, pushing his show out there, and we're on each others' footsteps, in terms of the topics. Sometimes I get to something two weeks before he does, sometimes he gets to it two weeks before I do. I'm not watching everything he does, but I know, for example, we covered civil forfeiture, which is in the US the police will just grab things like your house and say it's not yours anymore because they witnessed a crime on the front yard of it. And then you are in the position of proving that your house had nothing to do with the crime. And they actually go to court against your house, not against you. It's like the State against the property of. It's ridiculous. We did a whole piece on it and then two weeks later he did a piece on it. So it kinda sucks when you have a larger channel and a larger outlet and you're like, 'We just did that! That was our thing!' But the nice thing is that they're such important issues, I'm just happy to see people talking about them.
GM: Like John Oliver and Russell Brand, you need to get a British accent. Maybe that'll do it.
LC: Maybe it is. A British accent makes all the difference. People don't want to hear a crass American yelling this stuff.
GM: Does your show put out smaller chunks of video that everyone can share?
LC: Absolutely. Actually, I think more of ours is online because everything we do online as well as TV. We cut all ours up and upload them. They're all at youtube.com/redactedtonight. They're all on YouTube so it's just a matter of getting them out there.
GM: I watched the Howard Zinn documentary. Did you see that?
LC: Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train?
GM: I forget the name of it. It was on Netflix.
LC: That might be the one. I watched it a while back.
GM: I know he's a hero of yours.
LC: Yeah, a really impressive guy. It was sad to lose him because there's only so many people speaking up like that. Now that Noam Chomsky's getting older, I guess it goes to Chris Hedges and a few others. We've gotta have those intellectuals that are doing all the research.
GM: Generally we think of older people getting more conservative. Those guys didn't. Or maybe they did in their own ways, but not in any noticeable political ways. You're still young, but in any area of your life, are you getting more conservative?
LC: I don't know. I don't think I'm getting more conservative at all. I think I am starting to understand the people that kinda can't handle it – and that's not meant to be said in an insulting way – and spend a lot more time on escapism. That doesn't mean I encourage it but I understand that this can cause burnout pretty quickly, worrying about these issues, worrying about the world. I'm lucky that I have comedy as an outlet because I think if I were studying these things with a straight face it would be pretty daunting. So I do understand that. I also wonder whether the getting conservative as you get older might be changing a little bit because, in the case of my father, and I think some other people, too, the older generations are now worried about the planet that's going to be left for their kids. Like, will there actually be a livable planet and how grim are things going to get if we destroy all our crops and use up all our water with fracking and various other things going on. My dad has gone from very middle of the road, voting on either side of the aisle, to thinking that his generation has really screwed up the planet and we need to start worrying about fifty years from now rather than just exploiting all the resources by five years from now.
GM: I used to devour the news. But probably for the last ten years, I just avoid it at all cost. I figure I'll hear what's important because everyone's talking about it. It's just too damn depressing.
LC: Part of it is laughter. That hopefully makes it more digestible and we also cover a lot of protests and things like that to try and show you're not alone in giving a shit about these things. I think a lot of people see these horrible things going on and they're like, I'm really upset about them but nobody's doing anything about them and I can't do anything about them so they just give up. I'd say that's another defining characteristic of our show from any other comedy news that I've seen is that we really try and feature activists and protests and people standing up and making a difference.
GM: There's got to be a difference in protesters. You can't support them all.
LC: There's plenty of protesters I disagree with. I mean, there's protesters on the right wing who I think have lost their mind. I think I say in my act – I can't remember which album it was – that I'd rather people violently disagree with me than be apathetic because apathy is just really tough to deal with. You can't even have a conversation with someone who's truly apathetic. I'd rather someone be wrong and passionate. I'm kinda sick of ironic detachment and apathy. I also have given out buttons that say "Punch apathy in the dick."
GM: Your standup has to be constantly changing, which must be hard. Although I guess some issues continue for years and years.
LC: Yeah, my act is always growing and changing. Luckily it is cultural commentary so a lot of the things I discuss don't really change, at least for now. I would love for them to change, but our obsession with products and materialism and manipulation by advertisers and those type of things, that's not going anywhere. So I'm actually impressed that of my special two years ago, probably 75 percent of it I could perform right now and people wouldn't know the difference.
GM: I guess you're right because if you think 20 years ago Bill Hicks was talking about things that are still relevant.
LC: Not only does it still stand up, but it's creepy that he's talking about the first Iraq war and everything holds true for the second Iraq war.
GM: Do you hear from audience members at your standup whose minds you've opened?
LC: Yeah, I do. I get a lot of emails. When I do get down about the state of the world, those kind of things really perk me up, like so many emails of people just saying that I kinda woke them up and they didn't realize what was really going on in the world and now they're starting to get it. And then there's other people that have had tough times in their own personal lives and something about the comedy I was doing really gave them a reason to keep going and a reason to keep fighting. Those type of emails are incredibly moving and remind me why I do what I do outside of all the standard laughter and fanfare.
GM: I would imagine it might be more gratifying changing someone's mind rather than confirming it or helping them with their arguments.
LC: Yeah, that is incredibly gratifying. It's more rare these days because I feel like a lot of seem to put more weight on just sticking with your beliefs than taking in new information and changing your mind. But one fan I can think of specifically was a fan way back ten years ago when I was performing in colleges and not doing any political material. She was right wing but back then I wasn't doing politics so it didn't matter. Then I started putting more politics into my act and she became more and more disenchanted with me because I was left wing and she's right wing. Then five years later she ultimately realized she was wrong and became left wing, or at least more awake about issues, and now is back to being a fan. So she's gone through all the iterations.
GM: It's funny how difficult it can be of someone's comedy if you disagree with them at a root level. I see Dennis Miller's standup and as much as I loathe most of his politics, some things I can see as really great crafted jokes. But it's hard to separate that.
LC: Oh, sure. He is a phenomenally skilled comedian so just because he's become bat-shit crazy doesn't mean he stops being funny to some degree. He was kind of pivotal to me, or at least really important, a real inspiration to me, when I was getting into comedy and I would listen to his album from 1984 when you couldn't really tell politically which side he was on. He would insult both sides and his stuff was just brilliant. And I can't even watch him nowadays. But I think there is a little difference between just disagreeing with a comedian and disagreeing with a comedian because they are a very privileged person. I mean, with Dennis Miller, we're talking an educated white male who is a millionaire likely. And he is heaping his ire down on the poor and the struggling. So watching that can really be uncomfortable, I feel like, if you disagree with him. Whereas, I'm actually, when I'm at comedy clubs obviously there's going to be some right wingers in the audience who didn't know what they were coming to, just came to a comedy show, and most of them could enjoy about 70 percent, 80 percent of my act. I think it's okay if you disagree with a comic a little more than it's okay if you both disagree with a comic and the comic is a person of privilege trashing people of non-privilege.
GM: When you're talking about politics, will you take on Obama as well as the Republicans?
LC: Yeah. And the reason I do that is because I feel in the American system, the Democrats and Republicans are not a right and left wing. Both of them are pro-corporate, pro-Wall Street parties that actually represent a 10 percent difference, a very small angle difference, in terms of view of the world and of America. So by saying I'm taking on both sides, I'm taking on the two corporate parties. I think we've got to learn to think outside of that because either way, you could get Democrats in office or you get Republicans in office, you're not going to change the path we're on unless some very different breed of Democrat or Republican were to appear. That's the flaw in this ridiculous party system we have. I probably agree more often with Rand Paul, a quote-unquote Republican, than I do with a lot of the Democrats and it's because these parties don't really mean anything anymore. All they mean is that you're taking corporate money in order to get elected. In the election we had this week, congress has roughly a 10 percent approval rating and 96 percent re-election rate. That's what just happened in this last election. So how could that possibly happen? It's because people are just voting for the party that they think will fix things, but the parties aren't actually saying anything that different.
GM: Of the two, 1a and 1b, one is better because of social issues.
LC: Yeah. That's the thing. But I wonder whether those issues could just be used to get us down a very horrible path. Because you vote with the guy who is good with gay marriage and good with women's rights and meanwhile we're still going off a cliff. So I'm not saying that voting for them doesn't achieve something or doesn't have any impact; I'm just saying as long as the conversation is about I'm going to vote for them because they agree with gay marriage, well yeah but our planet won't sustain much longer. I mean, our planet will be fine but the humans will be dead.
GM: Do you worry about the future? Or do you think things will work out? And is it hard to stay funny with that mindset?
LC: I don't think I find it hard to stay funny because I think I desperately need to stay funny or else things become too grim. But that being said, I both think that we're at a pivotal time for our species because things could get very bad if we make the wrong decisions right now but I also am very optimistic in the sense that I think the internet age is changing everything and hopefully we'll keep net neutrality. People are awakening at a speed that you've never seen before. It's unbelievable how quickly people are becoming informed and opinions are changing. Just as two examples, gay marriage went from whatever it was – let's say somewhere between 60 and 80 percent disapproval in the late 80s and early 90s – to full-scale approval. I mean, it's tough to find people that don't think gay people are entitled to their own happiness. And that happened over a span of twenty years or something, which is phenomenally fast to completely change people's opinion. And you see the same thing with legalizing marijuana. I don't even smoke marijuana but I think it helps a lot of people, it helps a lot of people with illnesses, and it's insane to think it's any more harmful than alcohol when it's a lot less harmful. So you've seen that go from basically 10 percent wanting legalization to 80 or 70 or whatever it is. It's completely reversed. And that happens over, we're talking 15 years. And the reason is because people are becoming informed at a much quicker rate than ever before.
GM: Are you still writing the little throwaway one-liners to intersperse with the heavier stuff?
LC: I am. I need to write some newer ones because I feel like I've been using the old ones for a little too long. But yeah, I think those are important. I think they give people a breather and also if someone in the audience does disagree with whatever point I was just making, it kind of brings them back into the fold. It subconsciously says to them don't worry, we'll come back to a place we can all enjoy.
GM: Do you know anything about the Canadian political scene?
LC: Very little. Obviously I know about Rob Ford. I know that Canada has swung very much right, and that the tar sands is a catastrophe. Those are the main things I know.
GM: It's fallen to one of the worst environmental countries from one of the best.
LC: Right and also you pulled out of Kyoto, right?
GM: Well, Lee, thanks for talking.
LC: It's been great talking to you. And if you end up mentioning it, my video special is available at leecamp.net. It's called We Are Nothing. It's just a recommended donation of five dollars so pretty much pay what you want.
GM: Where was it filmed?
LC: It was a three-camera shoot at Bowery Electric in New York City.