Mainstream comedy is a sham. You need only flick on Mock the Week in the UK to see the soggy array of so called 'talent' that adorns our screens each week to find proof. Safe, boring, reverent comedy, that glamorises the most mundane irrelevancies of our lives and is venerated by a society that rewards it so handsomely for its blandness.
To paraphrase Bill Hicks, why do we celebrate mediocrity and ignore those with real edge, or god forbid, a message? Instead we "kill those people... and let the demons run amok". Because the killing of renegade comedians needn't be literal, you need only ignore them and deny them any airtime, hence eradicating their POV and preventing the population having their comfort zones breached by new ideas that could provoke new thinking.
To illustrate this trend in the UK I need only name the insufferable Michael McIntyres and Russell Howards of the world, who've made careers for themselves discussing the compelling intricacies of buying milk from shops - all of course for the consumption of the apolitical clapping seal middle classes. Even childhood heroes like Paul Whitehouse of The Fast Show era have resorted to selling car insurance. This is the bind the "first post-ideological generation" finds itself in, a world that isn't allowed to believe in anything, with our comedians reflecting equally nothing.
Even those who do dare to satirise the powerful in our society engage in nothing more than a ironic reactive poke at their antics, with no more sophistication to their analysis than soap opera TV critics. To counter this vacuum, the population has started overdosing on irony as a coping mechanism for their decaying surroundings. The problem with irony as David Foster Wallace has pointed out is "Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage."
So in this age of war, neo imperialism, rampant inequality, the co-option of politics by the corporate world, a decaying environment and the commodification of everything, where are the comic voices to mount a much needed challenge? I caught up with the American comedian and OWS activist Lee Camp for a moment of clarity on these problems. Lee embodies an unconventional view of America that challenges the much promoted myth/lie that "America is a conservative nation". And no, he's not also Nottingham Forest football clubs No.1 goalkeeper.
What's your assessment of 'mainstream' comedy today? Bill Hicks would always decry the trend in American culture to celebrate mediocrity, because those with edge tend to challenge the status quo, how much would you agree with him?
I definitely agree. That hasn't changed. Even comics who I think are quite good, when they're finally given a spot on a late night show or whatever, they're told to slow it down, water it down, and dumb it down (maybe not in those words). So what you see on most shows doesn't challenge the audience at all. As you'll recall even Hicks final performance on Letterman was cut because of the issues he tackled. That hasn't changed.
A ongoing debate between me and my friends is the difference between a comedian and a joke teller. Do you think that comedians with politics and values are the most effective entertainers? Is the decoupling of politics from comedy healthy or should it instead be encouraged?
I think combining comedy and cultural commentary or politics is very important, perhaps crucial. That doesn't mean comedy should ONLY be that type. But I do wish we would see more of it.
Who do you think are the best comedians both past and present and why?
I don't wanna say "best" because comedians mean different things to different people. But I'll tell you the ones who influenced me the most (and therefore are the ones I like the most). Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Doug Stanhope, Dennis Miller, Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg, and Chris Rock. They all are/were, amazing for different reasons. Some of them are no longer amazing because they're gone. Others are no longer amazing because they turned into right-wing lunatics (you know who you are). I was also heavily influenced by Seinfeld.
How important is comedy for the left? (because let's face it, we're getting hammered, so if we don't laugh we'll drown in our own cynical tears).
I noticed that you've recently collaborated with Peter Joseph - the Zeitgeist movement founder - and his new series "Culture in Decline". I wondered how seriously you take his vision of a resource-based economy; is there space for such radical ideas in our broken politics?
In terms of a "resource based economy," I think it's important to dream big. Is it idealistic? Yes. Does that mean it can't be talked about? No. Is a world without war idealistic? Certainly. But people talk about it and hope for it all the time. Whether it's possible to get to a point where we live by the carrying capacity of the earth or not, it's important to think about it. And let's face it, if we don't get there, many of us will die off soon anyway. I'm hoping it's all the people watching "Two And A Half Men."
Expressing the views you do can attract negative responses, how do you deal with that criticism personally and what advice would you give to aspiring young comedians apprehensive about being castigated?
Well, if you aren't pissing anyone off then you aren't pushing people to think beyond the norm. Sometimes it can be a badge of honor. How do I deal with it? Well, I ignore a lot of it. But some of it I use for segments and various things. I'll be filming a new project soon where a fellow comedian reads my hate mail and then argues with me from that perspective. Should be fun. But yeah, I guess I use the hate mail in whatever way I can.
I wake up most mornings, read the headlines, and can't help but conclude we're screwed. Keeping up morale seems to me to be extremely important for the left today, I wonder how you maintain optimism and fight for (not Obama like) change?
I just resign myself to defeat. Then the rest is fun and games. No, I'm kidding, but only partially. I have resigned myself to the fact that I can only have a little effect. But it's an important effect. So I will keep doing what I do and hope others do what they can do. It adds up. It really does. I was a small a piece of saving a death row inmate in Texas a few years back. I was a small piece of Occupy. I've been a small piece of many important moments. And anyone and everyone can do it. So why not? What else is life about? For me it's about being that small drop in the tidal wave. I don't want to see the tidal wave change the world and say I watched it from the hill.
To those people that still insist upon defending Barack Obama's abysmal record in office, what would you say to them?
I don't blame them. And I'll defend some of the things he's done. But I will keep fighting to get us out of this preposterous and disastrous two party plutocracy. We have a choice between center right and far right. How is that a choice? It's a choice between driving the car into the middle of the wall or the side of the wall. I guess if you vote for the guy pointing the car at the side of the wall, then you can say, "Well, we almost missed the wall." It's not a real choice.
If you had to identify the biggest issues in our world today, what would they be and why should people give a shit about them?
Money in politics. Finding a sustainable way of life so that our planet doesn't collapse. And finally I think it's important to hunt down the 100 million people who watched the video clip entitled "Girl getting her nipple pierced freaks out." Then we find them, just yell "bad human" at them while beating them with a flip-flop. ...And people should give a shit about these issues because we're better than this. We really are. We're living our lives as idiot slaves, and the best kind of slaves are the ones who think they're free.
What projects does Lee Camp have in the pipeline and what are his ultimate ambitions?
Thank you for finally referring to me in the third person. I have a strict code of human interaction and you were breaking the third person rule until just now. ...The projects in the pipeline are a new book that I'm editing--the follow up to the first Moment of Clarity book. And of course I'll keep making the free Moment of Clarity videos which people can get at LeeCamp.net. I'm also working on a new version of Moment of Clarity that will hopefully be a cool, more in-depth, larger-scale version. People should keep checking LeeCamp.net or @LeeCamp on Twitter to hear about that. And of course I'm always touring all over. I'll be in the US, Canada, and the UK at least this year.
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