Bill Campbell is a veteran comic who has experienced the best and worst his chosen art form has placed in his path. The fact that he's still at it means his heart is at the very center of every joke and punchline.
The Boston-based comedian is continually working hard at his craft and taking his humor in several directions — and if working with children (including his own) has taught him anything, it's how to handle anything life throws at him and still laugh at it.
The former teacher changed careers more than 35 years ago and since then he's played comedy clubs and casinos across the country. Most recently, Campbell has been working cruise ships in addition to hosting his own cable show "Campbell's Comedy Corner," where he talks with his fellow humorists. He also developed an acclaimed 90-minute one-man show called "A Parenting Story," that articulates the joys and heartaches experienced in raising his three children.
We talked with Cambpell via a phone interview about his comedy, his career, and the show he brings back to the Edgewater for their "Comedy on the Edge" weekend series. Here's his take…
It's been a while since we talked last. What's new in your world?
I wish I had great things to tell you, however, I've just been making people laugh at the clubs and casinos for a long time now. But I've been doing it 40 years now and I just keep at it. I do a lot of family stuff, and mostly I do clubs, fundraisers, casinos, sometimes cruise ships here and there. I don't like all the travel with that sometimes. If you're 25 years old, it's very exciting. But if you're my age, it's just time away from my family again. But I always like coming to the Edgewater, I've done it a few times in the past, I always like it there. People are always great, I have good crowds and I look forward to seeing them.
Talk a little bit about your background and how you got into comedy.
I've been doing comedy for 35 years. I was a teacher and I'd go to clubs on weekends. I went from teaching to being a full-time performer. I raised my kids as a middle class comedian for years.
Where and when was the first place you ever did standup?
I was in Boston at an afternoon open stage with a bunch of folk singers. You've got folk singers doing one song, and I'm doing five minutes. It was before the comedy clubs were really big anywhere but New York or L.A.
There are a lot of good comics that came out of Boston.
There is now — back then, there wasn't. I was at the beginning, when comedy really got going back in the 1980s. It was a very exciting time. Me and Steven Wright, a lot of famous comics came out of Boston. Steve used to describe it as the "Woodstock of comedy." You know, there were no clubs, all of a sudden a couple of things started and there was very few people doing comedy. Like I said, you did a lot of stuff with folk singers, and then all of a sudden there was an article in the Boston Globe about this showcase thing we were doing and the next week, around the corner, it was packed and then we went through a period of about five years where the crowds were huge. New clubs were opening up and everything got expanded and when you get good crowds, you get good comics. So that was a very exciting time, a lot of good comics came out of that — Bobcat Goldthwait, Denis Leary, a lot of famous guys came out of that.
It seems comedy kind of blew up from there, right?
What happened is it started to spread everywhere — that boom kind of started in San Francisco and Boston. San Francisco was really big at that time — Robin Williams came out of that, and the woman who's big and has a talk show every day, Ellen DeGeneres, she was there at the beginning of San Francisco. So it was happening in San Francisco the same time it was happening here. Then when those two cities started to have comedy, people realized there was a market beyond L.A. and New York and clubs just started happening everywhere. And for about 10 years it started spreading and then gradually the market leveled off and I started working everywhere. Gradually there were more comics and more work so I've been mostly working New England the last few years, but I go everywhere.
Describe your comedy for people who may not be aware.
The show is about my three children, even though they're grown now. I've been talking about them for a long time. I do observational humor, family stuff, a lot of stuff about my kids — especially when they were teenagers. If you've ever raised teenagers — especially daughters — it leaves an indelible mark.
What's the worst experience you ever had as a comedian?
This could take a while. How much time do you have? You'd be amazed what people do when they're drinking. I've had people stand up on the top of the table, moon me and sit back down. People will walk up on stage, stand next to me and then throw up. Most of my shows are really good and the crowds are great, that's why I'm going back to Laughlin. There doesn't tend to be "dramatic disasters" when I perform there. You don't forget those disasters.
Where's the strangest place you never thought you would perform?
There was this little place in Ohio, not too far from Cleveland, called the Horseshoe Bar, near the lake. The stage was in the corner of the bar by the bathrooms. It was a terrible setup. I was in the middle of my show when these two guys came bursting through the bathroom door fighting. They were holding onto each other and beating the heck out of each other.
You never really know how a show is going to go until you're there. You can perform in a famous place and it can be a disaster, or you can play in a dump and the audience is made up of the nicest, sweetest people who are just happy that I'm there performing for them.
Sometimes when I've played on cruise ships, the people there can be really judgmental. They have too much money to spend and they thumb their noses at the wait staff.
The one-nighter in the middle of nowhere is sometimes the best show with people who are happy you're there and they love you. It's funny. If you tell somebody you worked cruise ships they're impressed, but if you tell them you worked at a bar in Wyoming in the middle of nowhere, it's like, so what.
It's all about the audience. You can't do it on your own, you have to have people go with you.
What's your favorite thing about being a comedian?
When I have a nice crowd that is out to have a good time and they bring a good energy. It's enjoyable for them and it's enjoyable for me. And when a new idea works — those two things are the best part.
Comedy is performance art. Nobody cries at a joke, the entire foundation is about emotions and you, as a comedian, are risking your comfort, your dignity and possibly embarrassment for someone else's benefit? What are your thoughts about that?
That's well put. I've been doing that my whole life. In order to do this, you have to handle the embarrassment 'cause it's not a matter of if you will be embarrassed and humiliated, it's where and when you will be humiliated and embarrassed. Any comic that tells you they've never really had any bad nights like that, they are lying to you. It doesn't matter how good you are. They're trying to build themselves up without being accurate 'cause this is a very hard thing to do, and comics, no matter how good you are, you're always put in situations you can't win. I mean, I always describe the worst shows are when you get out there, the crowd looks fine, you go into your act, and you get nothing. You're wondering inside, "What's going on with these people?" So I think, I'll give 'em this bit, and this will get them for sure, and then you get nothin' — for five minutes. Sometimes for the really bad shows, at the end of the show, they don't really hate you, they pity you. They have that look on their face, "did he really think this was funny? How sad is this." And to say that isn't humiliation is an understatement. You just want to crawl away and get away from there as fast as possible. Now, to come back from that, it takes a certain amount of strength, and everybody has had to go through those moments that I just described. That doesn't happen all the time — that might happen once every few years, or you might have a bad show once every six months, you might have a humiliating show every few months, but you have 'em. Whenever you think you're too good, there's one right around the corner that makes you feel an inch big, and you have to be able to go, "I'm okay, I'm surviving this." Otherwise people give up because they can't take it, because it's too hard.
Anything else you'd like people to know about you?
I'm an experienced comic, I have an act that's been around a long time. I know how to do it. It's a lot around family, kids, being a parent with little kids and teenagers, and I talk about getting a little older now. If you come and you sit and you watch, you're gonna laugh and have a good time. So I hope people come and watch and enjoy themselves, 'cause there's a saying in the business, "let the plumber fix the sink" — just let me do my work and you'll enjoy your night.