Larry Campbell Talks About Why Comedians Are Like Professional Wrestlers, Learning to Have Fun With Comedy and His “Shocking” Debut.
Welcome to Humor Us, a column in which local comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other local comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Larry Campbell is the sort of comedic madman we should all aspire to be. When he explores an idea, he dives fearlessly into its darkest, most honest depths, and returns with terrific, untouchable material. He matches the daring of his jokes with a dynamic, arresting energy onstage. When Campbell talks about comparing his approach to stand-up to the crash-and-burn commitment of professional wrestling in our interview, understand that he might be selling himself short.
While he technically started comedy in Monroe, Louisiana in 2001, Campbell has a running internal debate going on whether that, or his arrival in Dallas in August 2006, should mark the true “start” of his comedy career. He admits to a former tendency to let his frustrations undermine his efforts, but he’s working now to emphasize the fun to be had in performing. As he points out, if comedy stops being fun, there’s the ever-present danger of it becoming just a job.
I talked with Campbell about the show he’ll be headlining at DCH on the 15th, his defense of Dallas and its comedy scene, his push for comedy to feel fun again, and how he probably has the darkest comedy origin story of anyone I’ve talked to so far. I won’t give it away here in the into, but it is insane.
So you’re headlining a show at Dallas Comedy House on the 15th, correct?
Yeah – it’s headlining, it’s not a showcase. They asked me how many comics, I just said one other; I picked a funny up and comer who can hopefully bring people, because I have no fans. [Laughs.] I still intend to be funny. Me and Andrew Woods, on the 15th.
Is this the first time you’ve been billed as a headliner?
I mean, I’ve done showcases, where, well, shoutout to Brian Breckenridge and his Sunshine bar shows, he specifically put me on the flyer and made me a headliner. That was a big deal to me, it was fun. Usually I’m like the last comic on a showcase, but you don’t really call it a headliner when you’re doing the exact same amount of time as the other three guys before you.
When you do those showcases, do you put much thought into where they put you?
My spot in the lineup? Only hoping that I don’t go up very first. [Laughs.] Just because that’s the bite-the-bullet [slot] — not that I don’t think I could do well at that, it’s just you don’t know the crowd yet. It’s kind of a selfish thing, you want somebody else to go up and test them out first.
Is it a weird pressure feeling like, “Oh, my name is the show?”
Yeah, I mean I definitely, whether it’s three people, 30 or 300, I definitely care every set I do. Even an open mic. Comics will sometimes bitch, “Oh, I hate comedy.” It’s not that. It’s just whatever, the politics, the drama – I’m a lazy man, just like all of us. But I do genuinely care if the audience had a good time, as well as if comics respect my stuff and don’t think I’m a hack, but I put myself and the audience way before what other comics think, and just hope that works itself out.
Do you feel like there are enough opportunities for local comics to headline things?
Yes, yes. Any opportunities I’ve been ill-afforded, whatever – nice guy, think I’ve been good to people – but I think my jadedness [came] way too young, way too soon. There are salty old veterans, road hogs who’ve been out there busting their ass for 35 years. I’m sure they bitch and moan at times, but they still love it. “Why aren’t things working out for me?” I just, I got to that point where I just decided I would try to let it be fun again. If good work and good opportunities come to me, yeah, cool, but I won’t put all of this pressure on myself. Unlike a lot of comics, I sadly have day jobs.
What caused that switch for you to put more focus on the fun?
Just hearing, like, no duh, obvious shit on podcasts, and from other comics. Older, wiser people [saying] nobody else’s success is standing the way of your own. You’re building that up in your head. Whether they’re awesome or a hack, and they’ve got a spot, there’s plenty of days of the year, plenty of months on the calendar. If you’re all focused on that instead of yourself, and just enjoying it, then yeah, you are gonna end up like some of those who take themselves out, or having to quit before that happens. I’m trying to not be bitchy, “Ugh, why is it not working?” Just have fun – it’s great! I’m headlining a show, I’ve got friends coming out. Honestly, to return to what I said earlier, believe it or not, a lot of what I do in professional comedy comes from professional wrestling; the idea that you should always go harder, and perform with more energy the less people who are in the crowd. Don’t bring it down to the small amount of people who are there. Word of mouth is your number one thing. [They’ll] tell two people each, “This dude, I don’t know this jackass’ name, Larry Campbell, whatever, he wrestled his ass off. He was doing backflips and power slams.” Put that in comedy terms: “This guy was really acting it out, he had clever material, he legitimately seemed to care if those three people on a Tuesday night were entertained.” Where some are like, “Fuck you, crowd.” Don’t go “fuck you crowd” until they start heckling or start being drunken assholes. Are there crowds where the people are pieces of shit? Absolutely. But you can’t act like that right off the bat, like you’re better than them.
I feel like being a wrestling fan does give you a secret store of knowledge and advice you can pull from wrestling to apply to comedy. Is that maybe why so many comics are wrestling fans?
I think it’s ridiculous when they’re not – how can you be a fan of stand-up comedy and not professional wrestling? It’s everything. It’s Cirque du Soleil, it’s like telenovela level cheesiness. It’s some shitty acting, some great acting. It’s NFL football-level slams and plows, fake MMA moves. The spectacle of it. But you like what you like. Not to make it all about pro wrestling. If you ask, “Hey, do you want to see the new Bill Burr special, or WrestleMania?” I’m gonna go with that Bill Burr every time. But pro wrestling was my first love, connecting with my dad through it. I don’t have any connection through stand-up comedy with him, other than we both liked Jeff Foxworthy when I was a kid. What redneck doesn’t growing up?
How long have you been doing stand-up comedy now?
An embarrassing amount of time for the failure that I am. Lemme see – it’s 2017, right? I think I was bullshitting in an interview I did with Lauren [Davis], I thought I’d been doing it for 15 years then, but back then it was, like, 13 or something. I started in 2001, so 16 years now. Started when I was 18. But in all honesty, sometimes I don’t count that. I did open mics – I won a competition to get to be the opener at this airport lounge – it was literally called Airport Lounge, a bar in the airport in Monroe, Louisiana. I didn’t even know about it, how proactive was I in trying to be a comic? “It’s my dream!” That’s how lazy I’ve always been, I didn’t even know how to put any drive into chasing my dream down. My brother called me and told me about it. It was literally the first time I had ever done stand-up comedy, and I won. Well, it was tied with this other guy – listen to the bitterness come out, I still care about that shit all these years later. He was a server in a restaurant who brought other friends, he had, like, 85 people there for him, and I had three, and we tied. So I consider that a victory. But it’s stupid. A victory? What? A comedy competition?
So you’re not a comedy competition guy?
I mean, I like them. I watch them. I think they can be great. And I’d never take anything away from some one who won it. But not to sound like a douche, but art is subjective, y’know? There’s people where I’d be like, “That guy fucking sucks!” And there are other people who’d say, “No he doesn’t. You’re an asshole. I think he’s/she’s great.” And vice-versa. Example: You couldn’t pay me – which is wrong, he’s a headliner, he’s a massive star – you couldn’t pay me to listen to a Jeff Foxworthy album now. But when I was a kid he was my favorite comic. Perspective, time, whatever. So I respect people who do them, and I’ll probably get back into them myself one day, I just have some bitterness from having had really good sets, then not advancing. Just stupid shit. You try to say, “So? You had fun, you had a really good set, you had fun. That’s probably why you don’t get work at that place, because you stormed off like a whiny asshole or whatever because you believed you did well.”
So your first show was in an airport. That feels like a very pre-9/11 affair, I can’t imagine you could still do that now.
It was very, very weird. Airport lounge, a bar on the second floor of the terminal. Tiny Monroe airport. The last one I ever did there, I’d been going there weeks and weeks and weeks. It was hosted by this DJ who alleged he was a comic – to my knowledge, he wasn’t. But he put shock collars on myself and this other guy. I was like, “I really don’t want to do this,” but whatever, you want to go up. I was 17 – I think I’d turned 17 at that point, yeah, that’s when I started.
It seems worse if you’re putting a shock collar on a minor.
[Laughs.] Right? His thing was…I damn near wouldn’t wish that on an actual dog. He was basically like, “For every joke that bombs, I’ll buzz you.” I was really scared. It was a miracle I’d killed. I did really well the first two or three weeks, I was a young comic with no material. That wore out, people didn’t want to hear that same shit. So once that bombed, it was like, “Oh, let me try something.” And I had nothing, so he was like, “We’re gonna try something new. We’re gonna put you and this other dude” – who literally went by the name Cooter – “we’re gonna put you in shock collars, and every time a joke bombs…” So I’d been bombing for three weeks before, and I’m thinking this is gonna be a nightmare. First joke kills, and I’m like, “Yeah!” I literally pause to take a breath, and he shocks me! I’m like, “Ugh!” Right? And the crowd’s laughing and stuff, but me, I’m literally in my head, trying to hold back…it’s not physical pain, it’s just shocking and annoying, but I was literally heartbroken at this bullshit. I was like, “Is this the way comics get treated?” Like literally, dance monkey dance. That’s where it started! Court jesters, y’know – not to be the douche who explains his tattoos, but the only I have I’m proud of is a court jester – that’s where this started. We’re literally gonna chop your head off if you don’t entertain me. But yeah, he kept shocking me and shocking me, and I just hated it. I came back next week, got there 30 minutes early, and he’s like, “Dude – killer fucking ratings on the radio show, we talked about it the next day, we had Cooter on, it was great. We want to get you on the radio show, but we gotta put the shock collar on you one more time tonight.” And I said absolutely not under any circumstances. I was like, I don’t care if you literally made me sign a contract that said I could literally never do stand-up comedy ever again in my life, I am not a fucking prop for your amusement. I’ll tell my jokes – if they suck, they won’t laugh, and I’ll write better jokes. Thus, being a comic. However I said it as an 18-year-old, I’m sure I threw some homophobic slurs in there, said “I’ll fucking kill you,” or something like that. I was an 18-year-old, riled up. I do remember, verbatim, saying, “I’m not a fucking dog, I’m a human being. If my jokes suck, they’ll just not laugh.” That was the last time I ever did Airport Lounge, and that’s why I’m hesitant – of course, clearly I started at 18, but I only did comedy three or four more times between the ages of 18 and22, before I moved out here. So as far as real deal, hardcore, going up three, five or 10 sets a week, whatever, bouncing around open mics, all that, since August of ’06, that’s when I moved to Dallas.
I’ve talked to a lot of comics, and I have to say I think you have the darkest origin story of any of the comics I’ve spoken with.
What, because of the shock collar?
Because of the shock collar! I did not expect to hear a story of how a show host put a shock collar on you.
Sometimes I try to forget about it, I try to block it out. I’m making it sound way more sad – the crowd had a great time, they were laughing, I pretended right along with them. I waited until I got in my car and was literally like…I can’t remember, I think I was simultaneously a ball of rage…sangry, if you will, sad, angry, rage, wanting to cry, but too angry to let tears shed. “This is bullshit! A shock collar?! Fuck your radio show!”
That is actually insane. I was gonna ask how your thoughts on comedy have changed over time, and I feel – starting the way you did – hopefully it’s gotten more optimistic.
In so many ways. Even just my comedy fandom over the years. I’ve started to learn to appreciate and respect headliners that are on TV and stuff who, in the past, I would’ve let other, basically, it’s wrong to use labels, I’m a hypocrite, but hipster douchebags, where once someone makes it, “Oh, they’re hamming it up, they’re mainstream.” Are they funny? Did they write the material themselves? It’s so easy to hate on certain comics – and I’m not gonna name names. Who care about the nobody talking about national headliners, but you know what I mean. If I think they suck, I’ll say, “Eh, not my cup of tea.” Lots of people to like them, no reason for me to go on about it. But if I think somebody’s like comedy cancer, poison, they don’t write material, they’ve been doing the same shit for 25 years, you can tell they have no joy in being up there, they’re killing themselves with drugs or booze? What’s the point, y’know? “I’m making a living.” Didn’t you get into comedy to escape? That idea, “I’ll risk it to be a starving artist so I don’t clock in day in, day out.” Working in the hot sun or in some boring cubicle – that’s my biggest nightmare, that comedy becomes the cubicle or construction site job. No disrespect to people who do those intended whatsoever. My dad, I respect the hell out of him, used to work on the construction site. It’s not that I disrespect them, I’m just too lazy. I’m not as honorable as they are. I’m not getting any more cancer freckles on my body working out in the 115 degree heat. Air conditioning is nice, but I’ve done one office job where I was in a cubicle. I was a loose diamond telemarketer for six weeks. I just used that place to use their internet to look for another job, and still have money coming in.
You talk about laziness as getting in the way of comedy, and the driving force behind your comedy.
I don’t mean laziness in the sense of not doing open mics. I never skip…once in a blue moon some crap will come up and I’ll get way too tied down. I have a four-month old baby now, and I’ll miss like a week of sets. The real deal ones will say, “I do five or six sets a night, you feel like you’re keeping true doing two or three a week?” I gotta do what I can fit in. But I’ve never gone longer than a week without doing a set in the 10 or 11 years…do the math. But laziness in the sense of I can’t do the hangout thing. I can’t make myself go hang out and be around the scene and make my face remembered. I guess it’s wrong to say I hate social media in the sense of I love going on and reading other comics’ funny jokes, but to me it’s too much work. I’m a long-winded guy, I’m not a one-liner guy. And the ego. When I write one bit, I’m thinking, “This shit’s pretty dope. This is clearly some super-clever shit. None of the normies will give me likes, but all my comic friends will.” It’s four hours later and zero likes, well I gotta delete this post, and not post for another three years. I’ll post for a show and it’ll be like, “What? What do you mean, show? I haven’t seen you post anything but shared pictures from your wife’s posts of your baby.” Not that social media’s the ticket, but making excuses. My wife will even be like, “Why don’t you just do a show?” What do you mean? “Get some friends together and go!” But I’m a nobody! And they don’t care about us! Then we wouldn’t be able to sell any tickets, and blah blah blah. And then I look online and I’ll see other nobodies, but who I’ve seen. I know their name, and they’re hysterical. I’ll see them put a show together, and I’ll say, well I guess you can do that. If it bombs, it bombs, but you’re trying. No one’s booking me, instead of sitting around whining and bitching around it, go out, make your own show, get your name out there. “What? He’s been getting 30 people? Fifty people? Making a little money? They’re saying on social media, ‘I enjoyed it’ or whatever?” That’s just what I mean. Laziness like that. Not emailing people begging to be on their podcast, not starting one myself. I let people’s judgments get in my head before they’ve even happened. I’ll think, I could start a podcast, but then every other asshole comic will be making jokes on Twitter and Facebook about how this asshole asked them to do his podcast. Dumb things like that. Every comic, we’re all fucked up in our own weird way somehow.
What are your thoughts on comedy in Dallas?
I honestly think comedy in Dallas is great. It’s better than it’s been in a sense of there’s so many clubs, and places, and there’s not as many people. Even if there’s 70 or 80, you’re like, “Damn.” I’ve never even been to open mics in New York or L.A., but friends out there will say, “I had to buy drinks to be on the show,” or “I was on the back of the list, and at 2:30 a.m. I went up to perform in front of zero people.” That can happen here, but if you’re doing open mics here for six months, two or three years, a couple of people who book shows like you’re stuff, you’re gonna get opportunities for more stage time. The only thing that pisses me off – and I have nothing against Austin comics, I don’t know enough of them, there’s been some great ones who’ve made it on TV – but people act like, “Aw, Dallas, they’re just like republican, oil-drilling, gay-hating dipshits! We don’t want to focus on any of those!” New York and LA., their thing is Austin only, “That’s the liberal bastion.” That’s just not true – there are great comics there, there’s great comics here. I’ve seen some really funny ones down there. And I haven’t been there in years so I have no right to speak on them, maybe they have more funny ones, it’s all “subjective” – I just did air quotes for an audio interview – but yeah, I think the Dallas comedy scene’s amazing. There’s a lot of opportunities. And I know that’s shocking from me, the angry guy who bitches and moans, but I’m really not trying to be that guy. I have a child now, I’m getting married in June. I have way more happy moments in the day than sad. Like so many comics, I suffer depression, but the scene here is great, and honestly, I know at some point I’ll have to move to advance, but I wish I didn’t have to. I wish I could have that, oh, I got noticed, I did a few gigs out there, now I’m getting flown out to L.A. or New York or Chicago, and get to live here. It’s weird, because in many ways I hate the South, but I love it here in Dallas – it’s easy to get around, I have my friends and family here, it’s where my daughter was born, it’s where I met my wife. Fortunately, she’s very supportive, and has lived in New Jersey and been to New York, would love to live there again, has family in L.A. Things are gonna be good. Supportive people. I’m happy, man, believe it or not.
Cover photo by Sean Alexander.