Col Howarth shot some fresh Canadian breeze with the mighty Craig Campbell ahead of his visit to the south Wales valleys at the end of June (2018) for the first ever Rhondda Arts Festival in Treorchy.
Here we meet a class act whose very style was carved by the rivers and hewn from the mountains of home but whose spirit of adventure has taken him around the world.
Original photo by Idil Sukan
Craig Campbell is regaling me with tales of his young adulthood, painting pictures of a bleak and beautiful frozen Canadian wilderness cut through with rapids and natural wonders. His story is a journey and he tells it as if he has just stepped in from that place. Speaking to him, you get a sense that at every stop along the way he has absorbed a bit more of the world into himself and into his stand-up.
‘I was in college in 1989 and I was not focused on my studies perhaps as much as I should have been. I was one of those people that took a gap year and realised how amazing the world was, and I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of being in college for any length of time. As far as I was concerned I was taking the bull by the horns, but the bull’s horns I was trying to grab in college weren’t reacting well to it. I was kind of in that world where I thought you were almost capitalistic with knowledge, where you paid your professors to be a jukebox for your needs and desires. I wasn’t the best at accepting no for an answer.
'Half of my gap year was spent training in a part of Canada called Whitewater. As a member of the kayaking team I ended up going out and living in the woods in British Columbia for the winter.'
So Craig packed up and spent months cooped up in a shack in the Cascade Mountains, guiding kayak trips and breathing in nature. ‘That part of the world is crazy. There’s a massive river called the Chilliwack. You would get 50 lbs of fish smashing the ass end of your kayak. It’s a really mad part of the world. It’s Canadian sasquatch country. It’s madness. And it’s abundant in ways that people don’t realise outside of it. You get the salmon run – Canadian sockeye. They’ve swam out of the river and are bashing around on the sand. It’s a mad part of the world.
In such a remote part of the world it isn’t obvious where anyone could plant a seed and see it grow. So how was the seed of stand-up sewn?
‘In that period I was just performing for my team mates and various visitors that would come up. We were the nucleus of a kayak paddling programme and when other teams would come up I’d tell stories. I didn’t at that point realise that it was something that you could turn professional or that it was an industry of any sort.
'We had a fellow visit from Vancouver: one of the hifalutin boys from the West Coast. He was a dietician who was, at that time, starving the cast members of the film Alive. They hired him to systematically break down their nutritional intake and to understand the mentality and agitation and irritation. They were living in army bunks on a glacier. He came to visit this cabin and it would be quite normal to come in from something like grocery shopping and tell all the guys about it. There’s no CD and there’s just a little AM radio in the corner and a few books. I remember the music I had. I played the same songs over and over. It came as a welcome relief for someone to come through the door and tell you that there was a car on fire in the middle of a Tesco parking lot. It was almost a Twin Peaks-esque minutiae.
'I came flying through the door from this rainforest of wonderment and started talking about my grocery shop and the nutritionist guy just went You should do that on stage man it would be funny you know. I was dumbfounded, flabbergasted. What do you mean I should do this on stage? And I couldn’t piece together a concept of what was possible. That you could go on stage and tell your own stories.
So with that advice taken on board, how did you turn that natural ability to tell stories about everyday stuff into actual on-stage mic-in-hand stand up comedy?
‘Six months later I’m back in college and there was a competition and I went down to it and I came in second place to a couple of guys who were doing female impressions with their belly buttons. I‘m wondering how is this a comedy act? Back in those days it made you available to the multitude of work that was available. As soon as you could face forward and make people laugh for 15 minutes straight you were a hot commodity in a desperate market. Those were the early days.’
So from the wilds and a chance meeting, and a nudge in the right direction, stand-up is happening! But at what point did it start to materialise as a thing that you could see yourself doing professionally?
‘It was quite a subtle and smooth transition. When I lived in Calgary I had a real desire to cycle out as far away from the house as I could and find a different way home. I always had an adventurous spirit. And I started to realise that I could see a good part of the world. There wasn’t any place that I would fantasise about where you couldn’t see someone on stage making people laugh. I was never insular in a Canadian way, I never saw myself staying there from day dot.
'Because of my experience of that world my jobs after that became white water rafting associated. I had the benefit of being able to travel through the kayaking world and would by luck be adjacent to some pretty good comedy hotbeds so I whet my appetite for performing in more international places.’
Did that kind of travel shape your material? How does material that was inspired by say the wilderness of British Columbia work in Russia or say Kazakhstan where you toured in 2008? How does it translate?
‘Actually I’ve always enjoyed the crossover of having myself understood in many different cultures. I really enjoy word choices and translating myself to be understood by others. Through that you are learning to choose words and tenses, and I’ve always enjoyed that kind of investigative jargon. So that always developed as I went along. So in these golden days of my life I had an alternate income that was quite exotic. It allowed me a place where I could be sociable with an audience the entire time and be entertaining. It was like a fairground ride. If you were doing certain river trips you had certain jokes that applied to different elements of it. Safety talks would be more enjoyable if they were humorous.’
And so Craig‘s life was soon that of a teller of tales both on the water and on the stage. In the day he would be making paddling groups laugh through his safety presentations and rafting trip guidance, and at night he would be using his gift for recounting technical detail on stage.
‘Stepping from one world to another was quite seamless. The golden years were that I would do one or two rafting trips and then get on my motorbike and hustle into town. I’d do the same thing three days in a row on a three-day weekend. Six rafting trips and five comedy shows and you earned your Monday in bed. I realised I’d quite like to do this comedy thing. The dividend immediately was that comedy was so obviously disproportionately rewarding financially. I’m now in college and I’ve already been making my own crust doing cash gigs. And some of those cash gigs are worth three or four rafting trips. I DON’T EVEN HAVE TO RAFT ANY MORE MAN!
'I just thought – this is not where my future is and I followed the comedy bug after that rather than re-apply myself in college. And comedy is one of those fraternities. You’ve always got a couch to stay on and you’ve always got a meal in your tummy no matter where you are.’
Years have passed since the days of spinning yarns in a shack deep in the Canadian wilderness. Craig has travelled and grafted and risen through the comedy ranks via appearances on the likes of Russell Howard’s Good News and Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and via tour support for the likes of Frankie Boyle, followed by successful tours of his own. Time Out described him as A fantastic yarn weaver while Russell Howard himself described Craig as One of the finest comedians in the country, no the world. A well-travelled genius. Huge praise indeed! And yet some threads have been woven into Craig’s work since those early days.
‘I am still really driven to explain technicalities in a humorous fashion. It is where my heart is and where my interests lie. For example on the last tour one of the main stories was about how Canada is the only country in the world that has two examples of modern passenger jets running completely out of fuel! At altitude! And both of them had no fatalities! IT’S ABSOLUTELY FUCKING INSANE RIGHT?!
'First of all I’m whetting your appetite with the insanity of the technical element of the excitement of the frame I’m about to tell you. I used to refer to it with a circle of comedic friends as the limping gazelle. The type of comedy that needs to get the attention of a horribly aggressive drunk bar. The first thing you need to do is stun the place with a smoke grenade. To get the herd’s attention. The first thing that has to happen is more than 94% of this hammered audience of lumberjacks is going to have to care about what my next couple of words are going to be or else I cant win this. The first thing I would do is put in the ingredient of Hey! Here’s a bit of information that may be pretty fucking wild! I try to get that stand to attention moment and then the exposition of the story, and then onto the next smoke grenade or the next limping gazelle!'
‘You’re telling stories around a campfire. People are drunk. These settings need a real subtlety. I enjoy dealing with different categories and levels of inebriation of audience. It’s my forte in many ways. It works when you get onto an ensemble bill late at night and the place is utterly chaos: a cacophony of horror and madness, kicking and screaming. In those settings I’ve found it really effective to do a rap to tell them that I am really mentally sharp right now. You might be drunk and it might be 1:45am. You don’t know where your shoes are, and you lost your jacket, and who’s that guy looking at me? But there’s someone in this room who is really really on the ball. That has always created a focus. It’s like a hypnosis moment where they are like He’s not us!’
Craig will be bringing his unique style of comedy to Treorchy as part of a 4-night extravaganza that promises big TV names, each accompanied by a stellar supporting cast of some of the very best rising circuit stars. Each show will be hosted by Porth‘s very own Drew Taylor and the whole thing is part of the first ever Rhondda Arts Festival in Treorchy (2018)!
Has Craig stopped off in Wales on his travels before?
‘A billion times! I look forward to it. I really enjoy and embrace the relationship I have with Wales. The last couple of gigs I did were in Builth Wells, Cardigan, Blackwood and Resolven. I utterly love it. The way they enjoy comedy and the concept of the hwyl, and the culture of sharing and performing and singing.
'One of the things I love about Wales is its uniqueness: something that if you went to Wales and missed, you’d really be missing a big part of it.’