Comedy? It’s kids’ stuff for James
He claims to be the only stand-up comedian for children in the world. Kathryn Cross spoke to James Campbell about making kids laugh as he prepares for the Norfolk & Norwich Festival.k
James Campbell is just back from Australia, and about to get on a plane to Barcelona when we speak. “I'm totally jet-lagged so don't quote me on anything I say,” he says, before his mobile phone battery fails and I have to ring him on his manager's phone.So far we have only exchanged pleasantries and I already have the impression that this is a man whose feet rarely touch the ground.
“This is my last free weekend for, well, forever probably,” he says, “so I thought I would get in a quick holiday in Spain while I can.”
This has been pretty much the routine for the 30-year-old Londoner since he first started out in stand-up comedy 11 years ago.
From one festival to another, crossing time zones and capturing the imagination of children all over the world, he has made his name in a comedy genre no-one else has attempted.
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Not for him the red nose, funny wig, balloons and magic tricks; he just talks to children, tells stories, sings songs and asks questions.
“I think it is just good alternative comedy without the swearing,” he explains. “If something is funny, then it is funny whatever your age, and any decent comedian adapts to the audience.”
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And it is a style which is proving a huge hit judging by theatre box office takings across the land. But you get the feeling even he is surprised by his success – but then he never made a conscious decision to go into stand-up comedy, let alone aim it at children.
Growing up in London he was never the joker of the pack at school. Quite the opposite. “I was really the shy one, very introverted, but from about the age of seven I started making up stories.
“I used to scribble stuff in a notepad and had loads in my head and then I would read out some of it to classmates.
“I left school and started writing for children and then it led to performing at schools. I soon realised that I had no other qualifications, I don't know how to do anything else so this is my job – and it is a great way to earn a living.”
In 1995, James entered the South London International Playwriting competition and he was named runner-up, the youngest person ever to have received a prize for this event.
Now his shows regularly sell out as he tours the country and visits festivals all around the world.
For the past two years his Comedy 4 Kids show has sold out at the Edinburgh Festival; he had a sell-out run at the Adelaide Comedy Festival, and has been invited to perform at the prestigious Montreal Just for Laughs Festival in July.
But, luckily for us, he is interrupting his quest for world domination with a visit to the Norfolk & Norwich Festival next Saturday.
His show at the Norwich Playhouse is almost certain to be a sell-out.
“I have been to Norwich before, at the Theatre Royal a couple of years ago and the arts centre,” he adds.
“When I first started out I lived in Cambridge so I did a few stories in Norwich schools.
“Usually I adapt my show to the places where I go so if anything funny happens to me while I am in Norwich then I will talk about it. It is not set in stone, the script is always evolving.
“Kids are kids wherever you are and whatever country you are in. I get a bit of heckling but then I ask for it most of the time.
“But children are very well trained by the education system – they always put their hands up first before talking.”
The thought of keeping little bottoms on seats for a whole show is one of the vagaries of children's comedy that must have put off many a seasoned entertainer.
But James insists that fidgeting is rarely a problem.
“They tend to be better than grown-ups actually. In most comedy clubs the grown-ups are usually drunk and falling about, but talking to a load of sober children is actually a relief and they have much better concentration.
“They are used to being talked to for a length of time from school and they can understand some pretty complicated stuff.
“If I do a stand-up for adults I usually have to dumb it down.”
But stand-up is not his only iron in the fire. He has just completed a pilot for a new show being developed by Graham Norton's So Television production company which, he says, is being considered by the Disney Channel.
He also stars in a BBC1 children's programme, Mysti, which airs every Saturday morning at 10am.
But he is most excited about a new project which he admits he has no idea how it will pan out.
He has just opened what is probably the world's first ever Academy of Comedy for Kids. Children aged between seven and 13 will attend classes with James and special showbusiness tutors to teach them how to be comedians.
They will be helped to devise and write material, practise with feedback and criticism to help them improve, and then be encouraged to perform a five-minute spot in James's weekly Comedy Club 4 Kids at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre in Southwark.
“I have done workshops with children before at the Edinburgh Festival, but this is totally experimental,” he says.
“Hopefully, the kids who apply will have some idea about comedy and be confident enough to do it. Some will be quicker than others but comedy is all about the person doing it so we will have to see.”
All this means James is “ridiculously busy” but he is one performer whose star is definitely in the ascendancy.
One thing he is adamant he will not turn to is film work.
“I like the live audience and being in control of what I do,” he says.
Hollywood will have to watch and wait. t
t Tickets for James Campbell at the Norwich Playhouse on Saturday May 14 at 2.30pm, are available from the festival box office on 01603 766400. Festival website: www.n-joy.org.uk. For more information about the Academy of Comedy for Kids, contact Melissa O'Brien on 07891 125652.