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NSU alumnus making mark on Chicago comedy circuit

It's been said, probably by some stand-up comic, that stand-up comics know more about dying than anyone living.

To the comic performer, "dying" is the awkward silence following a poorly delivered punch line...followed by another bad punch line...and seeing the dark figures of patrons edging toward the exits.

Jamie Campbell, a 2005 theatre graduate of Northeastern State University, might court a joker's death now and again, but in the ultra-competitive province of Chicago comedy his career is alive and thriving.

"I didn't know if I could make it as a comedian, but I knew that I would never forgive myself if I didn't try," Campbell said. "I've worked as a stand-up comic, sketch-writer and performer and an improviser. The one truth that I found from it all is that people laugh at the truth. You can't lie to an audience and have them empathize with you. They have to see something in you that they see in themselves."

Though still young, Campbell can be called a veteran. With total attendance of his performances numbering nearly half a million, he is seasoned beyond his years. Campbell said his years of stage experience give him insight into what makes the audience and himself react.

He works many venues; most frequently ComedySportz and The Playground Theater. This June, Campbell also performed at The Lincoln Lodge as a part of the TBS Just For Laughs Festival.

"But I've hit almost all of the comedy stages in the city at one point or another," he said.

A standout student at NSU, Campbell was named the top male recipient of the Jack Kaufman Outstanding Senior Award in 2005. He also received several awards from NSU Theatre, including Outstanding Theatre Student in 2002 and 2005, Best Supporting Actor in 2004 and 2005 and Outstanding Member of the Mu Gamma Cast of Alpha Psi Omega in 2003 and 2005. He was a member of Alpha Psi Omega throughout his college career and served as president, vice president, treasurer and points chair. Campbell was a three-year member of the Student Senate and a multiple-time Academic Achievement award recipient. As an NSU student he also served in the Oklahoma Army National Guard.

Campbell is a graduate of Santaluces Community High School in Lantana, Fla., but a native of Pryor. He returned to Oklahoma in 1999 to be closer to his family.

Upon graduating from NSU, Campbell interned with Wayside Theatre in Middletown, Va. where he played roles such as Theo in Steve Martin's The Underpants, General George Mead in The Killer Angels and multiple roles in A Christmas Story.

After leaving Wayside, Campbell entered the graduate theater program at Oklahoma State University where he played King Henry in The Lion in Winter and Brutus in Julius Caesar. While at OSU, he applied for a semester in Chicago with The Second City, which partners with Columbia College to offer the nation's only comedy studies program.

"I had the opportunity to train at the place where such famous comedians as John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Tina Fey got their start," Campbell said. "After studying for a semester in Chicago, I felt that I had found what I wanted to spend my life doing. I decided not to return to OSU and finish graduate school. Instead I stayed in Chicago to pursue a career in comedy."

Campbell is currently enjoying success as a produced playwright with his first effort, co-written, called four play. The show, which opened in May, is well-reviewed and has sold out nearly every performance.

"I decided, as an experiment, to take what I had learned about writing a Second City-style sketch revue and to apply them to a longer script," he said. "So far the results have been incredible."

While Campbell wishes to continue writing or directing for the stage on occasion, performing onstage personally is his foremost interest.

"I wouldn't say that there's a big correlation between theater and stand-up, other than the fact that it's still a live performance," he said. "The biggest difference is that you can't react to the person who is being loud in the third row of a play. If that same person is in the audience at a stand-up show, they're going to be addressed. Both forms are conversational. In a play the conversation is between the characters. In stand-up the conversation is between the comic and the audience.

Campbell does not have a favorite method of delivering laughs. His comedic preference shifts between styles such as improv, stand-up and sketch. While joking that change preserves his sanity and checks burnout, he also cites inspiration from other comics and admiration for performers who spark the audience's imagination.

"I like stand-ups who don't just go up and tell stories or jokes, but who actually turn their set into a type of theater," he said. "I enjoy seeing people tackle dramatic issues in their improv instead of going for an easy laugh. I like watching people who still find joy in the work that they do. Joy is contagious, and I think that a lot of comics get sucked into cynicism and forget that we do this to make people laugh."

The list of comics who teethed in the Chicago arena is long. Saturday Night Live has mined the circuit and The Second City for names dating back to Belushi and as recent as Amy Poehler. Star comics Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and even Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta) are Chi-town veterans.

Campbell said the city is considered a proving ground, not an ultimate destination, by many working the clubs. Noting that Belushi and Carell were largely unknown during their Chicago days, Campbell said exposure beyond the city is limited.

"To use a sports analogy, Chicago is the gym," he said. "The gym is where you prepare for the game. The game is in Los Angeles and New York City. Chicago's the best gym that there is though. This city has a rich history of preparing comedians who become successful very fast once they leave Chicago for either coast."

Of his education at NSU, Campbell called it "an incredible aid" to his success in Chicago's comedy world. While in the Department of Theatre he learned all facets of stage planning, production, technology and performance.

"What's made me successful in Chicago is the ability to create my own opportunities," Campbell said. "Instead of waiting for someone else to cast me in a show, I write and produce a show myself. I design the lights. If necessary, I direct. I get stand-up gigs by making myself a visible presence in the community.

In his first six months in standup, Campbell worked as many as a dozen open mics a week, and sometimes hit four venues in an evening.

"I was going to make sure Chicago knew who I was," he said. "I have a relentless work ethic, which is something I learned at NSU. I know for certain that I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for my experience with Northeastern."

Campbell said he misses Northeastern and looks forward to returning for a comedy or theatre performance.

"My theater professors did a great job of pushing me to do the best work that I could and made sure I never settled for just doing the status quo," he said. "Robyn Magee Pursley, Scott Pursley, Robby Burt and Charles Seat will always hold a special place in my heart."

Published: 7/8/2010 10:49:40 AM

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