The John Oliver of Russia Today: "I'm making comedy out of the darkest issues in the world"

Lee Camp, the host of "Redacted Tonight" on RT America, is even angrier than HBO's king of fake news

Published October 6, 2014 10:59AM (EDT)

 Lee Camp, host of "Redacted Tonight"
Lee Camp, host of "Redacted Tonight"

Americans are looking to a growing assortment of comedians to help them digest the news and respond to current events. On one end of the spectrum, we have "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," which offer a temporary reprieve from the lunacy of the 24/7 news cycle. Liberal as their leanings are, their targets are outlandish enough that many moderates and conservatives can enjoy their takedowns, too. In the world outside cable news, Bill Maher and John Oliver dial the anger up a few notches. "Last Week Tonight" has become America's moral compass in just a few months on the air. Then there's Russell Brand's YouTube rants against Fox News pundits, which are angrier still. But there's one comic who brings Russell-Brand-level wrath to the format of the "Daily Show." He has gone largely unnoticed by the American media the past few months: his name is Lee Camp and his show is RT America's "Redacted Tonight."

Camp has comedy in his blood (or at least in his extended family): His brother is Dean Fleischer-Camp, filmmaker and co-writer of viral hit "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On," narrated by comedian Jenny Slate, who also happens to be Fleischer-Camp's wife. Camp has been performing stand-up for 15 years. In 2011, he started a YouTube series called "Moment of Clarity" that produced about 300 episodes tackling darker issues like the government and global warming. It was then that RT America, a network already familiar with his commentary from its shows "The Keiser Report" and "Breaking the Set," invested in Camp and gave him free reign over a comedy show oriented around the news.

"Redacted Tonight" runs for 30 minutes each week with a scrappy team of just four people — Camp, Sam Sacks, John F. O’Donnell and Phillip Chang — and follows the same format as "The Daily Show." Being not only Camp's first television show, but also the first comedy show for the Russian-owned network, it's clear that the show is still trying to find its voice and tempo. The jokes come fast and fall quickly, sometimes cramming in multiple topics in just a minute. Oftentimes the dark humor comes off as an angry diatribe or a rant —a tactic that may work in a YouTube video by a well-known celebrity, but not for a comic on a small network. (And because RT America is a smaller, newer network, of course the production quality isn't of the same caliber. Though the show is filmed in front of a live studio audience, it's so small that one Reddit commenter mocked it as an "Indie Podcast Laugh Track").

"Redacted Tonight" won't hold your hand the way "The Daily Show" or even "Last Week Tonight" does — you're expected to understand the news, or at least to keep up with it. Camp's style is heavy and his vision is unyielding, which is what gives his comedy "teeth," as he says. But it may also be what is preventing the show from becoming accessible and finding an audience, things "Redacted Tonight" very much needs in order for his activism — which he so passionately believes in — to work.

Even if your politics don't align with it (Lee is sympathetic to aspects of the controversial, resource-based economy Zeitgeist Movement), "Redacted Tonight" is worth paying attention to as an interesting experiment that tinkers with ideas of free speech, comedy, political activism and the role of corporations play in all of this. In an interview about the show, Camp told Salon that he has free rein in his content without worrying about whom he pisses off — a rarity in comedy, and one that's especially important when you are interested in activism and outreach.

Did you shop your show idea around?

I’ve been shopping around my entire career in a sense [laughs]. I think comedians are always looking for a home for what they do. I had kind of given up on having my form of commentary on television because a lot of what I do is anti-corporate America, it’s anti-the-largest-entities-that-are-the-backers of most of the channels. So there’s very few networks that really want my voice and what I have to say because it’s anti-corporate. And so I had kind of given up the idea that any television network would want me. There was always the possibility of like HBO or Showtime but outside of that, I didn’t really think that would happen for me.

You have referred to your show as “The Daily Show” with sharper teeth. But Stewart and Colbert seem to have tricks to appeal to people who don’t always share their political beliefs — as does Oliver, to an extent. Do you feel like their comedy is just softer in general? Is that why they have mass appeal?

I want to preface all of my thoughts on this with the fact that I think they’re all brilliant comedians. I look up to them in a lot of ways and, in fact, John Oliver I know as a friend and he is amazing. So let me preface with that.

But yeah, you phrased it as a trick to reach a larger audience, but I think of it as a trick to fit in with corporate America and with advertisers. It’s not just corporate America, it’s the advertising entities. It’s easy for people to shrug that off as not an important influence, but when we take in between 1,000 and 3,000 ads and brand names a day, it’s a massive influence on our lives, on our brains, on our every single moment of our lives and a lot of our television shows kind of ignore it because you can’t really go after the things that are advertising on your network.

Saying the things that I say and saying them in having such a strong political stance, I view as very important. ... I don’t want to soften and I don’t want to come down to a middle of the road that maybe more people would like it if that’s what I was delivering. I feel there’s not a lot of time in the sense that we are destroying the environment, we’re destroying our ability to exist on this planet and I want to use my comedy to talk about those things. I don’t want to soften them.

What is the purpose of good satire or good comedy?

Well, let’s start off with good political comedy. Good political comedy does two things, I believe: one is to soften these dark issues that we’re talking about. I mean, with every show, I’m talking on issues that are often so grim they’re difficult to talk about, but if you can make people laugh, you can make it accessible enough that they’re willing to listen and talk about it and partake in this conversation. I think that’s the incredible achievement of good political comedy.

The other thing is, and maybe some of this overlaps a little, but is to take people who might not agree with you and give it to them in a way that they’re willing to listen to it. The first point is about it being too dark, and the second point is about it being something someone might not agree with. A lot of these issues, if people disagreed with me, they’re not going to sit and listen to a conversation about how NSA surveillance is a massive overreach of our government. But probably a lot of them would listen to a comedy routine about that.

When I was watching the show, what struck me the most was just how many punches you pack. There wasn’t a lot of filler a la "look at ten little kittens to give your brain a break.” It was “OK, we’re gonna talk about oil, we’re gonna talk about this scandal and we’re gonna talk about what this corporation is doing." American audiences are just not used to having to think that hard, I think, especially when it comes to a comedy show.

I don’t really disagree with you. In fact, I’ve kind of found more success touring with my stand-up comedy in the UK and Europe and Australia and Canada because — and this isn’t a black or white thing — but it seems like they’re maybe 20 percent happier to take the time to think deeply during the comedy show and to think about complicated issues.

We’re a once-a-week show, so we have 26.5 minutes a week to cover everything important going on in the world and I mean, sometimes I try and slow down and I don’t think I’m the smartest guy in the world, I think I just have a lot I want to talk about. So sometimes I try to slow down a little, but I guess over the course of my career I’ve kind of gone at the pace I want go and talked about the things I want to talk about and the audiences that enjoy that and want that have found me like that.

Hopefully there is a void in political comedy for what I do and what the rest of my team does to help make this happen — both a void in terms of being farther left than “The Daily Show” in the sense that I think we probably go after Obama more, go after the two-party system more, and also avoid maybe the number of issues that we’re hitting on that you don’t even hear in a lot of your news shows. The fact that climate change — which is threatening our way of life and threatening our planet — was talked about on the Sunday Morning News. "Meet the Press" didn’t mention climate change at all in 2013. That’s the situation we’re dealing with. In another episode, I revealed a video of General Petraeus being interviewed in a positive way as having gone to war for oil, and why am I the only one that felt that video was important?

I was going to ask you about that segment, because I think it got kind of the most pick-up from all of the segments you’ve done so far — that clip of Kelly Schmidt. How did you get that clip and are we going to see more exposés?

Well I was looking to use a clip from a man named Steve Horn who’s a great environmental blogger and he got it by the FOIA request from North Dakota, so the actual investigative journalism credit needs to be given to him, but I think we were the first and only people to air it on television and I would love to do more of that.

I am obviously working full time as a comedian on that show so I don’t have a lot of time to sort through my own FOIA requests [laughs]. But I love it, that’s one of my favorite things is to find those videos, but probably more often just facts that aren’t being talked about enough and really just hit on them. One of my favorite facts, which I know we mentioned in one of our episodes, is that the United States has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. That says something about what we’re doing here and how we’re imprisoning people and how we choose to lock people away and put them in cages for their entire lives.

It is so hard to mobilize people. You can make them laugh and you can make fun of other people's idiosyncrasies and you can even point out flaws in our society, but making that final step — even in comedy — seems really, really hard. It's something that Oliver has demonstrated he can do a little bit. Stewart and Colbert do it too, but the sense among critics is that they’ve brought people together, only to not go anywhere with it. Is political change or activism something you’re interested in doing with your show?

Well, I’d love to make people more active. I consider myself an activist which, you know, especially Stewart and Colbert I think would say they’re not activists. Maybe I’m wrong. I would love to try and get people active, and with “Redacted Tonight,” we definitely try to do that with social media even though we’re small right now. We’re always talking about hashtags on the show — we broadcast the Twitter handle for one of the prison-industrial complex corporations that’s making money of these privatized prisons and just tell people to tweet at them and give their opinion.

Also, we did a show on the march for climate action that is currently going on across the US. They’re walking across the entire United States and they’re about halfway so far. And we’re just kind of calling attention to that and if people want to get involved, informing them is step one. If you get the information to people, the hope is that they will become involved.

I think you’re absolutely right in your analysis of at least “The Daily Show” and “Colbert” in that, like the Rally for Sanity— while it may have been great comedy, it may have been a lot of things, but it was not a call to action. It basically ended by saying “let’s all get along; let’s all get into our cars and go home. And go back to being nice to each other.” It was kind of amazing to get close to a million young people out at an event like that. I don’t even know the last time we’ve seen something like that ... and then to say to them: “Don’t get active; don’t get upset.”

Who are some of the comedians that you look up to the most?

Well, John Oliver is definitely up there. But I’d say my true heroes are certain stand-up comedians, the stand-up comedians that have really fought in the trenches for years and years: George Carlin, Bill Hicks, two that have passed away — Lenny Bruce was another one who led the way. The thing is, for a number of these guys, is that they fought for that freedom of speech. Carlin had a case go to the Supreme Court. Lenny Bruce was essentially pushed to his death by being imprisoned, every time he performed, for his language. He ultimately overdosed, but he was driven to that state by being chased around the country and arrested every time he performed. These guys really fought for the freedom of speech that comedians have today. And then there’s of course great comedians still performing today, like Chris Rock.

Do you think comedy itself is a radical act or a form of activism?

That’s a tough question. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of comedy that I wouldn’t call activism and that’s not saying it’s bad comedy. Comedy doesn’t have to always be activism. Some of my favorite comedians have an absurdist view of the world that is not saying anything political, like Stephen Wright, for example, or Mitch Hedberg. But I think a lot of comedy is subversive and sometimes it’s comedians that are able to be the most subversive because we’re able to attack the elite in a way that others can’t. The first viral video that the show had was the fake parody advertisement for McDonald’s, where we actually sang through all the ingredients in Chicken McNuggets — and it’s like 30 ingredients or something and half of them are bizarre chemicals that we never heard of, some chemicals that are often used in silly putty. I think that video, besides having humor in it, was a way of being subversive. That if someone just walked out and read the ingredients to chicken nuggets, people aren’t going to watch that or forward it probably.

What are some of the challenges you've faced in making this show?

I haven’t had other TV shows that were my own, but I’ve had Internet shows and stuff. I think you struggle to find exactly what your voice is. There’s a lot of humor out there that might not be right for the show because it’s not our voice. I think finding that voice, finding what segments feel like they hit us, what styles and things. A lot of that is already defined. But a lot of it is defined as you go forward as you learn about the show itself.

Outside of that, I think another struggle is that line between what is too dark, what joke is something that, even though it may be making a noble point, which is what I kind of always aim for, it could still be too dark and it could still have been a joke that ... I don’t know, was crafted poorly and upset people. Always trying to figure that out, especially when we’re dealing with the darkest issues in the world.

RT America isn't without its own biases — Liz Wahl quit on-air, saying that the higher-ups were pushing a pro-Russia agenda, for example. Do you face any conflicts with the network's own political stances, and if so, is that something you would target in your show?

No I’ve felt a great freedom here, a freedom I don’t know if I could’ve gotten at many other networks. If you think about the influences of just about every other channel on our dial — you can look at reporters like Amber Lyon, who was forced to leave CNN because she did a report on Bahrain, talking about the crackdown on the people there, and they didn’t want to air it because they were getting money from Bahrain to advertise Bahrain. She ultimately left or was forced to leave under duress.

The amount of influence on, I feel like, all other networks is much greater. So I actually find incredible freedom that I can go after all of these corporations which are incredibly powerful and incredibly dominant in our lives, even if most of us want to kind of ignore it.

Sometimes comedians like Oliver or Stewart get criticized for portraying entities or people as cartoonishly evil in a way that isn't sufficiently nuanced. What do you think about that criticism?

I think comedy often requires … and not just comedy, but, really, TV ... requires taking something, taking an issue, and shrinking it down to the level that it can be presented in one to two minutes. I mean, unfortunately, those are the restraints we’re under. If someone would listen to an hour-long joke about the Koch Brothers, then maybe I would tell that joke. But comedy requires this kind of thing.

On top of that, I look at our planet and I look at the environmental suicide mission we seem to be on and to sit here and temper my language and give them the benefit of the doubt, give them the oligarchy — I’m not just throwing around this term, there’s a recent study that took almost 2,000 variables into account and found out that the American people have very little say in policy issues, so we are literally an oligarchy. If you go by that study, I’m using that term scientifically. To give the oligarchy the benefit of the doubt all the time and say “Maybe he voted this way because his children, and maybe his dog was ill and so it’s a rough day for him.” I feel like we don’t have time for that. These are crucial times and I’m going to fight to get this information out there in an aggressive manner because I feel like it’s something that has to be done, not just by me but by a lot of people — thousands, millions, working around the world.

What do you hope your show accomplishes? 

I feel like art in general, a lot of artists should think more about what it stands for — meaning whether it’s music, whether it’s comedy, whether it’s painting. I’m not asking that everybody agree with my view of the world. I just think — to use my friend Eleanor Goldfield’s quote: “Art should kill apathy.” Art should be the opposite of apathy. I hope I’m doing it with my comedy and I hope the people around the world with their art also seek to do that.

Note: This post has been updated to clarify that "Redacted Tonight" is taped in front of a live studio audience and does not use laugh tracks.

By Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at

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Comedy John Oliver Lee Camp Redacted Tonight Rt America Russell Brand Video