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“Movie Man” Bryan VanCampen

Ithaca native Bryan VanCampen has been a part of the town’s entertainment scene since his youth. While he may be best known for his 20-year career as a movie reviewer for the Ithaca Times, “Movie Man” VanCampen has always been a performer as well. He’s acted in plays, been on the radio, made movies with friends, even built puppets and put on shows with them, including a current YouTube series. Most recently, VanCampen has added standup comedy to his portfolio.

We talk to VanCampen about… well, movies of course! We meander through a variety of topics, including the evolution of filmgoing, highs and lows of 2014 movies, Oscar picks and lots more. We also chat a bunch about VanCampen’s career in comedy as well as other experiences in the performing arts… this one really runs the gamut.

You can read VanCampen’s reviews in the Ithaca Times. If you want to see him perform standup, he’ll be at the CNY Playhouse in Syracuse for the ‘Cuse Comedy Showcase on Jan. 31st.

Below are 5 interesting snippets from the interview:

1 – Where did VanCampen get his start as a movie critic?

“If anyone had told me I was going to be a writer, my teachers would’ve laughed,” VanCampen says, “I wasn’t much of a student unless I was into really into the subject. But I always loved movies, and when I was in college I found out they pay you a few bucks to write these things – so it was beer and weed money. That’s how it got started.”

His interest in film and performance in general led him to seek out a job as a cameraman at NewsCenter 7 (which has since moved to Syracuse). Before long he worked his way in front of the camera where he would review films as a segment on a news show. Then he went on to produce a full-length review show with another local critic. Soon after that 11-year run ended, he got started at the Ithaca Times where he’s been since.

2 – What was the inspiration for VanCampen’s alter-ego puppet, Sheldon T. Sheep?

Puppetry has always been one of VanCampen’s fascination. “I saw the first Sesame Street. I’ve loved Jim Henson all my life. One year for Christmas my mom went to New York and brought back all this material you couldn’t get up here, a big huge box full. I made puppets out of that box for a year.”

When VanCampen’s mom passed away, he got to thinking about that old box of puppet materials. That led him to buy some puppetry books and get back into the old hobby – and Sheldon was born. Since then, he’s produced a number of YouTube videos featuring Sheldon. Despite the puppets and hand-drawn background, VanCampen points out that these videos are “not safe for work. Or children or other living things.” He adds: “When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was have my puppets swear and be rude. Now I can do it. I’m 51, no one’s going to stop me.”

3 – How did VanCampen get started in standup?

“I’ve always been a comedy person,” VanCampen says. He recalls listening to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” live recording as a kid, which features the singer telling a satirical long-form story about the draft for the Vietnam war. “I didn’t know all the political stuff, I was only 6 years old. I heard people laughing at a guy telling a story. I memorized the damn thing. I told it in a show-and-tell and got sent to the principal’s office.” In his adolescence, he was the type of kid to have more comedy albums than musical ones.

“When I got to college, people were always asking me, ‘Do you want to host the open mic?’” They could just tell I was that kinda guy. I never wrote anything though… when you’re that young, I felt like I didn’t have anything to write about.” Now that he’s had a lot of life experience to draw from, VanCampen is excited to delve deeper into comedy.

4 – Does VanCampen’s love of movies play into his comedy?

No one would be surprised to hear some movie jokes in VanCampen’s standup sets, but he’s found another way to incorporate his love of movies and comedy: by lampooning them. In addition to working full time, writing reviews, rehearsing for plays and performing as much standup as he can, VanCampen still finds time to produce the occasional Mystery Science Theatre 3000-inspired comedy show. For these shows, VanCampen recruits a troupe of comedians to add their own off-the-cuff commentary and criticism in front of a live audience.

Sometimes, these are more “affectionate ribbings”, as with 1980 “Flash Gordon” film. Others, however, are “pure hate” as with 1997’s much-maligned “Batman and Robin”. VanCampen is hoping to produce another show in March. The target? 2004’s “Catwoman” starring Halle Berry.

5 – What is VanCampen’s all time favorite film?

“I’ve seen over 4000 movies, but Yellow Submarine is still my favorite. I;m not saying it’s the best, but I think it’s great. It’s unique. Just about every movie you could name, someone tried to rip it off or grab a piece of it or make something like it. There’s not a lot of psychedelic British cartoons with music by a super band like the Beatles.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.