David Kamp

David Kamp is a New York-based writer of books, articles, lyrics, and humor. He began his career at Spy, the legendary satirical monthly magazine, and is the author of Sunny Days, The United States of Arugula, and the “Snob’s Dictionary” series of humor books. His work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, GQ, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic. His first outing as a lyricist for the stage, the John Leguizamo musical comedy Kiss My Aztec!, opened last year.

What have you been working on prior to the shutdown and how did you adapt?

I am coming out with a book on May 12th called Sunny Days, and part of what I was doing was simply ramping up the publicity. We're now trying to figure out what a virtual book event would look like. Even though book events are not quite rock concerts, you still feed off the energy of people in an audience. I'm trying to think of ways this can be a shared experience and not just a lecture. The promotion needs to be more of a dialogue. No one's going to want to sit and watch you talk; they're going to want to ask questions and engage in a fun conversation. The book is about this wonderful era of children's TV that people have real relationships with and memories of. I really want to make it about people sharing their stories.

Cover of Sunny Days, Out May 12th

Has the shutdown changed the way you approach your work?

Along with Benjamin Velez, I wrote the songs for the new John Leguizamo musical Kiss My Aztec!, which had its world premiere in 2019 at Berkeley Rep. I was experiencing the happiest point in my career: to pivot from being a pure print writer into a part-time lyricist for the musical theater in mid-life was just so gratifying. The beginning of January was all about revising the show to get it ready for when it came to New York, which now has been postponed. That was a real bummer for me, but it's way more devastating for the actors. My focus has suddenly shifted to determining, What is the next thing I can do with musical theater to bring it to life? Is it animation? Is there a viable pathway for a half-hour animated musical done at a high standard? I worked with so many incredible actors, and this would be a means to employ them as singers and voice actors, which would be amazing.

During this time, I also discovered there was an actual audience for my songs. Writing songs is something I've been doing since I was a kid—doing goofy comedy songs for an audience of a parent or two.

When I wrote the lyrics to “The Covid Kid,” which was my homage to Steely Dan, I approached a near-contemporary of the band’s, Steve Porcaro, who is the keyboardist in the band Toto. Originally, I wanted to do it as a quick-and-dirty quarantine song, where we'd put together the song in two days and then put it out right away. But Steve, coming from a polished, L.A.-studio background, wanted to get some real pro players involved. He got these incredible musicians from L.A. and Nashville to agree to play. These guys are at the top of their profession, and were all dying to do something. So, in a way, the shutdown has leveled the playing field by making people available who otherwise would not be.

It's incredible to think that a Grammy-winning musician would be so open to trying something new. I had my brother, Ted Kamp, make up a lyric video for it, and we decided that this was no longer just a creative endeavor. We made it a benefit song for MusiCares’s Covid-19 Relief Fund for musicians in need.

This started as an experiment to see what would happen, but now we're talking about doing more work together. An upside of this situation is the potential for collaboration.

“I am excited and liberated by the fact that I have nothing to lose because everyone's lost"

Do you think there has been a shift in audience focus?

I think there was a period where people just wanted dystopia, and to watch things about the truth we’re living in. And at the same time, I think people wanted shallow humor, like talking about what a struggle it is to use Zoom. But I'm sensing that we're past that. People want to be transported. That's what I'm trying to focus on right now—how can we create something that's as beautiful as the best content we've enjoyed in the past, with creative material that we can produce remotely?

I don't think I'm alone in this, and the collectiveness of this thinking among creatives is very exciting. That said, I can't pretend that I don't get down every single day. But I am excited and liberated by the fact that I have nothing to lose because everyone's lost. There is a freedom to try crazy ideas. I never would have thought I would write an animated musical, but now I'm thinking about writing an animated musical.

“...we have gained a sense of possibility in terms of artistic collaboration and a communal spirit, that we need the arts to get us through this..."

What do you think we have gained from this experience and what have we lost?

I think we have gained a sense of possibility in terms of artistic collaboration and a communal spirit that we need the arts to get us through this—not just to get us through life in general, but through these rough times. The arts really have a value that people take for granted in more ordinary times.

But the standard for a polished product has been lost in terms of the arts. It's nice to see the industrious spirit on the people going viral on YouTube and TikTok, but it's no substitute for really perfected, polished art. That's still possible with paintings, books, and songs. But in terms of filmmaking and TV, the idea of a beautiful, finished product is still something we have to figure out. I'm trying to think what can I do with animation, because animation is still something where you don't need to all be in the same room to create an amazing finished product. I've been contemplating the idea of how can I write some kind of musical comedy that would realize itself in the animated sphere.

Overall, with more of the focus shifting to online content, creative fields are becoming more democratized, which is opening doors to new talent, even when “new talent” means old fellas like me. You can reach across to people that you wouldn't have had the courage to reach across to before, and say, "Hey, I'm looking for someone to collaborate with. Would you be amenable to hearing me out?” More and more people are saying yes.