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Standup comedy star DeAnne Smith on her new Netflix special, her moment with Roseanne and more

Standup comedy star DeAnne Smith on her new Netflix special, her moment with Roseanne and more
Entertainment
On the smaller of two stages at Toronto’s Comedy Bar, DeAnne Smith is labouring through what she calls the “painful birth of new jokes.”

Her notes about premises, she confesses, seem like a journal of depression, with items like “tired of showering”; her ADD and anxiety also get referenced. “This gets a little sincere, but stick with me.”

American-born, Toronto-based comedian DeAnne Smith has a new special out on Netflix.  (NETFLIX)

Before her, the opening acts were each thrown in succession by the presence of two 13-year-old girls in the front row who say they’re dating. The headliner, a forerunner of an absolute tidal wave of lesbian standup in the last couple of years, handles the oddity in the audience adroitly and earns a warm reception for her new material.

If the girls have to be at a comedy show, it might as well be this one — but of course, they don’t have to be at the club, not least because Smith’s new comedy special is now on Netflix.

That’s not a very exclusive club anymore; the service released a jaw-dropping 47 half-hours of standup, Smith’s among them, on Jan. 1 as their Comedians of the World series. It’s probably about time the diminutive, androgynously attired Toronto-based comic got this sort of credit, after performing across North America, in Britain and Australia for years, landing a spot or two on American TV and racking up millions of views online for a standup clip entitled “Straight Men, Step Your Game Up.”

Those squeezed into the seats at that cosy side stage on a brisk December weeknight got a preview for some of the material bound for Netflix, including her choice of gender identities (“transmasculine house mouse”) and observations about the stark gender divide of the shampoo aisle (the gently named expensive stuff for women, the stuff named “Icy Hurricane Business Truck” for men). With that half-hour now available worldwide and getting good notices , she’s building up another hour of material and preparing for a Southern Ontario theatre tour in March.

There was a time this kind of success led you out of standup — to starring in a TV show, for example — but that time is probably not now, and Smith is not a candidate anyhow.

Standup “actually makes me a better person,” the American-born comedian explains weeks later at a Toronto hotel, detailing her particular attachment to the form. After bombing in her first paid gig, in a Montreal suburb a decade ago, “I realized I could beat myself up and tell myself how horrible it was and sit here and feel bad all night or, radical thought, I could be a friend to myself. Objectively look at what happened and why and how. What can I do to improve it … And that’s literally the first time in my life that those kind of thoughts click together.”

That epiphany — that word serves as the title of the upcoming show she’s taking to Australia, as it happens — followed on the heels of a similar realization that got her into comedy in the first place. A decade or so ago, Smith was living in Mexico teaching English; to help with that, her Mexican girlfriend burned her a CD of standup pulled off of satellite radio.

“I was in no way pursuing it at that time,” Smith recalls, “but I was listening, and it was a mix of kind of envy and anger. Envy for people that were doing it right. Anger at the stuff I heard that (made me feel) like, ‘How is this out on the airwaves?’ ”

Onstage, her persona is reliably playful — local producer/promoter Ian Atlas calls it her “joyful demeanour” — but there is often a bit of that righteous pique peeking out; a winning joke about the Women’s March is set up by a comment in support of trans women. However, the digressions don’t overstay their welcome — the pace is mostly brisk and the result is apparently endearing.

Very often, according to Jen Fitzgerald, Comedy Bar’s general manager, “you will see audience members approach her after a show and she will take the time to engage in real conversations with them. You can tell she has a genuine respect and affection for the people that come out to see her.”

The empathetic persona might come from her comedy origins; having moved from Mexico to Montreal before she ventured onstage, the relative dearth of comedy stages there led her to find “weird little rooms” and an open stage that was “mostly music and poetry” between spots at the two proper comedy clubs. But Smith gives a great deal of credit for her development to time spent in Australia where, as she tells it, fans are knowledgeable and avid, comedians create a new hour of material every year, and the scene is “very influenced by clown (performance) and physical comedy and absurdist stuff” among its many styles.

She’s not a clown, exactly, but on the Netflix half-hour her physical performance elevates for the larger room even as she jokes about reaching middle age: “better go drink some yogurt and misuse some emojis.” She’ll have to bring up the energy once more for her tour in March that takes her through theatres in Ottawa, Kingston, etc., almost exactly a year after a similar tour by a star who praised Smith on Last Comic Standing — though it’s praise she figures she can do without.

“It was very exciting to have Roseanne tell me that she liked my comedy,” she recalls. “And she was like ‘you don’t give a f--k.’ … And then I got a hint of what she was about just by following her on Twitter and I was like, ‘Oh no.’ So now that’s a bit of an endorsement that I will never talk about or use in any way.”

Smith might have won over Roseanne Barr and growing numbers of others, but she’s not for everyone. A gig opening for black-comedy hero Jim Norton, at that same cabaret stage a couple of years back, was a bit of a tough sell — this reporter recalls her stage-muttering to herself, “Don’t talk about feminism, don’t talk about feminism.”

Post-Netflix, she’s getting some static online from angry “idiot men who may not find my style of comedy resonant and are upset about it … I have been doing comedy for 12 years and I have found very little of it resonant with me. And what you do is you take what you can take from it and then you just move on.”

It is lucky that, in 2019, there are so many significant lesbian stand-ups — Wanda Sykes, the suddenly returned Ellen DeGeneres, the much-praised Hannah Gadsby, Tig Notaro, Cameron Esposito, Fortune Feimster, Sam Jay, Emma Willmann, Mae Martin and more — that they almost seem “disproportionately represented,” says a marvelling Smith. It’s a part of her sensibility, but she notes it’s not a big part of her act; if she’s representing anyone, it’s mostly just herself.

“Early in my career (in Australia) I was doing an hour and I was selling tickets with my name on them. It wasn’t a (generic) comedy night at the comedy club with whoever ... it would say ‘DeAnne Smith.’ And I think that gave me a lot of confidence to do what I want to do and obviously be like, listen I hope you guys like it, but if you don’t like it don’t buy another ticket that says ‘DeAnne Smith’ because this is what I do.”
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