âIâm definitely not a musical comic,â DeAnne Smith assures me, but not with the kind of vehemence a President of the United States might employ to deny shagging an intern, nor even the type St Peter might use to thrice deny knowing Christ as a prologue to bitter weeping. Itâs merely a statement of fact, provided because I seem to ârecallâ â erroneously, it turns out â DeAnne being a musical comic. In my head, I picture her wielding a ukulele. Itâs an image wedded to the first memory I have of the slight, svelte, well-dressed (collar and tie, sometimes even a jacket) androgynous pixie in glasses, performing in the line-up of Ali McGregorâs late night variety show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival some years ago.
More recently, Iâve seen DeAnne at story-teller nights where the point has been to spin a narrative more than get laughs â although DeAnne does both rather readily. Point is, in my head, she started out as a musician whose between-song patter has grown to be the main feature. You know, like Billy Connolly â if youâve been following him since his folkie days as a member of the Humblebums.
âI have only just started playing the ukulele this year,â DeAnne informs me. âI have literally three songs that I do. Maybe four. But itâs all so very new. Iâll probably play some songs in one-hour show, and if Iâm doing a spot â like, say, half an hour, Iâll punctuate the performance with a song. But itâs not where I started, or where Iâm coming from.â
Ah, now thatâs the other thing I seem intent on being vague about: DeAnneâs origins. Iâd almost certainly sign a statutory declaration stating my belief that she is Canadian, though very little supports that contention. In those more recent âstory-tellingâ gigs, she's told of having lived in Mexico - but that's not where she's from either.
So where did DeAnne Smith start? How did she start? Where is she coming from?
âI donât know where Iâm coming from,â DeAnne laughs. Stylistically, she says, her approach to comedy is âfrom a kind of âwriterlyâ placeâ. Geographically, however, sheâs all over the place, having grown up â and studied â upstate New York.
âAfter university, I lived in Baltimore for about a year and a half, and worked at a publishing company and on a street outreach team,â she recalls, âwhich was kind of fun.â Itâs more fun nowadays, when DeAnneâs out in the street, accosting passers-by in order to distribute pamphlets advertising her show â the fine art of âflyeringâ. âPeople say, âWow that takes a lot of guts, approaching strangers to come to your showâ,â she explains. âI used to approach strangers all the time on the streets of Baltimore, asking them if they needed condoms or clean needles. To give someone a flyer for a comedy show feels like nothing.â
DeAnne almost hit the stand-up stage in Baltimore. She got as far as going to an open-mic venue, but the night was cancelled:
âThere werenât enough people. I just never went back. I guess I didnât have the guts or the desire. But it was something that had been in the back of my mind for a while.â
From Baltimore, Deanne âhopped to Mexicoâ, where she lived for the next five or six years. âI moved to Mexico for no real reason. I was just young and I wanted to do something different. I think I went for a bit of a lark, to do something different, and it was how my life became: Iâd go to the beach, Iâd teach Englishâ¦â
While teaching English, DeAnne started writing humorous columns for online publications. And in time, she realised, âit would just be easier to get up and say this stuff, rather than taking so much care of my vocabulary choice and syntax.â Thus, when DeAnne Smith finally did start doing comedy, âit was definitely from a writing point of view than a performance point of viewâ.
DeAnneâs first foray into open-mic comedy didnât come in Mexico, either, although she says thatâs where she âgot bit by the bugâ. It began with a CD DeAnneâs girlfriend, an engingeer working on a project for Sirius Satellite Radio, burned for her, featuring comics and material from one of the stationâs shows. She didnât know DeAnne had any interest in comedy. Nor did DeAnne. âListening to it awakened all this desire in me,â she explains. âIt didnât make me happy and relaxed, it made me feel jealous and angry. I could feel this clenching in myself: âI wanna do this. This is what I should be doing.â So I did that.â
Not directly, mind. It still took another step before DeAnne got to the stage. âMy girlfriend wanted to go to Mime School. In Montreal. Thereâs a mime school in Montreal!â (A very good one, it seems: lâEcole de Mime, Montreal.) âI went, âOkay, Iâll go with you.â Very whimsical. So basically I moved to Montreal to be with a mime.â
DeAnne also made study plans for her new life in Montreal. She applied, and was accepted, into a masters degree at a writing school. âI deferred the writing thing for a year and started doing stand-up at open mic rooms, and decided thatâs what I wanted to do.â
Makes perfect sense, then, DeAnne Smithâs writerly approach to stand-up comedy. âSo many people get into it with a theatre background or an acting background,â she says. âI just threw myself into it. I feel like Iâve been catching up with the performance aspect of things. But I think it works for me because Iâm very much myself on stage â thereâs not a lot of pretense there.â
The origins as a writer and the lack of pretense â along with the cute pixie androgyny â contribute to whatever it is that sets DeAnne apart. And something certainly does, stylistically. I just can't quite verbalise it. And although DeAnne agrees that something does, she can't - or won't - name it either. âThat sort of thing is not for me to say. I donât like to get involved. I probably should â Iâd be better at promoting myself if I knew how to better articulate what I do and what Iâm likeâ¦â
Probably better this way. Let other people - fans and critics - come up with descriptions. It's only when she finds one she likes that she should adopt it as her own, I tell her. âGood,â she agrees.
So back to that CD that inspired DeAnne to pursue stand-up in earnest. Who was on it? And were some of them â whisper it â a bit sh*t, in order to inspire the clenching response?
âThat was part of it,â DeAnne confirms, unwilling to name the comics who seemed to solicit more approval from the audience than perhaps they deserved. âHearing the audienceâs response made me feel I oughta give it a try!â
One comic who did stand out for being brilliant was Maria Bamford. âShe was amazing. I was like âWho is this person?â I guess that was the immediate instigator to get me going. I started doing open mic and I never looked back.â
It wasnât too long before DeAnne was visiting Australia for the first time â here for the 2008 comedy festival season. âIt was fun. It went well and I met a lot of people. I wasnât really thinking about making it an annual thing, but when all the deadlines for the 2009 festivals rolled around again, I realised I should come back again because Iâd done a bit of groundwork. There was a tiny bit of buzz, so it would be silly to not come back the next year, and to come back in two years when everyoneâs forgotten about me.â
It was when she was back in 2009 that DeAnne made her debut on Good News Week. âThat was really good for me â it helped people know who I am.â
Itâs also the reason we assume this American comic is Canadian.
When DeAnne first came to Australia and had to register for the Adelaide Fringe, she âdidnât know anything about anythingâ, she says. âGeorge Bush was president and I hadnât lived in the States in about eight years. I had to choose a âcountry of originâ so I just put âCanadaâ because that was where I started comedy and thatâs where I lived.â
When she appeared on Good News Week, she would have been known as the comic from Montreal who had performed on the Australian festival circuit the year before. âThey were talking to me a lot about Canada, and I just kind of went with it, and I regretted it â I lied to the nation! Unfortunately, my little lie has been reinforced because I meet a lot of people who say, âI know you were Canadian; you donât seem like an American; those Americansâ¦â â and they start trash talking to me about America.â
Subsequently, DeAnne has spoken of her American origins on stage and on her website. Most people are hip. âI donât pretend that Iâm not from New York. But I hadnât lived there for a while. During the George Bush years, I was like âI had nothing to do with that!ââ
Currently, Montreal is still home to the comic, although she spends a lot of her year travelling, performing in Australia and the southern part of the United States. âI think the way I approach it is to make everywhere home, and any audience youâre performing for, thatâs who you want to reach. Iâve been on Roadshow with Melbourne International Comedy Festival and played some really out-of-the-way rural towns and Iâve maybe looked out into the audience and thought, âOh gosh, Iâm not gonna connect with these people; weâve nothing in commonâ¦â and then go out there and do the show and everyone has a really great time. Itâs hard to know where something will work better than somewhere else.â
There are, of course, subtle changes a seasoned comic can make to cater to different audiences. âIf Iâm in front of a rural crowd of middle-aged to older people,â DeAnne explains, âI might play up the âsweet, innocentâ angle a bit more just to get away with the things I want to say. And then, if Iâm at the Feast Festival, in front of a group of lesbians, say, I might play up a slightly more aggressive or hard-edged angle. Itâs just knowing what you can get away with in front of different crowds. It comes from experience and also instinct. You start to adjust onstage.â
Again, part of what helps DeAnne do that, is her image. People do assume sheâs younger than she actually is. Which she readily acknowledges. She puts it down not just to her looks, but also to her spirit. âI have a brother and sister who are quite older than me â my brother is 11 years older than me and my sister is 7 years older. I had this revelation the other day: Iâm in my 30s but I have this âkid sisterâ energy. I keep waiting to outgrow it, but it just doesnât happen.â
It might happen. In time. Perhaps it should have already. Perhaps that's why her next festival show is called About Freakin' Time. âItâs about time in general, and nerdy aspects like time travel, the concept of âforeverâ and the passage of time, that sort of thing.â
If you haven't seen DeAnne Smith live yet, you really should this time round. It's About Freakin' Time.