“I’m definitely not a musical comic,” 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. It’s merely a statement of fact, provided because I seem to ‘recall’ – erroneously, it turns out – DeAnne being a musical comic. In my head, I picture her wielding a ukulele. It’s 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 McGregor’s late night variety show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival some years ago.
More recently, I’ve seen DeAnne at story-teller nights where the point has been to spin a narrative more than get laughs – 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 – if you’ve been following him since his folkie days as a member of the Humblebums.
“I have only just started playing the ukulele this year,” DeAnne informs me. “I have literally three songs that I do. Maybe four. But it’s all so very new. I’ll probably play some songs in one-hour show, and if I’m doing a spot – like, say, half an hour, I’ll punctuate the performance with a song. But it’s not where I started, or where I’m coming from.”
Ah, now that’s the other thing I seem intent on being vague about: DeAnne’s origins. I’d almost certainly sign a statutory declaration stating my belief that she is Canadian, though very little supports that contention. In those more recent ‘story-telling’ 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?
“I don’t know where I’m coming from,” DeAnne laughs. Stylistically, she says, her approach to comedy is “from a kind of ‘writerly’ place”. Geographically, however, she’s all over the place, having grown up – and studied – upstate New York.
“After university, I lived in Baltimore for about a year and a half, and worked at a publishing company and on a street outreach team,” she recalls, “which was kind of fun.” It’s more fun nowadays, when DeAnne’s out in the street, accosting passers-by in order to distribute pamphlets advertising her show – the fine art of ‘flyering’. “People say, ‘Wow that takes a lot of guts, approaching strangers to come to your show’,” she explains. “I 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.”
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:
“There weren’t enough people. I just never went back. I guess I didn’t have the guts or the desire. But it was something that had been in the back of my mind for a while.”
From Baltimore, Deanne “hopped to Mexico”, where she lived for the next five or six years. “I 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: I’d go to the beach, I’d teach English…”
While teaching English, DeAnne started writing humorous columns for online publications. And in time, she realised, “it would just be easier to get up and say this stuff, rather than taking so much care of my vocabulary choice and syntax.” Thus, when DeAnne Smith finally did start doing comedy, “it was definitely from a writing point of view than a performance point of view”.
DeAnne’s first foray into open-mic comedy didn’t come in Mexico, either, although she says that’s where she “got bit by the bug”. It began with a CD DeAnne’s girlfriend, an engingeer working on a project for Sirius Satellite Radio, burned for her, featuring comics and material from one of the station’s shows. She didn’t know DeAnne had any interest in comedy. Nor did DeAnne. “Listening to it awakened all this desire in me,” she explains. “It didn’t make me happy and relaxed, it made me feel jealous and angry. I could feel this clenching in myself: ‘I wanna do this. This is what I should be doing.’ So I did that.”
Not directly, mind. It still took another step before DeAnne got to the stage. “My girlfriend wanted to go to Mime School. In Montreal. There’s a mime school in Montreal!” (A very good one, it seems: l’Ecole de Mime, Montreal.) “I went, ‘Okay, I’ll go with you.’ Very whimsical. So basically I moved to Montreal to be with a mime.”
DeAnne also made study plans for her new life in Montreal. She applied, and was accepted, into a masters degree at a writing school. “I deferred the writing thing for a year and started doing stand-up at open mic rooms, and decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Makes perfect sense, then, DeAnne Smith’s writerly approach to stand-up comedy. “So many people get into it with a theatre background or an acting background,” she says. “I just threw myself into it. I feel like I’ve been catching up with the performance aspect of things. But I think it works for me because I’m very much myself on stage – there’s not a lot of pretense there.”
The origins as a writer and the lack of pretense – along with the cute pixie androgyny – 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. “That sort of thing is not for me to say. I don’t like to get involved. I probably should – I’d be better at promoting myself if I knew how to better articulate what I do and what I’m like…”
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. “Good,” 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 – whisper it – a bit sh*t, in order to inspire the clenching response?
“That was part of it,” DeAnne confirms, unwilling to name the comics who seemed to solicit more approval from the audience than perhaps they deserved. “Hearing the audience’s response made me feel I oughta give it a try!”
One comic who did stand out for being brilliant was Maria Bamford. “She was amazing. I was like ‘Who is this person?’ I guess that was the immediate instigator to get me going. I started doing open mic and I never looked back.”
It wasn’t too long before DeAnne was visiting Australia for the first time – here for the 2008 comedy festival season. “It was fun. It went well and I met a lot of people. I wasn’t 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 I’d 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 everyone’s forgotten about me.”
It was when she was back in 2009 that DeAnne made her debut on Good News Week. “That was really good for me – it helped people know who I am.”
It’s 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 “didn’t know anything about anything”, she says. “George Bush was president and I hadn’t lived in the States in about eight years. I had to choose a ‘country of origin’ so I just put ‘Canada’ because that was where I started comedy and that’s where I lived.”
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. “They were talking to me a lot about Canada, and I just kind of went with it, and I regretted it – I lied to the nation! Unfortunately, my little lie has been reinforced because I meet a lot of people who say, ‘I know you were Canadian; you don’t seem like an American; those Americans…’ – and they start trash talking to me about America.”
Subsequently, DeAnne has spoken of her American origins on stage and on her website. Most people are hip. “I don’t pretend that I’m not from New York. But I hadn’t lived there for a while. During the George Bush years, I was like ‘I had nothing to do with that!’”
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. “I think the way I approach it is to make everywhere home, and any audience you’re performing for, that’s who you want to reach. I’ve been on Roadshow with Melbourne International Comedy Festival and played some really out-of-the-way rural towns and I’ve maybe looked out into the audience and thought, ‘Oh gosh, I’m not gonna connect with these people; we’ve nothing in common…’ and then go out there and do the show and everyone has a really great time. It’s hard to know where something will work better than somewhere else.”
There are, of course, subtle changes a seasoned comic can make to cater to different audiences. “If I’m in front of a rural crowd of middle-aged to older people,” DeAnne explains, “I might play up the ‘sweet, innocent’ angle a bit more just to get away with the things I want to say. And then, if I’m at the Feast Festival, in front of a group of lesbians, say, I might play up a slightly more aggressive or hard-edged angle. It’s 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.”
Again, part of what helps DeAnne do that, is her image. People do assume she’s younger than she actually is. Which she readily acknowledges. She puts it down not just to her looks, but also to her spirit. “I have a brother and sister who are quite older than me – my brother is 11 years older than me and my sister is 7 years older. I had this revelation the other day: I’m in my 30s but I have this ‘kid sister’ energy. I keep waiting to outgrow it, but it just doesn’t happen.”
It might happen. In time. Perhaps it should have already. Perhaps that's why her next festival show is called About Freakin' Time. “It’s about time in general, and nerdy aspects like time travel, the concept of ‘forever’ and the passage of time, that sort of thing.”
If you haven't seen DeAnne Smith live yet, you really should this time round. It's About Freakin' Time.