Stand-up DeAnne Smith channels her anxiety (and ours) into comedy cartharsis at JFL42

More popular than ever after her Netflix special and “straight men step up your game” viral video, Toronto’s most empathetic queer comic takes her act to the next level

SIRIUS XM TOP COMIC WITH DEANNE SMITH as part of JFL42 with Smith, host Ben Miner and finalists Drew Behm, Sophie Buddle, Adam Christie, Ola Dada, Courtney Gilmour, Andrea Jin, Nigel Grinstead, Jess Salomon, Kelly Taylor and Alex Wood. September 26 at 7 pm. Queen Elizabeth Theatre. $39.50, passes $59-$199.

The world needs more DeAnne Smith right now. And thankfully, we’re about to get it.

The queer comic – who is headlining the Sirius XM Top Comic show during JFL42 – has a way of seeing the world that is funny, edgy, anxious, but oddly healing. You might even call her act therapeutic.

“Yes!” she exclaims, with her signature full-on grin. “I want you to say that, because it’s one of the things I’m aiming for. I don’t know if I’m fully there yet. But I like to take what I’ve figured out about myself – partly with the help of therapy – and bring it out onstage so people who feel similarly can relate.”

Whether she’s recounting a disastrous bikini wax session or a botched attempt to casually order coffee from a cool barista, Smith succeeds in taking her hyper-self-conscious observations about life and – because she’s onstage with a mic and complete confidence – normalizing them. 

We’re sitting in Comedy Bar, Smith’s favourite room in the city. It’s where she and BFF Jess Salomon have co-hosted the monthly Salomon & Smith night of alternative comedy for an audience so loyal that a lesbian couple who’d had one of their first dates there staged a proposal in the audience. 

“It was even gayer than that,” says Smith. “It was the second proposal. They were already engaged, and the other person wanted to propose back.” 

It goes without saying that when Smith, like most queers, uses the phrase “gayer than that” she’s not using the term as a put-down, but rather as a way to own a certain type of urban behaviour. Translation: we’re more than living up to our stereotypes. 

It’s no surprise that one of Smith’s signature jokes – captured for posterity on her Netflix Comedians Of The World episode – opens with the line: “I am everything I look like I am.”

“I’d like to think I’m not so stereotypical,” laughs Smith, whose look this afternoon is more casual than the jacketed, bow-tied look she often adopts for her bigger gigs, like headlining at the Melbourne Comedy Festival or Montreal’s Just For Laughs.

“But inasmuch as anybody has a picture of a pretty nerdy, intellectual queer, that’s me. All of it. I’ve got the little rescue dog (Rudy, pictured at left). I’m always reading three books at a time. I’ve got the Birkenstocks, the veganism, the gluten-freeness.”

And then she laughs. She just ended a relationship – “in the most loving, amicable way,” she adds. 

“But I moved out of my girlfriend’s house into the house of my ex-girlfriend and her wife and baby. Now that’s the gayest thing ever.”

DeAnne Smith Cover, 2019

Photo by Samuel Engelking

A couple of years ago, one of her jokes – about how straight men need to step up their game – went viral, getting more than 50 million views on Facebook and YouTube. That, combined with the popularity of the Netflix special, which dropped at the beginning of the year, has meant more gigs and recognition. 

A few weeks ago at Indiana’s Bloomington Pride, she got recognized on the street by a super-straight family in their mid-30s with three kids, who didn’t even know she was performing. They said they loved her Netflix special and had told all their friends to watch it. 

During her outdoor set that day, a 13-year-old kid in the front row was mouthing along to the words of her gender joke from the special. 

The first long set I saw Smith do was in 2013 at the midtown club Absolute Comedy. The crowd – young and mostly straight – was the antithesis of Comedy Bar’s hipsters. But Smith charmed everyone.

“I never really change what I say, but sometimes I change the energy around it, the pace in which I do things. Sometimes a more mainstream audience needs a little more hand-holding.” 

Smith suggests being charming may have been a default coping mechanism she learned growing up the youngest kid in a family in the small town of Endicott, New York. 

“I’m the youngest. My brother and sister are 11 and seven years older than me. So I realized I was never going to be the biggest, or the smartest, or the strongest. My way to get things was to be the cute little one with the jokes. Early on, it was a way to get attention, to get my needs met. And it just stayed with me.” 

Her parents were alcoholics, and she has an early joke, which she now calls glib, about why she was drawn to do comedy: begging for attention from a roomful of strangers with drinks in their hands. 

“I remember putting that joke together one day and thinking, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I wasn’t telling tales on my parents. We’ve talked about this explicitly. They’ve dealt with all their stuff that turned them into who they are.”

One of the most cathartic things about watching a Smith set is seeing her be brutally honest about even the most painful parts of her life.

“The thing I love about comedy is that it forces me to be the most myself. That’s liberating. Growing up queer in a small town, I had to lock down who I was and hide parts of myself. So comedy is like a lifelong discovery. And being rewarded for it onstage is an unbelievable feeling.”

In addition to her SiriusXM Top Comic show during JFL42, Smith’s also taking part in the festival’s panel on mental health (September 28, 3 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox). 

“I’ve talked about anxiety and depression onstage,” she says. “I guess the phrase we often use is ‘struggling with depression,’ but it’s really something I’m always dealing with. It’s part of my brain makeup, part of my family history. So being active and vocal about it is important to me. I’ve been in therapy for years and advocate it to everybody.”

Discovering the anti-depressant citalopram, which counteracts anxiety, was a revelation. 

“I realized a lot of my depression came from not knowing how to deal with the anxiety.”

Today she loves talking to people about what cocktail of medicines they’re on and what’s working for them. And she says her medication doesn’t affect her creativity.

“If anything it helps, because you can let go of so much garbage, you don’t have to deal with it.” 

Smith’s touring schedule is ramping up. Besides the JFL42 shows, future dates take her everywhere from Kalamazoo to Chattanooga.

Although she’s just applied for Canadian citizenship – she’s been a permanent resident for a number of years – she’s moving to L.A. in the new year. And she’s developing a show for the CBC that’s loosely based on her life. 

Starring in a TV show was never her dream, she says, but she’s getting her head around the idea and realizing the format could be fun. 

“It’s just exciting to think about what else is possible,” she says. “Stand-up is my absolute favourite thing. I never wanted to do anything else, but it’s fun to think about the number of people you can reach with different mediums, not just, say, 200 people at a time.”

Still, even if those rooms of 200 people eventually morph into 500 or 1,000, count on Smith to connect with everyone there. 

Like the best comics, she’s alive to each moment in a crowd – every sudden pause (which she’ll often identify) or nervous laugh. At one JFL42 show, she ended by getting us to support her while she crowd-surfed. Unforgettable.

“My relationship with the audience is the same as a relationship with a person,” she says. “You have to make time for each other and put energy into it. That’s what happens at a live show. 

“My favourite moments are the spontaneous ones, something that an audience member is going to remember and tell me later. ‘Remember that night?’ they’ll say. And of course I’ll remember. It was special.”

Read about more must-see JFL42 acts here


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