TT with HD: Shelly Smith
[Ed. note: For examples of Shelly Smith's comedic work, check the sound sample from
her Speeding Tickets routine or see her compete in the Michigan Comedy Competition live at 8:00pm on 29 June in Novi, Michigan at Wiseguys Comedy Club
40380 Grand River Novi, MI 48375 (248) 919-3216 (details here)]
HD: Just before we hopped on, you had a question?
SS: Oh, why did you call it a 'teeter totter' instead of a 'see-saw'?
HD: I think the Moody Blues pretty much have a monopoly on that term, 'see-saw' and I wanted something different. You remember that song, right, Ride my See Saw? Plus, 'teeter totter' seemed a bit more playful.
SS: It's fun to say 'teeter totter'. You can't really take yourself too seriously while saying the word 'teeter totter'.
HD: Right, whereas 'see-saw', maybe you could be a bit more serious. So growing up, is that what you called this device, a 'see-saw' as opposed to a 'teeter totter'?
SS: Yeah. A see-saw.
HD: And you're from?
SS: Boiling Springs, South Carolina.
HD: I can hear a bit of that, but it's not dramatic.
SS: It comes and goes. I went home Mother's Day and two weeks ago for family funerals, and when I've been around my family for a while, it's stronger. Or when I'm sleepy. I'm the only one who really left that area.
HD: Are you feeling alert, right now?
HD: Yeah, not sleepy.
SS: Why? Do I sound a little more southern?
HD: No, not especially.
SS: Maybe it's being on the see-saw. It's sort of like a backyard mechanical bull, ..., what is that thing with the cheese-grater slash bike tire? What is it, a windmill? [Ed. note: SS is pointing to an object she spies in the backyard.]
HD: That's something my wife created. Let's just say it's art.
SS: Okay, like the toilet with the flowers, it's art.
HD: Yeah, we thought we were being original and cutting-edge by having the toilet as a planter, but it turns out that that's pretty passe.
SS: It is. It is, I've seen it. But it doesn't matter.
HD: So in the three-minute sound byte I found of your standup routine on PureVolume, there's this routine that has the title, Speeding Tickets. Do you remember where you performed that routine?
SS: I feel like it was at a church function, actually. The reason why I ended up getting on there, I think, was I was doing comedy, some friends of mine from church heard me, and knew a guy who booked Christian bands. And he was sometimes running into groups who would like to have someone, but not a band, but someone who doesn't swear and someone who would be entertaining for a different type of crowd. They wanted a Christian entertainer. I wasn't calling myself a Christian entertainer, but he knew that I didn't swear and that I didn't talk about sex ...
HD: ... that was something I wanted to ask you because on PureVolume, the description given of you is 'Christian Comedy'
SS: Right, ...
HD: ... and I wanted to asked you what exactly that meant.
SS: It means that I can work in that area. He just did that because that was his website. I think it was a little jumping-off point for his website. I think a lot of comedians don't like it when everybody's sober and just there to see you, and I loved it. I loved that everybody was paying attention and if they were laughing, it wasn't because they were drunk, it was because I was funny. Plus, because it's not within the industry, it's not like a comedy club where they're like: You six are going on, you three aren't; you've got six minutes; if you go over it, you're never coming back! And you're like, Oh, they hate me! Or you've got three minutes. And they [on the church circuit] don't know that kind of thing. So they'll be like, How long do you normally do, like 45 minutes? You're like, Yeah! I'll do 45 minutes! Because you never get that opportunity in the industry, until you've sort of clawed your way through emceeing, and headlining, and open-micing, and dah dah dah dah dah. But in that church-type circuit, they can be like: You're going to do this big Catholic Youth Center opening, and there's going to be 300 people there; basically, there's an opening band and then you go for however long you can go and then we'll close the show. So it was really fun.
HD: So it was a bit more of a forgiving environment than the mainstream industry.
SS: I guess for some people it would have been really hard. Because they like the fact that people are getting drunk. I don't really think it matters, but they like it.
HD: So you mentioned open mic nights. Is the open mic on Sunday at Improv Inferno something that you've done on a regular basis, or is it something that you've done once or twice in the past.
SS: Well, I've tried to do it on a regular basis, but Dan [Izzo] never puts me on the list! [laugh] No, I'm going up this coming Sunday [25 June 2006], and I've gone up once before there. And I've taken the classes at the Inferno. But there's a lot of places around here to do open mic. Depending on the time of year, you can either do Wednesday or Thursday at the Comedy Showcase. You can do Wednesday at Mark Ridley's, Thursday's at Wise Guys in Novi. There's Bart's. I mean, you just have to go. If you know one comedian, they know everywhere to go. You just have to know when to call and sign up, and then from there usually you'll either meet someone who's like, Hey, do you want to work with me? Or, a lot of people just hound the club owners. They just go, Can I work? Can I work? Can I work? Can I work? When am I going to get to work?
HD: So you can just sort of break them down, until they finally say yes?
SS: I don't really do it. I just took about a year break when I started my new job, my school fund-raising job, because if you're going out to do comedy and see comedy and all that stuff, you really could go out every single night. And it's hard to do a regular job during the day that's brand new, and try to go out and see or do comedy every single night.
HD: So is watching other comics a part of your process of keeping sharp? I mean, is it important to go and see other people?
SS: That's interesting, because last night I saw a show, it was so bad. Basically, I wanted to go see the club where I'm in this contest next week. Oh, and you interviewed a cop [Khurum Sheikh], who's in the same contest. I don't know which one he's doing, there's three different clubs.
HD: He's doing the Ann Arbor Showcase on June 29th. And on the same day, same time, you're going to be up in Novi?
HD: So you're going to be competing indirectly against him, just in this round.
SS: Right, right.
HD: You ever seen his act?
SS: I don't think so, but I could've. Last night I met this guy who's been performing in Michigan a long time and sat there naming people, Do you know this guy? Do you know this guy? Do you know this guy? And asked him all these people I know who've performed around here for years. He didn't know any of them. Then he was like, Do you know this guy? Do you know this guy? We both knew 20 to 50 comedians that the other one didn't know. To go back to your question, you asked about whether it's important to go see people. Sometimes it builds my confidence, because ...
HD: ... you say, Wow, they really suck, I'm way better than that?
SS: Yeah! And it's awful but it's because you're like, That just wasn't that original! Or, they just don't have any energy, or they're not really convinced about what they're saying, or that wasn't smart, or that wasn't ... If people use very canned stuff like, Don't like George Bush, or Catholic Priests, or Viagra, or certain things that are so so so so common, then you have to do something very original with it. Or you have to have something very original to do. Or, if you have crappy material, you have to have excellent excellent timing. Sometimes you go and see someone you know is fantastic and it is actually the crowd [that has the problem], where you are kind of going, Huh? I guess you can't take it personally, because he's really good. They're either just quiet laughers, they're just chucklers, or they maybe are just on a bad date, or they're in a bad mood, they're about to throw up or whatever. But you really can't take it personally, because you see people sometimes who are just awesome and no one's laughing ...
HD: ... so they're not getting the kind of audience response you think they've actually earned ...
SS: ... well, I'm just sitting there going, What is this crowd thinking? So it's a confidence-builder sometimes just because you know at least I'm better than that. But sometimes it's a confidence builder because sometimes people that are great that have been touring nationally for a long time, but no one's laughing. And then sometimes you go, because you just love it. You just love the idea that people get up. It's a scary thing. For most people, it's a terrifying idea. So to just go and see people, all ages and sizes, just give it a shot, it's great. It usually gives me a kick, whether it's good or bad.
HD: You ever get heckled?
SS: I've never been actually heckled, which is weird. I guess I've been super lucky, or maybe I haven't performed enough hard hard rooms ...
HD: ... have you seen other people around here get heckled?
SS: Oh yeah! Some people are really good at it, I think that some people ...
HD: ... you mean good at heckling or good at responding to hecklers ...
SS: ... good at responding. Nobody's really good at heckling, because nobody really likes it. Not even the other people in their group usually like it. I think usually the people with the heckler don't even like the heckler. I think they're like, Please, stop! Sometimes they think they're helping. They think they're being funny, too. Sometimes it's like a bunch of bachelorette party drunk girls and they think they're being cute. But they don't realize that the comedian has seen this exact same version of bachelorette drunk girls for 10 venues in a row and he's totally over it.
HD: So is the fact that you're a 'Christian' comedian, does that insulate you from heckling, do you think? Or are you typically not even introduced as a Christian comedian?
SS: Oh no. Nobody ever says it. He just had it that way because it was attached to his website, which was a Christian website. I think the main way it comes across, probably people I hang out with in comedy circles, I'm the only Christian they know. So I think that's how it comes across. She's one, she's a Christian, I think! They can pick me out.
HD: So it's not anything about your material per se. You don't have stuff that goes, Two apostles walk into a bar ...?
SS: No! [laugh] There was a guy who used to open and be on the same circuit with me, who actually had a 'message' ...
HD: ... so he would proselytize ...
SS: ... he wasn't really trying to proselytize. He'd had sort of a rough life, lost both his parents, he'd just been through a lot of stuff. His basic thing was, You gotta have faith and you gotta laugh. It was cool. I think I probably have the same message, but I don't say it out loud. There's people who go around and try to get their message across, whatever it is, if it's politics or whatever it is, and it doesn't work that way. Because people aren't comfortable and so they're not open-minded if they don't want to listen. But when people are laughing, they're comfortable. Plus, when you're on stage you're very vulnerable, and so people are probably never going to be intimidated by you, because you were making a fool of yourself on stage. So it's never like you're coming across as this self-righteous ... It just makes people more open-minded to whatever you might end up talking about later. People say maybe, Well, I guess she's not ...
HD: ... a complete lunatic ...
SS: ... yeah, a crazy Bible-beater. Just a girl, who happens to have a belief, so if it comes up it's usually a very comfortable situation, and I like that.
HD: So, family-friendly would be an equally accurate description?
HD: Do you find yourself coming up with material and then having to edit, because you say, Hmm, that's not really family-friendly, or that's not something I want to put out there in connection with myself? Or does that happen naturally as a part of the creative process when you're developing material?
SS: Usually, I don't think that's funny, you know what I mean? Like, if you've gone to enough open mics, you will see that people want to talk about, Oh, I was so drunk ... , or My dick is so big ... or whatever they want to talk about, is just: not funny. I mean it's not like Christian or not Christian, or dirty or not dirty, it's just that people who are going to go that route, they've got to be really good, or else it's just not funny. It's not funny, but they think it's going to be funny ...
HD: ... for the shock value?
SS: But it's not shocking, because you can see it anywhere. It's not shocking at all. So if you think about who's really funny, it's someone who's really creative, who takes your mind on a little trip and make you think something different ... you can just tell. It's not like I have to filter it out, it just doesn't come into my mind as being funny in the first place. It's not like I would ever go, Oh, that's really funny. It just doesn't come across as funny to me. If you watch a crowd that's laughing, and it's sort of a really dirty comedian, some of it is nervous laughter, some of it's kind of like, Oh, this is sort of embarrassing to me! Some of it is, I think I'm supposed to be laughing, because everyone else is. You can see that.
HD: It's not cool not to laugh.
SS: Right, he's so loud and he's the guy with the microphone that I'd better start laughing, because everyone else is. You can tell, though. I'm not an expert on this or anything, but you can look around and just tell that a lot of people maybe haven't gone out in a long time. Maybe are at home with their kids and have a very restricted when-I-get-to-be-dirty kind of time. So they really like it. They're like, Go ahead be crazy, be on the edge! But if you see it all the time, it's not really that edgy, everybody does this, you know? It's just way refreshing when somebody you can watch really entertains you, and they don't have to talk about everything you've already heard before and they don't have to swear the whole time and you know, so ...
HD: Well, before we get off the teeter totter, I definitely want to ask you about this job. Maybe it's not the same job you have now fund-raising for schools, but my understanding is that you have in the past, or maybe still are, selling books door-to-door?
SS: I sold books door-to-door for nine summers. And I lived in California for six summers, and Idaho and Indiana, Utah ...
HD: ... what part of Indiana?
SS: Mishawaka, you know Mishawaka, near South Bend-ish? It's near Mich-iana, where many time zones ... where you make an appointment at 7:30 and you wake up at 7:30 and you go to the appointment and you're early.
HD: I think they're fixing that in Indiana.
SS: Fixing it?
HD: Yeah, they're fixing it. I grew up in southern Indiana, and that part of the state, for me really, almost doesn't count as being Indiana ...
SS: So in an Amish area?
HD: Me? No.
SS: Well, but you have the Amish washing machine. And there were a lot of Amish people in Elkhart.
HD: Right, but I wasn't from that area. I grew up right down the road from Bloomington. Have you ever heard the expression: Indiana is the middle finger of the south?
SS: No. I like it.
HD: So you were selling books door-to-door. Really, selling anything door-to-door in the 19 ... was it the 90's?
SS: The 90's um hmm.
HD: That just strikes me as unbelievable. If someone came and knocked on my door selling a product, whatever it was, I would want them off my porch as quickly as possible.
SS: Well, you don't have kids. The company, it's 150 years old, based in Nashville, Tennessee, and literally, 150 years old. The Civil War and World War I and II interrupted the book-selling summer. When I moved here from South Carolina, I was recruiting and training college students from Michigan [UM] and Western [WMU] and Eastern [EMU]. We trained them on campus, and then you go to Nashville and you train there. And then you go out to a territory, and you have a host family ...
HD: ... to sell children's books??
SS: To sell children's books, yeah. They're books that help kids with their homework and they're books for reading and things like that.
HD: And there are host families who are willing to host college students who are selling books?!
SS: Yeah. We found families in two different ways. Some are alumni, because obviously, there's a buhzillion alumni. Some were alumni who were on a list saying, Hey, if anybody's in this area, please contact me I'll host kids for the summer. You and a couple of roommates or you and another roommate, that are selling in this area, you'd find a little breakfast spot that you went to every day, where you could have your little maps out and have meetings and the manager was probably with you. And it was hard. When I used to interview people, I'd tell them everything, I'd tell them, Here's the thing: fourteen weeks; you're not partying; you're working like 80 hours a week, straight commission; if you're about average, you'll make about 8000 dollars in the summer.
HD: What's that work out to an hour?
SS: Doesn't matter, because they'd sit down and look at their last summer job, and I'd be like, Now what did you save? What did you have at the end of the summer? And they'd be like, 75 dollars. Had no money, and had nothing on their resume. They were a lifeguard, or they were a server. Nothing's wrong with those jobs, they can be fun. But this attracted the kind of student who was like: I want to move somewhere different, I want to drive across the country, and I want to save 8000 dollars or 12,000 dollars, whatever, I want to ...
HD: ... I have to just observe right now, that you're a very trusting individual to have your feet propped up right on the teeter totter right now ...
SS: ... it's a dancing, yoga kind of thing.
HD: Yeah, you're relying on me not to just hop off, because you'd have no chance.
SS: I'm trusting, I'm trusting.
HD: So how long has it been since you've knocked on a door with book in hand trying to sell someone a book?
SS: September 11th, 2001.
SS: I was knocking on a door September 11th, 2001. I was in the Mich-iana area. It's one of those things where you never forget that moment. A lady I had been trying to catch up with a long time, I knocked on her door and her husband was leaving, kissed her goodbye and I said, Oh, I'm so glad I caught you at home! And she said, Well, normally, I wouldn't be at home, but I've been so sick I've been going through chemo. Long, pretty dark hair. And I said, Gosh, you look really good to be going through chemo, and then she sort of yanks off her hair. She had a wig on, a long, pretty, dark wig. So I said, That is the craziest thing I'm going to see all day! And she goes, Yeah, probab-ly. And she's like, Are you the book girl, I think my sister bought these for her high-schoolers, but don't you have little kids' books? And I said, Yeah, she sent me over here, but I just could never catch you. And she said, Oh, well yeah, I want to see 'em, she knows I'm really into books and everything, she thought it was a cool idea. So I come in, we're chatting, she's like, Would you like some coffee? and blah blah blah. And all of sudden she gets a call on the cell phone from her husband and she's like, Oh my God, Oh my God! So we run into the living room together, and I'm like, What's happening? What's happening? And she turns on the TV. She's pretty much a stranger, I've been there maybe 8 minutes and I sat there with her probably three hours. We're crying together, and praying together. She's like, Do you want to call your mom? Do you want to go home? Where are your parents? And no phones were working, nobody could call anybody, but the organization I was running that summer was all students from other countries. Everybody in my territory that I was working with and was in charge of was from Estonia, the UK, Poland, stuff like that. I was driving around neighborhoods in Indiana trying to find them. They all had bicycles didn't have a car, trying to find them all. Because, of course, their parents are like, American is being attacked and my child is there! And that's all they know. I sat with this lady all this time. I'll never forget it. Because I had said, right before she got the phone call from her husband, That's the craziest thing I'm going to see all day. The family I was living with in Mishawaka, it was me, a girl from Estonia, and a girl from Poland, or maybe it was Hungary. We lived in a house with an exchange student from Chili. Her parents were like a really tall doctor who met his wife in Africa when he was in the Peace Corps. She was African, with a mumu thing, thing on her head, cooking all the time, they were the oddest-looking couple. But we met them at a church, they loved the idea of what we were doing.
HD: So this book-selling company, is it a Christian-based organization?
SS: No, it's not. I mean, there's a lot of Christians there, but I don't think it's overtly Christian.
HD: So the books themselves are not about how little Timmy learned to love God or ...
SS: ... no, actually have you ever seen in a museum or something, those little tiny Civil War Bibles, like they would give to soldiers? I think they started out a long time ago selling those, like 1850 or whatever. And then it was little companion Bibles. In the really really old sales talks, there were things like How to Answer the I-can't-read Objection.
SS: It was a very common objection for someone to go, Well, I'm the only one in the house who can read, why would we buy a book?
HD: What was the standard response to that?
SS: The standard response was, Well, have you ever had your pastor come by to do a home visit? If he wants to pray for the person in the house who is sick, and you don't have a Bible around for him to use, wouldn't it be nice if when the pastor came to call, and you needed a Bible ...? And they would say, Wouldn't he bring his own Bible?
HD: Or shouldn't he know everything that's in the Bible already, he shouldn't have to consult!
SS: Right, he should know that entire thing, word for word! Then it became dictionaries, it became two books with a dictionary in the back half of the second book, and they were things that people actually use. Like a lot of times kids these days come home with just worksheets. Schools don't have a lot of money, they just have worksheets and their parents are like, Where's the book? I haven't done this in 25 years! Or the book is the way they're doing the math now and the parents learned it a different way. So in the handbooks that we sell, there's different ways of doing math, or all the different formulas and what all the symbols mean, a Spanish-English Dictionary, a French-English Dictionary, all kinds of science experiments. They're cool. And then there're little kids books that are like, Why Questions. That's more of what they do now. The company that I work for now is a sister company housed in the same building as the headquarters of Southwestern/Great American. Great American School Fundraising. All focussed on developing young people, raising money and stuff like that.
HD: So back to the September 11th, though, you were able to successfully gather up your collection of folks and ...
SS: ... yeah, the two guys who were working at Elkhart, one guy had rented a car and he drove home. Another guy biked home. They came over to our host family and met us. In our house, the reaction to it was probably not normal. I don't know what a normal reaction would be, but Pearl, my host mom, had already been through a lot of war, being attacked, going along a caravan and the whole family being attacked and 13 brothers and sisters, not knowing where some of them were. She was sort of rescued from that and sent them money periodically, hoping that it would make it to one or more of them. And one of the children who was living with us, I don't even think he was their actual son, I think he was more like left with them. His parents were taken away. There were so many different nations inside the house that had been involved in all sorts of upheaval, that it was a more philosophical discussion: well, things like this happen.
HD: So they had a category of things already in their life experience, so that they could add this event to that category that already existed, whereas for a lot of Americans, it was a whole new category that they had to create.
SS: And of all the students from other countries that were working all around the United States, we didn't have any students selling books door-to-door in New York City. So really, nobody was in harm's way at all. But their parents are somewhere else in the world, you know how you see something on TV from a country and you're like, Aaahhhhh, is everybody there safe?
HD: Right, you just want that phone call saying, Yes, we're okay.
SS: You want that phone call, you can't get it. The girl that I lived with was such a doll, but an only child. And her mother, the whole thought of her even coming over here was hard. It was hard for all the parents. I mean, it's a really really big deal for all the parents. It's very rare that there's a parent who's like, Go get'em?! There's usually a lot of questions: what does my daughter want to do? But I remember the way we all felt was, we knew we were going through something together that is such a weird thing to go through together. We sort of ended up having a lot of fun. Because there was that sense of like, You never know what's going to happen!
HD: Well, it's an amazing piece of shared history to have with someone.
SS: You never know what's going to happen! We should do whatever we can in our lifetime now! Let's take a train to Chicago! I love you guys! I'll do whatever I can for you! All this kind of stuff came up, even though it was such a short term of knowing them.
HD: Anything else on your mind?
SS: I need a place to live.
HD: Looking for a new place to live?
SS: With good storage, maybe covered parking, some office space ...
HD: ... do you feel like you're a good roommate? Are you even looking for a place with a roommate?
SS: I don't think so. I've lived with 78 different people, actually.
HD: Exactly 78?
SS: I think it's 78. One day someone challenged me and I was like, I think I've lived with more than 50 people. And they said, You haven't lived with more than 50 people ... and so I counted. I think it's 78. So I was thinking, like, I can live with anyone.
HD: You have animals that you have to fit into the equation? Cats? Dogs? Birds? Fish?
SS: No, I don't have any animals. Or, did you say 'monkey'?
SS: It's a little helper monkey, so it's not an animal. What if you had a little monkey chef? He plays the banjo, so people usually ... I don't have a monkey. If a house had a monkey ... I'd be there. A little monkey, not like an orangutan ...
HD: So how urgent a house search is this?
SS: I want to know where I'm going to be soon, for the first week of August.
HD: So you've got the month of July to look.
SS: I do. But it's one of those things where I can't stop thinking about it because I want it to be off my mind. It's been sort of unsettled for almost two years now. I was living in a place where I'd lived for a long long time, living with a person who I knew from standup. He's a free-lance cameraman who suddenly got a job going on tour with a rock band called Disturbed.
HD: So that's a huge career break for him?
SS: Yeah, well, the thing is, he thought it was going to be a few weeks. And then it turned into a few months, and then it was like, I'm not really living there any more, I don't really need to live there anymore, I need to be more where they are and this and that. So he had to move and then suddenly I was like, Crap, I gotta move. And I just got a new job, which all of a sudden made my living situation different, because I have to store brochures and candy and prizes and things for kids. And office space and the whole job ...
HD: ... what kind of candy?
SS: Little candy that you give away to kids for being good. You know if they bring in something on time, they get like a Starburst or they get a candy bar.
HD: I'm not a big fan of the fruit-flavored stuff. I like Reese's Cups, they're the best.
SS: Yes! We have cookie dough, that's good stuff. We have those candies that you get in catalogs that are like chocolate coconut. Our company meetings are dangerous. Food, tasting, making sure that your product knowledge is up. But in Ann Arbor, they're cutting out anything sweet. Like no pop machines in schools, kids can't sell candy. Which is weird, because pop machines and candy are huge revenue for schools, ...
HD: ... we got an attitude here.
SS: You think?
HD: There was a little girl who came to our door one October trick-or-treating and she asked, what did she ask, ...
SS: ... do you guys have any tofu, hemp salad ...
HD: ... I'm trying to remember what she specifically asked for. I think it was 'something without any processed sugar', and she also mentioned that she was a vegan?! And I said, We got candy bars, honey.
SS: Poor thing.
HD: Too bad for her. Well, good luck with the search for the place to live. And thanks for coming to ride the teeter totter.
SS: You're welcome. It was a delight. Are you going to flip me off, or do we have to count to three?
HD: One two three. Well done.