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After three-and-a-half years on the local comedy circuit, African-American comic Seaton Smith thinks he’s got his audience all figured out.
“Hicks are smart,” the 24-year-old Shaw resident says. “White people…[t]hey’ll giggle. They’re polite. But black people? Black people are very hot or cold. If they don’t like your first couple of jokes, they’ll continue hating you through the whole set.”
Smith may know how to work his crowd, but he now faces a new challenge: He has to find one. From April 2005 to this September, Seaton organized a weekly comedy show at Bossa Bistro & Lounge in Adams Morgan. In between his own onstage sets, he would regularly work the sidewalks of 18th Street NW, using his affable personality to reel in potential audience members.
“The feeling of bringing people in, people who had no intention of watching comedy and having them go from nothing to hysterical laughter? That is a great feeling,” Smith says.
The feeling, however, wasn’t enough to keep Smith onstage at Bossa. Aside from management deciding that comedy-performance patrons didn’t drink enough, Smith says, the Bossa crew wanted more music, less laughs, and the whole deal to start and end an hour earlier. And, as the stress of promoting his act grew, Smith began to reconsider his commitment to hosting a show.
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“I just was burned out,” he says of his night at Bossa. “Worrying about being funny is one thing—but when you have to worry about crowd control, getting people to come, and keeping the management happy…I didn’t start [the show] to become a promoter, and that’s what it turned into.”
Since losing his regular gig, Smith has performed at various clubs in the Metro area, including Topaz, Cafe Nema, Bohemian Caverns, and the Laughing Lizard. Though he’s been inspired by Sam Kinison, Woody Allen, and Steve Martin, Smith says that—like many young black comedians—his biggest influence is the late Richard Pryor.
“I take a lot of stuff from Pryor,” says Smith. “Not his jokes, but the fact that he talks a lot about truth and pain. So that’s what I mainly try to talk about.”
Part of his own pain is what Smith describes as his inability to be himself. Growing up in New Jersey, he had both white and black friends but never completely identified with any particular group.
“I’ve found that many mixed rooms accept me for me. Middle-class rooms and up, they accept me. Once I hit more of the lower-class black rooms—the ‘’hood rooms,’ as I like to call them—I run into more of a problem.” Smith says he was once called a “sellout” and heckled off the stage by a roomful of black patrons.
But onstage at the D.C. Improv a few weeks ago, one never would have guessed Seaton had ever received anything but laughs—the comedian kept the crowd in fits during his 10-minute performance. And, if determining the comedic leanings of his new audiences causes him any problems, he always has his own acute self-awareness to fall back on. “I’m not a tough-looking [black] man,” he quipped during his set. “I’m in a room full of white people, and nobody’s trying to hide their wallet.” —Amanda S. Miller