To any young comic interested in learning how to perform like Seaton Smith: Start with a flighty delivery. Recap concepts to build momentum and snap your fingers frenziedly while pretending to forget the punch line. Mix in some ornate physical comedy. Then, as the audience begins to stir in their seats, spring an unexpected turn of phrase and take a quick lap around the stage while delighting in the resultant laughter.
Clad in bowtie and cardigan, Smith, 30, moved to New York from Washington, D.C., to pursue stand-up two years ago, but he’d been around before that, appearing at Just for Laughs in 2008 and performing around 100 college shows a year. After he opened for Bill Burr at D.C.’s DAR Constitution Hall last year, Burr asked him to do the same for the taping of his hour-long special. On why he chose Smith, Burr says, “I looked at him and I saw a comedian. He’s just that type of guy: He’s not taking any shortcuts; he’s working his way up. And he was cool as hell offstage.”
Though the comic avoids career shortcuts, he’s incredibly direct with his subject matter—race, gender and sexuality. Before beginning his exegesis of race, for example, Smith explains to the crowd, “I’m going to be racist for a while. That cool with you?” He then tackles the tricky issue from multiple angles. “It is actually easier to be gay in the ’hood than it is to be an Oreo,” Smith jokes. “ ’Cause if you’re gay, you can have this wonderful thing called pride. You’ve never seen an Oreo walk in the room and say, ‘Hey! I’ve read all five Game of Thrones novels!’ ”
Smith is just as spirited as he is cerebral. Whether ardently delivering anecdotes and impressions, or articulating his own internal dialogue, his voice spans multiple octaves: It booms while conjuring his paranoid “slave voice” (which tries to spoil Smith’s bed-and-breakfast vacation by reminding him that the quaint abode was probably built by chattel), and it peaks in glissando when caricaturing an Italian student who figures Smith for a drug dealer (“Excuse me, sir. Do you have any weeeeeeeed?”).
But anyone truly looking to tell jokes like this idiosyncratic performer would do well to study his TEDx talk, “Reinventing the Black Comedian.” In addressing the challenges of performing to both white and black rooms, his observations leave you with something to think about—but with enough whimsicality to save you from thinking too much. “Whether it’s black, white, rich or poor, everybody has their truth,” Smith concludes. “But the one real fact I know—for now—is that a good dick joke supersedes all of that.”