Wiry, boyish, with a pair of dark-rimmed glasses and a floppy haircut, DeAnne Smith looks like Harry Potter. Or so she says.
Her squeaky clean, “aw, shucks” image and demeanour pairs Montreal nonchalance with — and there’s no other word for this — an earnestness atypical of her generation.
Her lack of cynicism and her exuberance on stage disarms audiences. But then, a twinkle gleams in her eye, and finally she lets out a zinger, landed smack dab in the very space she opened up.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
It’s a formula that’s done her well, as she leapfrogged from Montreal’s Comedy Off the Main to that city’s Just for Laughs festival and NBC’s Last Comic Standing.
Typical example: Smith explains that she saw a bumper sticker that says “Abortion equals Holocaust.” She gives some salient details, then, with wide-eyed directness, she lets her arrow fly.
“It’s a women’s right to choose,” she says, “whether or not to give birth to six million Jews.”
Pause for laughter.
“That’s a lot of Jews.”
In this case, her target is rightwing anti-abortion activists, but she’s not treating anyone with kid gloves.
“I try to get people thinking about it, just how absurd that is,” says Smith from her home in Montreal.
There are no sacred cows for Smith, who rolls into Ottawa to host Transgress Oct 24.
“I think it is important to press people’s buttons, and remind them what’s important and what not,” she says. “And it’s comedy, right? So, if you can make it funny, then you can say anything you want.”
No sacred cows? Well, mostly. Smith says she’s not interested in attacking her audience, the way some insult comics do.
“The one thing that I never want to do is make some people feel bad,” she says. “I mean, if someone is a total jerk, I might have to reconsider, but I don’t want people in the audience to feel personally bad about themselves.”
That conviction is sometimes tested while she is on stage, she says. She told a Montreal audience about her experiences as a nanny.
“I’m 30 years old. I’m a homosexual. I live in a basement. And I want to work with kids.”
Deadpan. The next line is a joke about molestaches.
But on this particular evening, a heckler called out, “Not my kids!”
Dumb, homophobic jerk. But what can you do?
“There wasn’t much to do. It’s tricky, because the whole audience didn’t hear,” she says. “I looked at her, and I started addressing my next few jokes directly at her. I guess it was just a power thing, to say to her, ‘At any moment I could call you out.’ But I didn’t.”
And that’s at the heart of Smith’s nice girl/nasty girl demeanour. Take no prisoners on subject matter, but treat the audience with respect.
Smith says that growing up lesbian has given her skills that make her comedy better. Because she grew up in a small town, she says it’s invested her work with a bit of outsider objectivity. And as often as not, sexuality is fodder for observational humour.
“I literally believed that I had invented the concept of lesbianism,” she says. “On the one hand I thought, ‘This is the worst thing ever,’ and on the other hand, I thought, ‘This is great, I should patent this.'”