Comedy Issue: An interview with Law Smith

One of Tampa's most proactive comics talks about the craft.

click to enlarge Comedy Issue: An interview with Law Smith - meaghan habuda
meaghan habuda
Comedy Issue: An interview with Law Smith

You know that whole cliche about the comic as a dysfunctional, self-hating loner who's only truly together when he's spilling his rancid guts onstage somewhere in LA after midnight?

Yeah, Law Smith doesn't really seem like he fits that category. The 31-year-old comedian not only seems remarkably well-adjusted, but is also one of the founders of both the prominent Cigar City Comedy collective and a hip new design and campaign consulting firm (Tocobaga) with offices over Ybor City's even-more-hip The Bricks. He helps produce a multitude of his peers' podcasts, lends his talents to video projects, and harbors ambitions for all of these efforts that belie the loose, rambling, deceptively conversational style he brings to the stand-up stage.

Then again, he totally offered me a beer at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, so there you go.

So how long have you been at it? Nine years?
Yeah, about, let's see, I think it's ten years now, over 200 shows a year.

And you went out to LA at one point?
I moved to LA when I was 21, for five years.

Why'd you come back?
I don't want to be an actor. I just love stand-up, and everyone that I saw who was really good had to do commercial acting, because you don't make shit doing stand-up unless you're in that higher echelon. I'm sure it's like music now, with streaming — you have to tour and perform to make a living. But if you're just standing on the street  in some town telling jokes as opposed to playing music, you're just kind of a meth addict. There's a cool factor to music. I think comedy's getting there, it is a good time for stand-up.

I can do everything I want to do out of my hometown, and Tampa's airport is one of the best, I can get on whatever flight I need to get on to go where I need to. Plus, there's the factor of, like, if I wanted to film a sketch or a short, trying to do that in southern California is a goddamned nightmare. There aren't any rules here ... three of the other comics in Cigar City and I shot a pilot, there's no way we could've ever done that if we were in New York or LA or even Austin.

So do you like doing a lot of stuff, videos and podcasts in addition to stand-up?
It's a spaghetti-on-the-wall kind of thing. I do this sketch called How To Be A Man, and the whole character's just a white trash Daytona young father doing a video journal to his son. It was one of the best things — the people I showed it to, the people I'm close to whose opinions I think about, they were like, "this is awesome," and that's a different feeling than stand-up.

But thats different, I don't think you can just do it, it's hard to just do sketch. I think a lot of stand-ups would like to do some kind of film or sketches, other stuff. It builds up those muscles, too — maybe you're gonna produce or write something, and you're able to empathize with it, the process.

By the way, I'll keep talking until you cut me off or ask another question [laughs].

But that's kind of like your stand-up style — you've got this loose, storytelling style that's, like you said earlier, it's like a two-way conversation that's really a one-way conversation in disguise. 
It took a while to even get together, and I don't know if that's even the best voice to have, but … one thing is, I grew up here in the best family, my parents are still together, we're a very close family. I don't have that usual [dysfunction]. A lot of people do, comedy becomes your haven if your parents fight or your father just beat you — you can listen to Richard Pryor and feel better.

I don't' think you necessarily need to come from a fucked-up family. My mom would get me into stand-up, make me watch The Amazing Jonathan, and I felt, this is what I want to do — not the magic, obviously. We both love Ron White, I've gotten to open for him a couple of times, which is surreal.

It feels cathartic. I guess I get pissed at a lot of shit, it's just like, 'why are we doing this? Why are we building more highways here?' It's boring to a lot of people, but I get worked up about something I saw and want to talk about it and ask people about it.

But you also have that weird balance, like, you can go on ranting about something like Bill Hicks, but you know when it's time for a dick joke.
Dick jokes never get old. I don't like people who pretend they're too good for that stuff. Comedy is primal. If you wanna get really deep and stoned and on mushrooms about comedy, it's very primal. You know, there's this basic thing, it's like Brian Regan, who is absolutely the best stand-up, it's this primal thing. And he's from Florida, too, which is inspiring.

I think we're getting to, like, an area of authenticity, and I never thought growing up in the '90s ... I remember the PC culture stuff a little bit, and I never thought it would get further than that. It's out of hand about how everyone is confused about what is PC.

It seems like you can't even talk about race without it being called racist...
My feeling on that is, does it feel like there's hate involved? Then yes. If you're joking about something onstage and there's no real heat or hate behind it, then it's fine. I'm not down with white dudes dropping the N-bomb or anything, but, somebody, I think it was Zach Galifianakis did something and dropped it once, and it was great, it came from an absurdist point of view.

And on the gender thing, I think people are just really confused on the pronoun. There's no handbook on that.

But when I do get romantic about stand-up, I see it as that, the last bastion of free speech. If a bar wants to book a Cigar City show, if there's language restrictions, we won't do it. This is a place to get away from the office and talk about queefs. But you can kind of feel the crowd, it's kind of palpable.

Speaking of Cigar City Comedy, how did that whole collective come about?
I'm sure I'm lifting the idea from someone else who did it better. I think I saw how the Seattle comics were really good about working together — the People's Republic of Comedy or something. The idea was if you work together as a group, you get more out of it. You still have your own individual career, though.

My thing was more online-centric. But the idea was, let's aggregate all of our content on one site that is gonna pull more people to one site. My people will find [David] Weingarten's stuff, people that come to see [Joe] Riga find JB Ball. Riga hates this, but I say it's like the X-Men. He likes to say it's like the Wu-Tng Clan, where they all had their own career, but they come together to make an album. We're trying to get a mixtape together for the holidays.

We do meetings, we'll get up every two or three weeks, get our brunch game on, say, here's what's going on, share ideas. It's like sharing information, but we also want each other to succeed. And it's not like we're bringing it to go against other comedians, we're more against, don't go waste your money on that shitty movie. Go on Rotten Tomatoes and see that it's horrible, and spend your money on seeing some local comedians.

So do you consider yourself an alternative comedian who would rather do DIY stuff, play rooms other than clubs?
I think it's one of those things where you wanna be versatile. You don't wanna be, I just do alt rooms, or I just do bars, or I just do clubs. I don't want to pigeonhole myself. I tell everybody to take an improv class, and stand-ups hate improv, because it's the opposite of stand-up. You have to collaborate, you have to take a back seat, and you have to be silly, and a lot of comics don't like that.

Improv seems to have served you well in the way you talk to crowds, bring them into your show.
I can't hate too much on people, I've been followed after shows to get my ass beat.

Really? You seem to know where the line is...
A lot of it is sports. When you're growing up, you're chewing on your friends, you know where the line is. I got a lot of that growing up around a bunch of dudes that just made fun of each other constantly. We still do, everyone in our fantasy football league puts a penis over the other guy's [avatar].

So do you think comics now have to take advantage of everything, do the podcasts and the videos?
Yeah … I don't know, it depends what you wanna do. I don't think you necessarily have to do 'em. Let's look at Matt Fernandez. It's weird when one of your good friends is probably one of the funniest people on Twitter, and he doesn't do anything but stand-up, and writing, and he's worked at that. It's more about honing it in one area, which is better than what I'm doing, which is scattershot. But I like it, it's good, and it keeps me versatile for business, too — OK, I've got some experience with filmmaking, I know a little bit about lenses and lights and stuff.

If you're starting stand-up, you should focus on being good. And then if you have other interests, do those as well, but don't let it take you away from doing stand-up. Which is tough, because if you're working a 35-40 hours a week at a job, stand-up is another 40-hour job that doesn't pay. You've gotta love it.

Since I started this business [Tocobaga], I haven't been getting up as much. But I just consider this, like, time spent writing a sitcom or a new show — I couldn't get up as much for four months, but then I'm right back on it.

Do you think touring is still as important for stand-ups as it used to be?
Yeah, I think so. I did two tours with my buddies at 24, 25, and I got so much better, just seeing the country, get how people are in certain places. There's rednecks in Chicago! They come over from Racine. We got to do a show right after a funeral in Grant's Pass, Oregon. One of my favorite shows was in Texarkana. I'm all about the small city, I guess. They were so much more appreciative of it when it was the only thing going on in town that night.