An Interview With Seaton Smith: Being Black In Comedy, The NYC Comedy Scene And More

This story was originally shared on The Classic Black Dude 

Seaton Smith is one of the most interesting people Ive ever talked to. He laughs a lot, but many times you don’t know if its with you, or AT you. A “thinker” – he pauses before answering questions, acknowledging everything about what you said- partly out of respect, partly to weigh the validity of the question, and partly to nail the response. Conversation is almost competitive. You want to be as smart as him, even though he doesn’t fully subscribe to the term.

“If Im smart up there, its by accident. I just talk about shit that’s interesting to me. I don’t want to be the ‘smart’ comedian, necessarily. If you’re trying to be smart, you’re not trying to be funny. Its all intention. Sometimes I might come off as smart, but I got a lot of cum jokes. If funny is secondary, than its a boring show.”

Photo by Mindy Tucker

He’s a graduate of Howard University. Born in Cali, but a native of Missouri Jersey Washington DC

“I don’t claim anything. I got a chance to hate every part of America.” he says non-nonchalantly. He is not a hater, but there are things he certainly hates. “I dont think like that– about “luck.” Thats a pathetic way to go about your career. Cant base your career on luck, thats stupid. Sorry, it just makes me mad. Your life is not based on luck, its based on decisions you make. None of your heroes are lucky. They work they’re ass off.” I ask him about Michael Che’s quote that “you have to get lucky in show business.” “Che is LYING to you.” he says before belting a signature chuckle.“YOUR LIFE IS NOT BASED ON LUCK, ITS BASED ON DECISIONS YOU MAKE” “I just know nothing about his career is lucky, Everything is planning. He is one of the smartest human beings I have ever met. Look at his Daily Show segments. They’re not good, they’re great. I ain’t gassing him up but, that ain’t luck to become the first Black anchor on Weekend Update. Nobody gave him anything.”

CBD: Are you funny first, or Black first in your approach?

Seaton: I dont know if they overlap. ones a job and ones an ethnicity.

CBD: When a Kramer or Bill Maher says “nigger” which part of you reacts first?

Seaton: *laughs* Bill Maher lost me when he criticized Jon Stewart for doing the march on Washington. Well what are you fighting for? When he says “house nigga” I assume its for attention. I think the culture has shifted on his show, he had to do something to still be relevant. When he had his show in the 90’s [Politically Incorrect] He was the only one doing it. Jon out smarted and out-liberaled him, so he HAS to say “nigga” for the attention. It’s like when D’Angelo had to get naked, because everybody bit his style. When he dropped his second album, it was already 14 D’angelo sounding albums out! a bunch of motherfuckers who you would soon forget. He had to keep starting over every time a Jimmy Cozier put out diet “Brown Sugar.” Then, he had to get naked to sell it.

CBD: Is there a parallel there with success in comedy, having to look good?

Seaton: Most black comics dont have that problem. its a cultural thing with standup. most white comics are low on their social totem pole, so they can be the nerdy, or the slovenly person. Black comics don’t find weakness to be all that funny. With black people, the funniest dude, is usually the coolest or most respected motherfucker in the room. Most Black comics have to look great because, nigga, theyre the coolest person in the room. You gotta play the part.

On the set of “Mulaney.” Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe

CBD: Wheres your head right now?

Seaton: Im reading Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. I like story structure. One way of hearing structure isnt enough, I gotta hear it a thousand different ways before forming an opinion. Same way with comedy, I gotta ask a bunch of different people what they think before settling on a thing.

Comedy and religion are kinda the same. If you’re in America looking at the sun, and in Africa looking at the sun, its the same thing, but its about perspective. That’s comedy. But I need to get to the center, first. Like some great comedians like, Jermaine Fowler can just get up there and figure it out on stage. I’m different, I gotta know it first and then go up there. That’s an age thing, too. Some people are more Eddie Murphy, some people are Mel Brooks. I’m closer to the ladder. Mel didn’t have success until his late 30’s, but he was good until his 90’s.

CBD: Do you feel pressure with age to make it big?

Seaton: Of course, we all feel the insecurity, even Eddie. I’ll never feel like Im Madison Square Garden funny, but you can sit him in a room with a chair and nothing, and KILL. He’s that great. But even him, he has insecurities. its more or less just understanding that- I want to be a writer, performer, make movies, and do stand-up, and once I do it, then, Im successful. Ive been successful for years. I want to continue it, and propose to my girlfriend.

CBD: You know this is going to be printed?

Seaton: Yeah, I aint afraid of speaking it into reality. Thats success.

CBD: Speaking of success, you were on Mulaney, which was heavily criticized, and lasted 14 episodes, how did you make out from that experience?

Seaton: I made out great. I was doing shitty college shows and showcases, then got on a national TV show. I did great! My talent was always there, its just the world had to acknowledge it. It takes about two years from the time you move to NYC or LA. approximately… But you got to be funny first. 2011 I moved here, 2013 I got “Mulaney”

CBD: Were you visiting NYC before you moved here?

Seaton: I had been making random trips, because i had been doing comedy 7 years before i moved here.

CBD: What was the biggest difference between scenes?

People had names for their show. I would know a show as “Lucky Jack’s” or “Irish Exit”

CBD: Its always whatever the bar’s name is…

Seaton: Yeah! People would come up with these unique names of what the show is, and I would say “oh, you mean Creek and the Cave?” just say that. Im not knocking it, I just found it hilarious.

CBD: Do you like the New York comedy scene?

Seaton: I think so, yeah.

CBD: I mean socially, not necessarily on stage, but off. How do you mentally prepare for the social navigation, and political elements of working in this pressure cooker?

Seaton: *laughs* Oh, good question. Before I started comedy I used to read a lot of biographies. Frank Capra, Charlie Chaplin, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Dick Gregory’s bio is pretty good. A lot of them lived long lives but had a lot of regrets and it helped me plan my own path. I knew it would take me about 14 years to get where I needed to be. I knew I would have to learn how to make black and white people laugh. Black folks its a deeper connection, but I knew I had to do both. I knew if i was really good at one thing, I could get everything else. Like a pop star. Great at singing, but then they get commercials, they get acting gigs, and it all opens up. Its great comedians that have a shit load of acting jobs, I wont name names, but they’re funny, so its great. All the greats have been around 12-14 years before taking off. Except Eddie. And Chaplin was 9 years old.

Seaton on Conan

CBD: Follow up question-

Seaton: Wait, wait, let me finish about navigating. Its a plan, you gotta stick to your plan. Its a boxing analogy. I started boxing two years ago. And they train, so when fear comes around and you freak out, your training will kick in. It’ll feel like everybody’s getting everything and you’re not getting anything, but if that one person got one thing, you gotta ask yourself, did I even want that? Revert back to the plan.

Seaton and Hannibal Burress. Comedy at the Knitting Factory. Every Sunday at 9pm in Brookklyn

CBD: Do you get jealous?

Seaton: Oh definitely, but not as much. Patton Oswalt said it best “jealousy is just a roadmap” I remember hanging out with Hannibal [Burress] at Bonnaroo and on paper, he has the perfect life. But we were walking around and people would have weird ummmm, what’s the word for feeling deserving of people’s time?

CBD: Entitlement?

Seaton: Yes! entitlement, people just interacted with him in a weird way. Sometimes you are jealous of someone like him, and then you’re around it and you’re like”well I dont think I want what comes with that.” You gotta know what you want. And stand-up comedy aint a young mans game. You get funny with experience, unless you get lazy. Chris Rock said that shit. Nobody’s made a great special under 30.

CBD: Chappelle was 27 when he did “killing them Softly.” His openers were Patrice O’Neal and Bill Burr.

Seaton: Thats amazing. He is obviously an exception to just about everything.

CBD: Tell me about doing Conan.

Seaton: I sent him the tape in January. He hit me back in February. Then I did it in March. It was very cool. It aired in May. Conan, versus everybody was the loosest. Like “this guys funny, lets get him on.” No hassle. Everybody else wanted better camera angles on my submission tape. Conan just said ‘come do it. Come back again.’ Staff was nice. They treat you well over there too. Doing the spot was so quick and easy that I forgot I was on stage. When I got off Im like ‘was that good?’ It was a blur. For a half second up there I thought, ‘what if I’m bombing right now?’ *laughs* Then went right back to work.

CBD: Which new guys do you like?

Seaton: Rob Haze, Simeon Goodson, I really like them a lot. Lil Rel is so fucking good at being funny.

Night train Show. Hosted by Wyatt Cenac

CBD: Speaking of… How do Black crowds feel about you?

Seaton: Theres been a cultural shift. There had been a long war between “niggas and Black folks” so said Chris rock. But I think Kanye, Kid Cudi, and other musicians have shifted the culture and centered IT in a way to accept all types of eccentric comedians. My initial mistake was, I would come out too aggressive and negative. I started watching how pastors went about it, in that every pastor comes out humble. They come out “I want to thank the Lord, the deacons, everybody, then it rises as it goes along.” Katt Williams and Rock are preachers. Patrice was a conversationalist. You gotta figure out who you are. I’m a conversationalist.

CBD: With a 14 year plan, you don’t think luck will play any role in things happening?

Seaton: You work yourself into luck. Its training by being in the right positions. luck doesn’t exist. Ask Hannibal, who works his ass off, how much of it is luck? Give me a successful friend of yours who is “lucky.”

Nobody gave them anything. I dont mean to keep bringing it up, but those that are like “nobody is paying attention to me” and they’re going to continue to not pay attention to you if you just gripe. Stop acting like a bitch, and go get what you want. And read The Alchemist.

Seaton is currently on tour with more information at www.seatonsmith.com

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