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I was around Paul Smith for a while before I ever saw him.  He and my husband worked the same comedy circuit up in Canada.  There were always comics around, vying for the spotlight. Paul's the one who's mostly quiet.   Then one night I saw him do comedy.  And I started noticing.  After the show I asked him what his favorite book was. 

“Horton Hears A Who,” he said. 

“Dr. Suess?”

“Most people don't listen.  It's incredible when you do.”

And with that, Paul Smith stepped out of the wash of humanity and into my life.  The entry in my journal from that night reads, “I've found a great treasure.”

That was ten years ago.  Countless late-night shows and pool halls.  Many mornings spent sharing music, letters from home, Shakespeare and tea. 

Things have changed…like they do.  Paul is a booking agent now for Yuk Yuks, the comedy club he used to work for in another way.  He doesn't do much stand-up anymore, but he's no less an artist for it.   

There was a show one night for handicapped kids.  About ten comedians.  Afterwards, the kids were being wheeled out of the club, the comics safely across the room talking amongst themselves.  We were all a little uncomfortable.  Paul crossed the room to the last kid, leaned down and whispered something in his ear.  The kid's head went back, his face full of soundless laughter.  

Paul Smith doesn't need the stage.  He never did.  He is an artist.  A true comedian -- scared like all of us.  Broken by the things he sees and fierce in his insistence on beauty.  Laughter.  The light in the caves of our lives.

Last week I got to sit down with him at St. James's Gate, a little pub beneath his office in Toronto.  And you know what?  He keeps getting better.  

--by Delight Underwood


HYENA: 
So now -- I know you were born in Niagara Falls.  Are you Canadian or American?

PAUL SMITH:  Canadian!  Although both my grandfathers were born in the States.  My grandfather on my father's side crossed back into Canada to fight in WWI.  I still have his medals.

HYENA:  What's the difference between an American and a Canadian?

PAUL:  Propaganda.

HYENA:  You're one of three children.  

PAUL:  Yes, my brother Doug is a sports writer for the Toronto Star.  He's written books, you know, on baseball.  Lynn, my sister, she's a fishmonger.  That's what they call it.  Now she's the smart one.  She's got the best job.  Noble, I think.  Fishmonger.

HYENA:  And your folks?  

PAUL:  My father, George, was a traveling salesman for International Cooperage.  He sold storage barrels to factories.  That's where the name Cooper comes from.  Barrel makers.   My mom's name was Dorothy.  She died when I was eighteen.  She was George's secretary!  But  before that she was a secretary in Parliament.  I got to meet Trudeau because of that.  

HYENA:  What did you say?  

PAUL:  Nothing!  I was awestruck!  But she was very refined.  She's Scottish.  Also very superstitious.  Like on New Year's Eve, a dark-haired male had to be the first to enter the house.  If it was a red-headed woman, you were sunk.  Our neighbor, Mrs. Saget, had to wait outside until a dark-haired man arrived.  Funny thing is I don't even remember my mother having any good luck.  She used to go to fortune tellers. 

HYENA:  What'd you think about that?

PAUL: I don't believe in it.  I mean I hold out a great hope -- but I ain't betting on it!

HYENA:  What kind of boy were you?

PAUL:  Fat.  Chubby, fat boy.  Average.  The youngest of all the kids on our street.  We had so many kids on our street, we could play whatever sport was in season.

HYENA:   At seventeen, you were captain of the football team and a bouncer across the border in Niagara Falls, NY. 

PAUL:  Because I was angry. It was a biker bar -- Braggs, it was called.  I wasn't old enough to be in there and I was Canadian -- completely illegal on all counts.

HYENA:   Did you ever have to rough anybody up?

PAUL:  I weighed 285 at the time.  I just had to look at people and say, 'Hey, I'm the second smallest guy here.'

HYENA:  What happened after high school?  

PAUL:  I went to college to study Radio & Television but then I got a job in Radio, so I dropped out and went to work.

HYENA:   Didn't you move to Brooklyn around then?    

PAUL:   Yes -- I fell in love and moved to Dyker Heights -- that's right in between the Italian and the Irish section of Brooklyn.  I drove a courier truck there.  I was also writing material during this time.  

HYENA:  How did you know you were a comic?  

PAUL:  I was always a huge fan of standup and comedy -- since I was a little kid.  Mybrother bought comedy albums.  George Carlin was my favorite then.  And you know what?  He still is.  Then there was Bill Cosby.  We'd listen to those albums with our parents and then imitate him.  We could do that Jello monster bit to the second.  All these eight-year-olds running around talking like an old black man.

HYENA:  Tell me about your first time onstage.

PAUL:  It was the Uptown Yuk Yuks.  Yonge and Egglington in Toronto -- Amateur Night.  Tuesday.  Didn't get a single laugh.

HYENA:  How long before you went back again?

PAUL:  I went back the next Tuesday night.

HYENA:  And…

PAUL:  Didn't get a single laugh.  It took me three times.  

HYENA:  Did you do the same material every time?

PAUL:  Well... I tried to change it some.

HYENA:  What was your hardest gig?

PAUL:  I had to do a gig the night my grandmother died.  I couldn't get anyone to cover for me.  The first gig after 9/11 was really hard.  Strange night all the way around.

HYENA:  I always find it more interesting to watch a comic struggle than to see a killer set.

PAUL:  I've always had fun when I bombed.  I never took it too personally.  Except when my neighbors were there.  I always made sure when I was bombing to do all my time -- extra time even!  I'd stay after the show and drink with the audience.  There comes a point, if you stay long enough, that they become embarrassed.

HYENA:  You're very warm onstage -- approachable.  You don't have this tough veneer that we so often see comics use to keep control.  Is that a conscious choice?

PAUL:  Yeah.  There are two schools of thought on that.  Sometimes I could see the person in the crowd was trying to help.  I realized early on that my hearing wasn't great…so I just assumed whatever the person was saying wasn't bad.  I just never wanted it to be me against them.

HYENA:  Do you like being looked at?

PAUL:  No.  Not at all.  Part of the job.

HYENA:  You are a strange mix of humility and confidence.  Where does your confidence come from?  

PAUL:  I don't know.  

HYENA:  Your humility?  

PAUL:  I got mirrors.  I have a foster kid in Guinea-Bisseau.  Bloodless revolution going on there right now.  He's fourteen -- writes all the time.  I just bought him a soccer ball.  You're allowed to send two gifts a year.  There's no guarantee that they'll get through.  And if they do, they still might be stolen.  So…humility's not hard.  

HYENA:   Does music inform your comedy?

PAUL:  My comedy -- no, not at all.  My life? YES -- oh yes, constantly so.  

HYENA:  Why do you think people come to comedy clubs?

PAUL:  There's a whole truckload of different reasons.  The first group comes to be cheered up -- something's gone wrong.  The second group are fans of comedy.  The third group are the people that the first two groups have dragged there.  And the fourth and the most bizarre of them all are the wanna-be stand-ups, who go in to take over the show.  And you see them and they're just lost, you know.  They go in envisioning their friends carrying them out of the club on their shoulders.    

HYENA:  Who would you pay money to see?

PAUL:  Sinatra!  Big bucks!  “Hey I'm back for you, chickee!” -- Frank?!!

HYENA:  Clear up some myths -- are all comics sad?  Crying behind the laughter?  Are you all trying to be loved and will risk it all for that love from a stranger?

PAUL:  No -- all comics aren't sad.  I find that show business makes a lot of them sad.  It's pretty brutal.  I could see a time where it was going to make me sad.

HYENA:  You've shifted gears in the last year.  Inherited the throne of former Yuk Yuks Booking Agent Evan Adelman.  What's your life as an agent like...better or worse?  

PAUL:  Different.  Better quality of life.  Stability.  I'm one year from forty.  Not a lot of 40-year-olds making it.  The more I'm in this, the more I see it's a young man's game.

HYENA:  You're in a position of power now.  Have your relationships with other comics survived your career change?

PAUL:  Everything stays the same.  I don't like hanging out with other comics.  I still have friends from when I was five -- we still hang out.  Couple I didn't meet until I was thirteen.  Like I said, not all comics are sad -- but some are pretty depressing to be around.  And remember…If you're not with comics, you are the funniest guy!

HYENA:  What would you change if you could?  

PAUL:  I'd like to see what the world would look like without religion.  I'm sure we'd just find something else to kill each other about.  But I think that's it.  In my ignorance -- I think most of the war would be gone, but maybe not.  I'm always leery about wishing something away and having nothing to replace it

HYENA:  You are a listener.  What do you hear in the world these days. 

PAUL:  Is it possible to hear directionlessness…?  I think people keep waiting for the next Trudeau, Lincoln, FDR -- someone to lead the way and it's just not happening.  You have to wonder if the pressure we put on these people -- this demand for perfection -- if it's not driving away the best people for the job.  Sir Johnny McDonald -- and knighted no less -- the father of Canada -- he was a hammered-up Scottsman.  Wicked lush.  He would go on three-day benders.  But a guy who could bring the country together.

HYENA:  What's important to you now?  

PAUL:  My cats.  My family and friends. 

HYENA:  Has that always been your answer?

PAUL:  I have more empathy now.  There was a time where it was part of my morning to check and see how the Blue Jays were doing.  Things like that.  Not anymore.  Life becomes smaller.  More intense.  You weed out what you once thought was important.  Twenty years ago, friends were friends -- now you know the value of a friend.

HYENA:  I'm going to throw out a couple of lines you said about ten years ago to me.  “Most people don't know what love is.”

PAUL:  I stand by that but also say that I am like most people.  And maybe love is a changing thing.  Maybe love evolves like everything else. So you can know it as much as you can know anything that is changing.

HYENA:  You also said, "I always end up alone.  I'm not very good at belonging to someone.”

PAUL:  And that's…changed…really.  I think maybe I was...I just needed the right person to belong to…again.  Evolution, again.  Did you see that episode of The Little Rascals?  The He-Man Woman Haters Club?   Isn't that a great name?  In the end...well…naturally…she broke up the club.

HYENA:  Do you believe that each of us has a set of things that are his/hers alone to do during their lifetime?  That if they don't do them, they won't get done?  

PAUL:  No.  I would never be that conceited.


Yuk Yuks has the best comics in the world in their stable.  And you can have them for your next event!  Think about it -- if you were any kind of visionary, there was a time you could've booked Jim Carrey to play your office Christmas party for $500.  Don't get shut out again.  Go find your funny man!! Visit the Yuk Yuks website to see their full roster.  Whatever you've got planned, it can only get better by adding a professional comedian to the mix.  But book early -- they go fast this time of year!
 



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