Sometimes it pays to laugh a little. That is the philosophy of Oliver Smith, a 40-year-old Charlotte resident who officiates high school sports in both Carolinas and occasionally morphs into stand-up comedian O. Smittee at night.
The Buffalo native settled in Charlotte 15 years ago and worked in the banking and insurance industries for several years, but found himself out of a job in 2015. Jobless for the second time in a few short years, O. Smittee says he became depressed and was unsure of his next step.
A few years earlier he had endured a brain tumor, so enjoying a good laugh was a way through the difficulties life had dealt him. Then he met a high school official who encouraged him to give it a try and advised him on how to get started. Along the same time, he decided to put his artistic talents to use by writing comedy and doing an occasional stand-up routine. Oliver Smith met O. Smittee.
“My PlayStation broke, so I was like, what am I going to do with my time?” he says, never missing an opportunity for a quick laugh. “So I started using some of my artistic skills.”
O. Smittee says his artistic nature finds release in comedy, both as a writer and as a performer. He also paints and dabbled in poetry at one time before deciding that comedy offered the best form of self-expression.
Primarily, he officiates high school sports, including basketball, softball, football, lacrosse and volleyball.
I spoke to O. Smittee this week on the evening after he made an appearance at the Comedy Zone in Charlotte.
“Being onstage makes you free a little bit,” he says. “It’s kind of like therapy. Sometimes I just want people to hear me.” He punctuates the words with a chuckle, as he often does, demonstrating a jovial spirit willing to share a few laughs with the listener — or audience.
He says he tries to stay topical onstage and used the burning Amazon rain forest, gun control and the wildly popular Popeyes chicken sandwich in his most recent appearance.
“I jumped in line for that Popeyes chicken sandwich because I thought it was a line for reparations,” O. Smittee says. “That was one I used last night (at the Comedy Zone). But I’m always trying to have a good time and improvising to make sure people are having a good time.”
It wasn’t always that way, particularly when he was a student in Buffalo public schools. In fact, there were no classroom antics for the future comedian. On strict orders from his mom, he says, school was anything but a time for laughs.
“My mom was on my back too much, so I had to pay attention in school,” he recalls. “After school, I was more of a clown. In school, I had to act like an adult. My mom said I had a job, and that was to go to school and do right to make sure she didn’t have to show up.”
We talked about the craft of stand-up comedy and how it’s evolved from the 1960s and ’70s, when comedians such as Lenny Bruce and George Carlin were pushing the envelope of acceptable comedy, testing the boundaries of free speech.
O. Smittee lists Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Patrice O’Neal and Rodney Dangerfield among his favorite comedians.
He says he particularly likes the movies of Pryor, a comedy legend who helped define the genre in the 1970s and ’80s.
Like Pryor and others who set the standard in previous decades, and like Chappelle today, O. Smittee is not afraid to step into areas that, by today’s standards, might be considered forbidden territory.
He points out, however, that his routines are tame and contain little foul language or offensive insights against others.
He offers an example from one of his recent appearances.
“I tell people that we no longer have Robin Hood,” O. Smittee says. “He was a bust because nobody has the ambition to do that stuff anymore. Now they just rob the ’hood.”
He says he avoids humor involving politics, adding: “I’m not political. Being a politician is just a fancy way of saying you’re going to be lying to me for life.”
I ask about the Shane Gillis controversy that’s been in the news lately. Gillis was fired from “Saturday Night Live” before his debut on that legendary comedy show, where John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd and others have found stardom.
Gillis was dropped from the show for previous comments that were perceived as racist. The move drew criticism from the comedy world, with many pointing out that comedy is a form of free speech.
“I’ll have to get in the game early because it sounds like they’re going to make people have a license just to do comedy,” O.Smittee says.
We both laugh at that, knowing that laughter is good for the soul and that a good laugh is something the PC police will never be able to stifle.