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Birmingham’s Rickey Smiley: The Rise of Comedy’s Shining Star

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Birmingham's Rickey Smiley has been a standup comic for 28 years, and is known nationally for his legendary skits, southern inspired bits, prank phone calls, and unforgettable church personalities. (Reginald Allen Photo, For The Birmingham Times)
By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For the Birmingham Times

For the past month The Birmingham Times traveled the metro area to spend time with the men and women with local ties who make us laugh, think, and, sometimes cry. Given the strife on the national stage we found nearly a dozen comedians who bring levity to local stages and beyond. Here are a few, but not all, who help ease anguish and bring laughter. 

Birmingham’s Rickey Smiley has been a standup comic for 28 years, and is known nationally for his legendary skits, southern inspired bits, prank phone calls, and unforgettable church personalities. (Reginald Allen Photo, For The Birmingham Times)

Rickey Smiley, Birmingham’s own king of comedy, knows what it takes to get to the top—and his staying power is not only undeniable but also expanding.

“When he puts his mind to anything he’s doing, he’s a perfectionist,” said Bruce Ayers, owner of The StarDome, the local comedy club where Smiley got his start. “We’ve always done open mic at the club, and thousands of people run up on stage to try it. … I can remember a handful of people who were good right from the get-go, and Rickey was one of those people.”

Jermaine “FunnyMaine” Johnson—local comedian, 95.7 JAMZ radio personality, and a Smiley protégé—said, “We acknowledge Rickey as our ‘Top Guy.’ There’s admirable respect from everybody [in Birmingham’s comedy scene].”

Smiley, 49, has been a stand-up comic for 28 years and is known nationally for his legendary skits, Southern-inspired bits, prank phone calls, and unforgettable churchgoer personalities.

Birmingham Native

Smiley has come a long way from the Kingston Public Housing Projects in North Birmingham, where he was raised by his grandmother. In addition to his stand-up career, he’s been a radio personality for 14 years, since his 2004 start on morning radio in Dallas, Texas. His nationally syndicated “Rickey Smiley Morning Show” has been on the air for 12 years, and he has been a featured columnist for the nightly Fox Television Stations entertainment news program “Dish Nation” since 2015.

Smiley is also a presence on big and small screens. He’s had roles in the films “Baggage Claim” and “First Sunday,” and played the memorable Black Santa in Ice Cube’s “Friday After Next.” He had a three-year run with his TV One network sitcom “The Rickey Smiley Show, which aired from 2012 to 2015. As that show ended, another was greenlighted in November 2015: the “Rickey Smiley for Real” reality show.

Even with so many irons in the fire, the Alabama State University and Woodlawn High School alum and father of four still finds time to host a weekly Karaoke night at The StarDome.

Getting in the Game

Asked during a phone interview about the struggles and challenges of reaching the top, Smiley has a surprising answer: “It’s hard if you’re not dedicated and committed. You have to surround yourself with good people and talented people and let it rub off on you. Then you gotta know how to mix it up and know how to network with people because it’s not all about who you know, it’s about who knows you.”

Birmingham’s Rickey Smiley has been a standup comic for 28 years, and is known nationally for his legendary skits, southern inspired bits, prank phone calls, and unforgettable church personalities. (Reginald Allen Photo, For The Birmingham Times)

Smiley said he didn’t “force anything or anybody” in the business. He took his time and, “[I] let it come to me,” he said. “I worked my way to the top. I didn’t work my way up the ladder.”

Smiley has adjusted with the evolution of comedy and the industry. In the 1980s and 1990s, comics used to tell “jokes,” but not so much now.

“Nobody tells ‘jokes’ on stage anymore,” he said. “People just walk up there and have a conversation with the audience.”

That’s much easier for a seasoned comic like Smiley, who said, “After doing it for 28 years, I can pretty much walk on stage unprepared and still have a good show.”

Smiley said “observation humor,” in which you talk about the things people are thinking, now dominates the game—“that way you’ll always stay relevant.”

Social Media

The emergence of social media has also changed the game. In the past, it would take a while to build an audience. Now, that can happen overnight with platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and others.

“What comedy club owners do [now] is build a show around the ones that people really came out to see, [the social media comics],” Smiley said. “The thing about it is they have their fans, … and I think their fans don’t necessarily care [about their ranking]; … they just want to see them. So, when they come to the comedy club, fans show up.”

Sometimes social media comedy doesn’t translate to the stage so easily, but, according to Smiley, it’s like with anything: the more you do it, the better you become.

“I think if they perform enough, eventually they’ll get better on stage,” he said. “The stage is the best teacher, and the more you perform the better you get.”

Smiley honed his craft the old-fashioned way.

“I built my audience being on BET every night, when I was hosting ‘Comic View’ in 2000,” he said. “Everybody goes down their own road and has their own way of doing things. The only thing I can really do is give advice to anybody who wants it or wants to listen. But the game is so different now. … Now, social media and the internet build an audience.”

Smiley had a two-season run on BET, 2000 and 2001. Like most comedians, though, he got his start at an open mic at the The Comedy Club on Green Springs Highway, which closed after a fire in March 1993. Smiley accompanied a friend and fellow comedian, Chucky Jenkins, to the venue and decided to give the stage a try.

“It was pretty exciting,” Smiley said. “I did good, and I just kept working and got better. … You gotta keep them entertained, and you gotta know when to switch it up a little bit.”

Ayers, owner of The Comedy Club, remembers it well.

“That first time on stage, he was this kid, maybe 19 or so, and nervous as can be,” he said. “My wife really pushed me to pay attention to him. She was like, ‘You gotta watch this kid. He’s really good.’ And he really was. So, from that point on, my thing with Rickey was to keep it clean. You know? I told him, ‘You don’t have to be dirty like all those other guys. Keep it clean, and I think you’ll be great.’ He did and look what happened. He’s a star.”

“Personal Touch”

What Smiley does on stage is no different from what other comedians do, but he incorporates personal touches and aspects that separate him from other acts.

“Most comics do [the same thing]: they just walk on stage and talk and create situations. You may add something to make it funny, but for it to work you have to be a really good performer,” he said. “You have to sell yourself on stage and be animated.”

Another Smiley personal touch is music.

“I mix music with my act, so that makes it more entertaining,” he said, adding a bit of advice for other comedians: “You should always be yourself, be sincere, genuine. … Don’t try to be anyone else or in competition with anyone else, just you.”

Radio

Birmingham’s Rickey Smiley has been a standup comic for 28 years, and is known nationally for his legendary skits, southern inspired bits, prank phone calls, and unforgettable church personalities. (Reginald Allen Photo, For The Birmingham Times)

After 14 years in radio, one would think fast-paced thinking and quick-witted responses are a skill that would inevitably help with stand-up, but “one has nothing to do with the other,” Smiley said.

“As far as in radio, we’re talking about the news and whatever is going on in pop culture to plan our shows. I don’t do jokes [on the air]. We just have content that we talk about and give opinions on, and sometimes they just happen to be funny, but we don’t do jokes on air.

“We don’t do jokes on stage, [either],” he added. “We just tell stories and have a conversation about whatever because comedy has changed.”

Karaoke

Smiley first tried blending comedy and karaoke in the early-2000s at Dallas’s Firewater Bar and Grill. Now, “Karaoke Nights with Rickey Smiley,” held every Monday at The StarDome, are sold out through August.

Smiley said, “It’s karaoke with a spin. I turn it into an event, and that’s why it’s sold out every week—because it’s really, really successful. Having me host karaoke night just takes it to a whole other level.”

Ayers said, “It’s something you gotta come see to believe. Rickey has this infectious thing about him that’s just incredible, … him and FunnyMaine. …People are like Rickey’s disciples, they just love him. He gets them dancing. He gets them singing. It’s the most incredible thing ever.”

Mentorship

Smiley once mentored many of Birmingham’s up-and-coming comics, but he feels the local circuit is not what it once was.

“I really don’t mentor anymore because it turns into something else,” he said. “You know, you can help people, but they’re just not so grateful anymore.”

Still, Smiley is willing to give advice: “If anybody asks—it depends on what they ask—I just kind of tell them. … [But] I don’t know who some of the new guys are because I’m on the road a lot and I’m not at [The StarDome] unless it’s a Monday night.”

He’s not shy about his mentorship of local comedian and 95.7 JAMZ radio personality FunnyMaine, who he sees as a little brother.

“Maybe 10 percent of what we talk about is comedy,” said Smiley. “I’m older than him, he does radio and stand-up, and so do I. We just have good energy. [He’s a] good mentee, good friend, and good little brother. I just appreciate him being in my life and for helping me out when I need him. He’ll fill in for me at The StarDome for karaoke night. When I’m not there, he’ll hold it down. He’s just a great person.”

Giving Back

Smiley doesn’t return to Birmingham for comedy shows only. He also participates in several charitable events, including the Sickle Cell Foundation of Central Alabama’s annual gala, for which he serves as the celebrity host.

“A lot of people don’t know about [Rickey’s] heart,” Ayers said. “He helps so many people, so many kids. He’s got the Rickey Smiley Foundation, and he’s sincere about it. Some people do it for publicity. He doesn’t do it for that. He just really wants to help people.”

Follow Rickey Smiley on Facebook @RickeySmileyOfficialFanPage, Instagram @Realrickeysmiley, and Twitter @RickeySmiley; visit his website www.therealrickeysmiley.com; get information about and tickets for “Karaoke Nights with Rickey Smiley” (after August, that is) at www.stardome.com.

To read more about Birmingham comedians, click here

To read more about Birmingham comedians, click here

To read more about Birmingham comedians, click here