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Margaret Smith has been tickling people's funny bones for more than two decades. The award-winning comedian and acting vet honed her craft in her Chicago hometown, but brought her talents to the stage at her stand up shows, in front of the camera on TV and behind the scenes. Smith talked with Windy City Times about making Ellen DeGeneres laugh, her pole dancing ambitions and why stealing jokes is bad for business.
Windy City Times: When did you get into comedy?
Margaret Smith: I actually started at the Second City Theater in Chicago, taking classes with Del Close. I started studying improv there—I was in an improv group and I was also writing sketches with a friend of mine. It was easy to get stage time in Chicago and do sketch and improv. Then I moved to New York, and improv and sketch [weren't] very big there.
WCT: Do you remember your first time on stage?
Margaret Smith: My first time was with an improv group and I was convinced that no one was listening or watching, so I was hiding behind the other actors. Our director videotaped us and made us watch and I was horrified because I was so slow. And I said [to the director], "I am so slow; I have to learn how to react quicker," and he said, "Don't change a thing, that's why they're laughing." This guy heckled me one night on stage and he said, "You're too slow!" and I said, "I'm not slow; I just have more choices than you."
WCT: People often say that comedy comes from pain. In your act, you talk about what seemed to have been a painful time growing up with your mother and stepfather. Did your comedy come from that time in your life?
Margaret Smith: Yes. That's where it came from when I was younger and it comes from many places now. One is the ridiculousness. If I witness something ridiculous, it makes my day. With what I write, you don't come to forget your problems—you come to laugh at them.
WCT: You were a writer, producer and re-enactor on The Ellen DeGeneres Show from 2003-2007, where you won three Emmy Awards for writing and three for producing.
Margaret Smith: It was a lot of fun and I realized—as far as television goes—my favorite thing in the world is to be in front of the camera. I think comedy has to have surprises and if there are no surprises, then the audiences are being spoon-fed.
And it was fun to surprise Ellen. We did this one thing where I was supposed to be at this cash machine pushing in my pin number and I'm taking too long. And you can see that she's like, "We don't have the time in the show for taking this long." And she taps me on the shoulder and, when I turn around, I'm eating a sandwich. And she lost it! We had a blast doing stuff like that.
WCT: What was the moment like for you in 1995, when you got the American Comedy Award for funniest female stand up comic?
Margaret Smith: When I went up there to receive the award, I said that I couldn't be more thrilled and I said that I used to sit here year after year and think, "This doesn't mean anything. Just go to the ceremony." [At the podium] I said, "This is incredible." The year Margaret Cho won it they said, "Margaret..." and I go to get up and they're like, "Cho!" and I'm like, "Okay. We got that Margaret out of the way. Next year I'll get it." [Laughs]
WCT: What are you exploring next?
Margaret Smith: I'm getting older, how can I kick this up a little, so I'm taking up pole-dancing. I'm putting together four women from four different ages and we're going to do pole-dancing. I went to this studio and they asked, "What do you hope to get?" and I said that I've been a comedian my whole life and I've never really been sexy and I never really wanted to work at being sexy. I'm at a point in my life where I want to get out of my comfort zone, and this is the most uncomfortable thing I could think of to do.
WCT: Recently, comedian Amy Schumer was accused of stealing jokes from other comedians. Do comics have a way to protect their work in any way?
Margaret Smith: You do to a certain extent if it's on a CD. But most comedians aren't going to pay a lawyer to defend it. What you don't want to do as a comedian is get a reputation for stealing. I sat in the back of a room and heard a kid verbatim.
First of all, they're never going to get the laughs I get because that material is organic to me. But he was getting laughs and I just thought that he doesn't know that I'm in the audience. It doesn't feel good to have your stuff done, but it's a form of flattery. He's not going to go anywhere with my jokes.
Margaret Smith, along with her opening act Natalie Gaza, will perform at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., on Valentine's Day ( Sunday, Feb. 14 ), at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. For ticket information, go to www.theaterwit.org/tickets/productions/259/performances .
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