Shirlee Smith has built a reputation as someone unafraid to let her opinions be known. As an 80-year-old veteran columnist for such publications as the Pasadena Weekly, the Pasadena Star-News, the Los Angeles Sentinel, and Pasadena Now, as well as a longtime activist regarding community causes and the Los Angeles foster care system, Smith has been publicly proclaiming her viewpoints for decades.
But on the night of Jan. 23, she was speaking out in an entirely different way, amid the swanky environs of the Pierre Gardens restaurant in Glendale, as the inaugural Glendale Laughs Comedy Festival presented its Black Laughs Matter comedy showcase.
Among the 20 rising comics participating in the 90-minute program, most were men and women in their 20s and 30s joking about dating, their childhoods and careers. Smith stood out from the others from the moment she hit the stage, delivering a set that wowed the audience with the force of a comic hurricane. That impressive performance revealed another side of Smith, who from 1985 to 1991 was a full-time standup comic touring between Southern California and the state of Washington.
“I was what they call a road comic,” says Smith. “I worked for a guy up and down the West Coast, a different club every night. He booked you for a night’s sleep, a day’s drive, and then you were onstage somewhere else, from here to Washington. I also taught comedy traffic school, working for Lettuce Amuse You throughout LA County and all over San Diego.”
Smith — who saw one daughter die of sickle cell disease at the age of 3 in 1959, a son killed in a car accident in 1983 and raised four daughters mostly as a single mother after two early divorces — wound up leaving the road when a friend challenged her to take in foster system infants. She cared for them during their first three months as their troubled mothers underwent court-ordered parenting classes and other programs. But when one foster infant girl named Brandi, to whom she felt particularly close, wasn’t taken back, Smith opted to raise her.
When Brandi turned 25 last year, Smith decided it was time to pursue her comedic passions again, performing on stages across Los Angeles. It may seem like an unusual pursuit for an octogenarian, but consider the fact that her first time onstage came when she was 48.
“I never sat around and said, ‘Boy. I’d like to be a standup comedian,’ and I never followed standup comedians,” says Smith. “I don’t know what happened that day when I stepped inside the door of my home and there was no answer from my kids because they were grown, but I said, ‘Oh, my God, there’s nobody there but me.’ I asked myself what I wanted to do, and the answer was to laugh. So standup comedy is what I did.”
Smith’s comedic focus is often on children, as reflected in her Glendale comedy fest set in which she mocked a recent Cheerios commercial that featured an African-American family whose kitchen cabinets were packed with cereal boxes. She also comically claimed to dislike “white people,” a joke that inspired even a friend to yell back when she mentioned it during a more recent set at the Ice House.
“I did a show at the Ice House for my birthday, so I invited people that I knew, but after I said that, one of my friends shouted at the stage and said, ‘See If I ever do another favor for you!’” she recalls, laughing. “I said ‘How appropriate — some of my best friends are white, but I still don’t like white people. But then again, I don’t like black people either.’
“Of course I don’t dislike any group of people, but you can’t stand up on stage and say that,” Smith continues. “I grew up around all kinds of people: poor, rich, black, white, and for me they’re all just people. Everybody’s got their little nuances.”
One key person who definitely didn’t mind Smith’s Ice House set was the club’s owner, Bob Fisher.
“Every once in a while in life you run into an amazing person, and for me that would be Shirlee,” Fisher writes in an email. “I’m a big fan of hers. She’s active in the community, actually makes a difference, and still finds time to pursue her standup comedy dream. Those are ‘to be admired’ traits for someone at any age. The Ice House stage is ready for her close up!”
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Boyle Heights, then spending the past 60 years living in Pasadena and Altadena, Smith has encountered all sorts of people over the past eight decades. Her comedy and activism intersect through her work with her nonprofit Talk About Parenting (talkaboutparenting.org), using humor while conducting workshops as well as parenting classes at the California Women’s Institution in Chino. Before there was a website, Smith had been hosting “Talk About Parenting with Shirlee Smith” on the local cable access channel.
“It’s been a fascinating opportunity,” says Smith, whose favorite comic is Bill Maher. She once appeared on his former ABC show, “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.”
“I’ve been doing this program at the prison, and this program has been so popular we’ve had 100 on the waiting list to get into our classes,” Smith says. “It’s not open mic, but it’s moving through the whole scenario of raising kids and not looking at it like it’s the heavy stuff that it is.”
Smith is also outspoken about the state of the city’s schools after being surprised at the Pasadena Unified School District’s weak spots while her kids were going through the system. She recalls having been raised “a very quiet person,” but her frustration with inequalities that she perceived between various schools inspired her to speak up.
These days, comedy is “a huge relief” for Smith, a means of blowing off the stress she encounters amid her activism.
“My daughter’s boyfriend asked me if I was thinking of doing it for a living, but at my age you’re just trying to work on living!” laughs Smith. “I will go as far as I can. I don’t have any lofty ideas. I do comedy because it’s fun to me. If it turns into whatever, I explore every road that opens. People ask, ‘Did you have a good set?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know, but I had a good time.’”