Comedian Rickey Smiley has been hailed as "one of the funniest people in America" by Jamie Jackson Lambert of the New Pittsburgh Courier. A clean comedian, Smiley uses no profanity or sexual innuendo in his shows, thus appealing to audiences of all ages. But being family-friendly does not mean Smiley's shows were simple or comfortable. Instead, it ensures that Smiley has the broadest possible audience for the zinging political commentary with which he ends each show. Some of his topics include rants against dead-beat dads, women who use their children as pawns in relationships, people who don't vote, and the administration of George W. Bush. "I want people to leave my show knowing that I'm more than comedy…. I want to give them something to think about," Smiley told Lambert.
Born in 1968 in Birmingham, Alabama, Smiley's early life had its hardships. His father was shot to death when he was six years old. His mother leaned on her extended family to help raise Smiley. Smiley grew up in the care of his grandparents. Despite the difficulties, Smiley remembered to Lambert that his childhood was "a lot of fun." From his relatives, who Smiley said didn't even know they were funny, he soaked up the basics of good storytelling and steeped himself in Southern culture.
Smiley attended Tuskegee University briefly, but by 1992 had earned a bachelor's degree in English from Alabama State University. Smiley first displayed his comic talent for audiences other than family and friends when he took the stage at an amateur comedy night at The Comedy Club in Birmingham, Alabama. His comic career started on November 13, 1989, he stated in an interview with BET.com; it is unclear if that date marked his first amateur performances or his first paying gigs. Smiley went on to work as host for Birmingham's Cobblestone Comedy Theatre. Not long after sending hometown audiences into fits of laughter, Smiley began touring the country with more established talents such as comedian George Wallace, jazz singer Will Downing, gospel singer Dottie Peoples, and jazz instrumentalist Najee.
Working the comedy circuit, Smiley developed his signature style. He warmed audiences with humorous stories about school, church, and family. To add punch, Smiley would tell side-splitting stories through a variety of characters. Some of his most well-known are imitations of people he grew up knowing, such as 90-year-old Sister Bernice Jenkins, who reads church announcements with real flair; Coach McClainy, who suffers from an inability to motivate others; and sniffling, school-age Lil Darrl, who is confounded by life. "All my characters are real, and they still go to my home church. Lil Darrl is real. I want everybody to know that. He's real. His real name is Derrick, but I changed his name to Lil Darrl, but he's real … and Bernice is a mix of my great-grandma and my mother all mixed together," Smiley told James Causey of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Through his characters Smiley could penetrate stereotypes and point out the humor in the everyday.
Smiley's appeal soon opened up television opportunities. In the 1990s he appeared on HBO's Def Comedy Jam, HBO Snaps, and Showtime at The Apollo. As host of BET's showcase for new stand-up comedic talent, Comic View, Smiley reigned over the biggest ratings increase in the show's history during the 2000–2001 seasons. The next season, he hosted another comedy show, The Way We Do It, on BET. When he returned as the first person to host Comic View for a second season, he won BET's Platinum Mic Viewer's Choice Award in 2004.
While Smiley seemed a natural host, he did not confine himself to that role. He landed the part of a present-stealing Santa Claus in the 2002 movie, Friday After Next, which starred Ice Cube. He also continued to tour, landing gigs at venues as intimate as a church gathering to those as large as Madison Square Garden. He even joined such well-known comedians as D.L. Hughley, J. Anthony Brown, Bruce Bruce, Earthquake, and Sommore in a heavily promoted tour called Latham Entertainment Presents in 2002 and 2003. This approach helped to heighten Smiley's media profile. Tour organizer Walther Latham told Cynthia Littleton of the Hollywood Reporter: "The tours and movies have become a way of hitting some people over the head and saying: 'Hey, you're not paying attention. These people are funny.'"
Smiley had landed his own morning radio program by 2005; he greeted listeners to 97.9 FM in Dallas, Texas, with his antics on The Rickey Smiley Show. The format of the show had the same feel as his comedy routines. He even used his show to encourage the African-American community to put a stop to violence in its neighborhoods and even promoted the employment of ex-convicts as a way of improving community. One of the funniest portions of the show was when Smiley used his characters to create humorous instances by making prank calls to friends and unsuspecting people. He'd call someone to schedule an appointment to get his fan fixed, or he'd try to order such things as sweet-and-sour Chihuahua from a Chinese restaurant, or try to report the purchase of bad doughnuts, or call up an unsuspecting person to ask to speak to "Bingo" (and Bingo was his name-o). By 2006 Smiley had released five volumes of his prank calls on compact disc. The spontaneous nature of the calls, however, led Smiley astray from the family-friendly topics of his stand-up comedy routines, and some of his recordings were labeled with parental advisory cautions for containing explicit content.
Smiley's reputation remained clean, however, as he steered clear of "blue," or mature, content. When popular comedian Steve Harvey cleaned up his act to film Don't Trip … He Ain't Through With Me Yet, a stand-up act performed in front of church goers, in 2006, he called on Smiley to join him for some skits on stage. Smiley also landed his own half-hour block on Comedy Central to kick off the weekly series' tenth season in February of 2006.
Smiley's interest in politics and social causes that fueled his closing act commentary also spurred him to become an activist. Smiley asked for voter registration tables to be set up next to his merchandise tables at his concerts. He traveled to speak to community groups and school children about voting, ending violence in African-American communities, and the need to nurture family relationships. The vigor with which he pursued his activism led to speculation that he would someday run for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Friday After Next, 2002.
Don't Trip … He Ain't Through With Me Yet, 2006.
The Best of Rickey Smiley, Breakwind Entertainment, 2004.
Prank Phone Calls Volume II, Breakwind Entertainment, 2004.
Rickey Smiley Volume III, Breakwind Entertainment, 2004.
Off the Hook Volume IV, Breakwind Entertainment, 2004.
Rickey Smiley Volume V, Breakwind Entertainment, 2006.
At a Glance …
Born in 1968 in Birmingham, Alabama. Education: Attended Tuskegee University; Alabama State University, BA, English, 1992.
Career: Comedian, 1990s–; actor, 1990s–; 97.9 The Beat, The Rickey Smiley Show, Dallas TX, host, 2005–.
Memberships: Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.
Awards: BET, Platinum Mic Viewer's Choice Award, 2004.
Addresses: Office—97.9 THE BEAT, 13331 Preston Rd. Suite 1180, Dallas, TX 75240; Recording Label—Breakwind Entertainment, P.O. Box 340, Moody, AL 35004; Web—www.rickeysmiley.com.
The Way We Do It, 2001–2002.
Comedy Central, 2006.
Beaumont Enterprise (TX), October 13, 2006.
Call & Post (Cleveland, OH), February 16-22, 2006, p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter, October 7, 2002, p. 6.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 17, 2005.
New Pittsburgh Courier, July 14, 2004, p. A4; November 9-15, 2005, p. C3.
Sacramento Observer, November 10-16, 2005, p. E2.
Tri-State Defender (Memphis, TN), November 26-30, 2005, p. 5A.
"Rickey Smiley Takes Home the Platinum Mic," BET, www.bet.com/Music/Rickey+Smiley+Takes+Home+The+Platinum+Mic.htm (October 25, 2006).