THE WORD­SMITH

Ben Bai­ley Smith takes a se­ri­ous view of his standup com­edy rou­tine, writes Jane Cornwell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Comedy -

THERE’S only one meet­ing room avail­able at United Artists — a ma­jor lit­er­ary and talent agency in Lon­don’s Soho — and it’s ridicu­lously huge. Shown in and left to wait for Ben Bai­ley Smith, the younger brother of the nov­el­ist Zadie Smith, I take a seat at the head of a ta­ble long enough to ac­com­mo­date sev­eral Last Sup­pers and think how funny it might be if Smith were to sit right down the other end, fac­ing me, and field ques­tions from there, just for laughs.

Be­ing an ac­claimed stand-up co­me­dian as well as a rap­per, ac­tor, chil­dren’s au­thor and screen­writer, he’ll surely get the joke: “With an ir­re­sistibly ami­able de­meanour that gives him an ef­fort­lessly charis­matic aura,’’ wrote com­edy web­site Chor­tle of Doc Brown, the moniker Bai­ley Smith uses for his stand-up and mu­sic work, “he could yet be the Tim Minchin of rap’’.

I’ve seen Of Mic and Men, the show Bai­ley Smith, 34, is play­ing at the Mel­bourne Com­edy Fes­ti­val, and chor­tled at his good-na­tured mock­ery of hip-hop’s badass ways; at his cre­ative broach­ing of the ques­tion, what hap­pens to old rap­pers? How do you con­tinue to make a liv­ing in what is es­sen­tially a kid’s game?

That Doc Brown has sup­ported Busta Rhymes and De La Soul, and been a hype man for the likes of Ghost­face Kil­lah and Kaiser Chiefs, makes him more au­then­tic, and his in­sights even fun­nier: “Rap,’’ he says, “is the long yet de­ter­mined strug­gle not to ap­pear gay.’’ His mu­si­cal in­ter­ludes, with their nerdy, self­dep­re­cat­ing lyrics about ev­ery­thing from trouser siz­ing to un­for­tu­nate dance­floor erec­tions, are a scream.

Then there’s the smash YouTube hit Equal­ity Street, in which Bai­ley Smith raps along­side show­biz god Ricky Ger­vais repris­ing his David Brent char­ac­ter from The Of­fice on a spoof popreg­gae an­them in­tended to pro­mote racial and so­cial har­mony. Any­one who can rap lines such as “Black people aren’t crazy/fat people aren’t lazy/And dwarves aren’t ba­bies, you can’t just pick them up” while keep­ing a poker face will surely spot a great vis­ual gag when he sees one.

But un­like his award-win­ning sis­ter, a warm and en­gag­ing in­ter­vie­wee who would very prob­a­bly be wav­ing at me from the other end of the ta­ble, Ben Bai­ley Smith turns out to be sur­pris­ingly se­ri­ous, and in no mood for muck­ing around. “Hi, I’m Ben,’’ says the mar­ried fa­therof-two, sit­ting down in a chair near­est me and wait­ing while I turn on my Dic­ta­phone. “Big ta­ble,’’ he adds, look­ing around.

The mid­dle child of three born to an English fa­ther and a Ja­maican mother (“The weird way around,’’ he quips in his show), Bai­ley Smith grew up in Kil­burn, north­west Lon­don, buoyed by a mind­set that any­thing was pos­si­ble. He was a bright kid, the sort that goofed around in class, putting on silly voices and giv­ing his teach­ers grief, as di­rec­tion­less as his Cam­bridge-ed­u­cated sis­ter was fo­cused. In 2000, the year that Zadie Smith’s de­but novel White Teeth be­came an in­stant clas­sic, Ben was a univer­sity dropout host­ing rap bat­tles out of a record shop in Carn­aby Street, con­vinced he was about to make his mark in hip hop.

“Back then, Bri­tish rap was a pretty nonex­is­tent scene,’’ he says mat­ter-of-factly. “The only rap that had cred­i­bil­ity came from the US.’’

Signed to a ma­jor la­bel, he re­leased three al­bums with tracks that avoided Amer­i­can ter­mi­nol­ogy and ref­er­enced Lon­don life; his sam­pling of Bob Hoskins’s Bri­tain-ver­susAmer­ica speech in the 1980 gang­ster flick Long Good Fri­day still feels cur­rent, in­spired. But preDizzee Ras­cal and Tiny Tem­pah, Bri­tain wasn’t ready for a “con­scious” rap­per who wasn’t Amer­i­can. Dropped by his la­bel, and then from a fes­ti­val tour­ing out­fit put to­gether by DJ/pro­ducer Mark Ron­son and fea­tur­ing ris­ing stars Amy Wine­house and Lily Allen (“I was re­ally just a back­ing singer’’), Bai­ley Smith found him- self un­em­ployed, and un­der­go­ing a cri­sis. Hooray, then, for the restora­tive pow­ers of com­edy: “One day I got a call from a friend who worked at BBC Ra­dio, ask­ing me if I could look at some scripts he’d writ­ten for a Lenny Henry sit­com called Rudy’s Rare Records. Lenny was re­ally sup­port­ive and when I started get­ting laughs, I thought, ‘I like this’.’’

When the show’s pro­ducer sug­gested he try his hand at com­edy, he put to­gether a rou­tine about his hip-hop hits-and-misses and per­formed it at open mic nights, stum­bling through some, storm­ing through oth­ers. In 2008 he be­gan a new ca­reer as a pro­fes­sional co­me­dian with a show ti­tled Un­fa­mous (a play on the word “in­fa­mous”, and a pun that he ad­mits didn’t quite trans­late), which sold out its run at the Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val, and which he took to Mel­bourne in 2011. “It was very au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal and too bru­tally hon­est to do night af­ter night,’’ he says of a show one critic called “an amus­ing hour of un­spec­tac­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment”. He pauses for a beat. “Of Mic and Men is the next chap­ter,’’ he continues, “but it’s sil­lier, and a lot more fun, and it’s just my thoughts re­ally. There are cer­tain things I’ll al­ways touch on like rap, race and par­ent­hood but it’s a uni­ver­sal look at life by a guy who used to be a rap­per.’’

Bai­ley Smith spent very lit­tle time on Bri­tain’s black com­edy cir­cuit, and is adamant that com­edy should be colour blind: “My stuff was never black enough. But I al­ways felt like I was the most rad­i­cal comic out of ev­ery­body ’cause race wasn’t cen­tral to my work; that I could get ev­ery­body in­ter­ested in what I had to say, and my colour was an af­ter­thought.’’

In this sense he’s some­thing of a poster boy for mul­ti­cul­tural Bri­tain (“I don’t know if there’s a race di­vide to­day; it’s more about class’’), play­ing char­ac­ter roles in tele­vi­sion shows such as Mid­somer Mur­ders, star­ring as a homi­cide de­tec­tive in the forth­com­ing Bri­tish ver­sion of Law and Or­der and co-cre­at­ing and fea­tur­ing in chil­dren’s TV pro­grams Strange Hill High and the BAFTA-nom­i­nated 4 O’Clock Club, none of which ref­er­ence his eth­nic­ity.

If be­ing mixed race con­fused Bai­ley Smith as a kid (“I didn’t know who I was; com­bine that with racists shout­ing at you and it can re­ally hit your self-con­fi­dence’’), he has a clear-eyed view of things now: “When I get to the very top we can re­claim the black, and that’s what I want to do,’’ he says with a small smile. “I guar­an­tee I’ll be like, ‘ I’m not just the big­gest CEO. I’m the big­gest black CEO’. But on the way up I don’t see how it ben­e­fits you.’’

Bai­ley Smith is cer­tainly on the way up. Cel­e­brated for his out­sider en­ergy and mix of street smarts and vul­ner­a­bil­ity, he is now so in de­mand that his school­teacher wife re­cently chucked in her job to work for their pro­duc­tion com­pany, Bust-A-Gut Ltd, which fo­cuses on film and TV and has re-re­leased the back cat­a­logue of his mu­sic. “She’s sup­port­ing my brand, I sup­pose,’’ says Bai­ley Smith.

Three or four years on the stand-up cir­cuit drove home the need to di­ver­sify; be­ing away from his wife and daugh­ters (aged eight and five) for long chunks of time had started to do his head in.

“Stand-up com­edy is an in­sanely un­healthy life­style. You’re do­ing self-ther­apy ev­ery night. You’re alone all the time. But then I’ve never felt like a func­tion­ing mem­ber of so­ci­ety,’’ he says with a sud­den burst of hon­esty. “I’ve al­ways felt on the out­skirts. I’ve al­ways re­quired the val­i­da­tion of strangers, and I think most comics are the same. So when comics or ac­tors say they are shy, I don’t doubt them for a sec­ond.”

Bai­ley Smith doesn’t call him­self a co­me­dian but an en­ter­tainer and writer. And it’s with words that he has be­come a role model of sorts, hold­ing forth in schools and in front of youth groups on topics in­clud­ing hu­man rights (he is ap­palled at the Ab­bott govern­ment’s cur­rent treat­ment of asy­lum-seek­ers and refugees) and fem­i­nism, due in part to want­ing a brighter, more equal world in which to raise his daugh- ters. “If I turn a blind eye to sex­ism, it’s ex­actly the same as turn­ing a blind eye to racism or ho­mo­pho­bia,’’ says Bai­ley Smith, whose YouTube rap about Bri­tain’s top­less Page 3 girls has gone vi­ral. “I’ve al­ways been into hu­man rights. This was the way I was raised. And when some­thing’s not right you can sense it — some people speak out about it, oth­ers just pre­fer to have that mob men­tal­ity and not say any­thing.’’

If the me­dia try to cen­sor him, well, he’ll al­ways have stand-up com­edy to get a mes­sage across. “I’m not a po­lit­i­cal comic,’’ he says. “How­ever, there are things I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced that seem to be fun­da­men­tally wrong and I want to talk about them on­stage be­cause I feel pas­sion­ate about them.’’

In­ter­view over, he stands to go. “And then there are other things I want to talk about be­cause they lend them­selves to com­edy.’’ He flashes a grin. “Be­cause they’re funny.’’ Doc Brown: Of Mic and Men plays at Mel­bourne Com­edy Fes­ti­val un­til April 20.

Comic, rap­per, au­thor and ac­tor Ben Bai­ley Smith; be­low, big sis­ter and au­thor Zadie Smith

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